Wednesday 28 September 2016

Leo is the man who could be king - at least on a good day...

Varadkar as Taoiseach would make Ireland feel good about itself - but what would he be like in a crisis

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Leo Varadkar looks good on the Oireachtas catwalk, but how would he get on scrapping for Ireland in the EU dogfight. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Leo Varadkar looks good on the Oireachtas catwalk, but how would he get on scrapping for Ireland in the EU dogfight. Photo: Kieran Harnett

The shoulder lift is a time-honoured tradition at Irish count centres, as the newly elected TD is hoisted high by roaring supporters, fists pumping the air triumphantly. Some have gone down in legend, not least Labour's Alan Kelly's exuberant cry of relief after taking the last seat in Tipperary.

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They don't do this in Britain, probably because they have a 'first past the post' system, meaning candidates all stand together on a platform to hear the final results, rather than down among their supporters in the hall.

The absence of any separation between politicians and people in that moment is what makes the shoulder lift such an infectious piece of theatre. It's all about pride and solidarity. It's their moment, as well as the elected TD's. They want to display him like a trophy because he's their man, they worked hard for him, and he won.

Not all Irish politicians are fans of the shoulder lift, however. When he was elected in Dublin West in February, Leo Varadkar was surrounded by a group of mainly female supporters who simply beamed with almost motherly contentment, shaking his hand and patting him on the back whilst he smiled and nodded. It was all rather refined, as if he'd won second place in an essay-writing competition at school, rather than come through a bruising fight to the electoral death in which many other colleagues had fallen.

That vignette reinforced the perception of Leo Varadkar during his time as Minister for Sport of a man more at home in the directors' box at an international rugby match in south Dublin rather than slumming it with the crowd at a GAA game down the country; and it's another of those small niggles that make one wonder about a figure who emerged this week as the front runner in opinion polls to succeed Enda Kenny when the Mayo man finally steps down after 14 years as Fine Gael leader and a little over five as Taoiseach. Not that opinion polls can always be relied upon, as recent experience has shown.

A leader doesn't necessarily need to have the common touch. They simply need to be right for the time that's in it. Theresa May, the new UK Prime Minister, has a reserved, slightly austere aspect that suits the serious challenges faced by post- Brexit Britain.

Fine Gael suffers from a suspicion that it is too detached from the real concerns of ordinary people, battling to get back on their feet after a decade of recession that, inflated growth figures notwithstanding, continues to pummel them financially. Is Leo Varadkar really the one to convince the Irish people that FG feels their pain, understands their struggles?

The short answer is: Who knows? Because for all the profiles and interviews and radio and TV appearances that the Minister for Social Protection has made in recent years, as he positioned himself for a future tilt at the leadership, it's still remarkably hard to find much to say about him.

There was one moment, answering questions in the Seanad last week, that illustrated this problem better than any other, when, discussing local councillors' expenses, he joked that he had become a bit of a "statistics nerd" in his new job. That was a typical Varadkarism, because it appeared to be saying something, opening a little window into his personality, but it wasn't really. It gave the illusion of wry self-awareness whilst simultaneously saying nothing at all.

He's fond of putting out these little snippets which satisfy that demand in modern politics to be more open with the electorate whilst putting them cleverly off the scent at the same time. It may be that this comes from years of being discreet to the point of secrecy about his sexuality. His supporters would no doubt deny that there was any concealment, insisting that it was widely known in political and media circles that he was gay, but the public certainly didn't.

Did they have a right to know? Probably not. But is it significant that he chose not to share it with them? Undoubtedly so. The moment that one chooses to come out, and the reasons for doing so, are always significant. They vary from person to person, and the differences are a clue to the personality.

In Varadkar's case, his motivation seemed to be that, with a referendum on same-sex marriage coming up - as well as Cabinet decisions to be made on gay adoption and surrogacy, and, as Minister for Health, on whether gay men should be allowed to donate blood - he had to free himself from any charge of a hidden agenda.

That was judicious, but a more cynical interpretation would be that coming out at that moment was politically expedient.

Everyone accepts that he is "a very private person", as he repeated to Miriam O'Callaghan on radio at the beginning of last year when first telling listeners that he was gay; and for private people, having to talk about their personal lives will always be uncomfortable, regardless of their sexuality.

But it's still significant that what helped him overcome that distaste for revelation was the fear that his political brand might otherwise be damaged. This is a man, after all, who was only seven years old when he told his parents that he wanted a high-flying career in politics.

Even now, in the midst of manoeuvrings within the party, Varadkar has been careful to position himself in a safe place, saying: "I don't think that it's time for Enda Kenny to depart." In other words: If he does go, don't blame me, I had nothing to do with it, honest.

He even doubled down on this calculated show of loyalty by declaring: "The position is that Enda Kenny will decide in his own time when he wants to relinquish leadership." Which is nonsense, of course. Few leaders ever get to choose the time of their own departure. But that's Leo Varadkar.

Playing the game with a straight bat so that he's ideally placed to fill the vacancy if and when it arrives.

He's certainly well-positioned, and it seems almost impossible to imagine any circumstances in which he would not be there or thereabouts in the final leg of the race; but he won't get it without a challenge. So what qualities does he have that make him stand out?

He has youth on his side, being just 37, which would make him by far the youngest Taoiseach ever. Even Bertie Ahern was in his mid 40s when he took office - roughly the same age as Coveney is now, as it happens, so there's not that much in it.

Nor does his experience particularly mark him out from the rest of the likely chasing pack. Coveney has been in agriculture, defence and now housing, planning, and local government; he also has experience in Europe. Frances Fitzgerald has justice under her belt, and has held leadership positions in the party already.

The manner of Varadkar's departure from health when the new Government was formed also remains unclear. Whether he was demoted after failing to make the desired impact on the department, or himself ducked the challenge of one of the toughest jobs in government to move to a softer position, neither are exactly pluses in his CV.

If likeability, a personable image and a good sense of humour are factors, then Coveney has them too. The closer it comes to a ballot of TDs, councillors and members, the more Leo Varadkar is going to have to define exactly what makes him different from the other candidates. There are tough negotiations ahead in which Ireland will have to scrap hard for its interests in advance of the UK's exit from the European Union. Enda Kenny has proved unable to hold firm against French and German bullying. Would Varadkar, an obedient europhile ever since his time as vice chair of the Youth of the European People's Party, be the one to stand up to Brussels if need be?

The nature of coalition government also means that any future Taoiseach has to be someone who can bridge differences, and he does have a tendency to rub opponents up the wrong way. There's still resentment in Fianna Fail at his attitude during recent talks on the formation of a new Government.

Leo Varadkar would be a feel-good Taoiseach in a time of plenty, but is there any principle for which he'd be willing to metaphorically die in a ditch? Those are the real keys to a man's character. He'd surely be a safe pair of hands, but he's no radical reformer, is he?

Sunday Independent

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