Saturday 17 March 2018

2016 Ones to watch: Election year key to Leo's career fortunes

Leo Varadkar, Politician

Looking ahead: Leo Varadkar is hotly tipped should Enda Kenny step down after the General Election.
Looking ahead: Leo Varadkar is hotly tipped should Enda Kenny step down after the General Election.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The cynics might suggest that Leo Varadkar will be hoping to be moved on from his difficult role as Minister for Health if Fine Gael wins the election in the coming weeks.

Relieved of a position where the minister is invariably hammered for long waiting lists and the annual sight of elderly patients left stranded on trolleys, Varadkar would be able to continue serenely on his upward trajectory towards the top.

Alongside Simon Coveney in the more congenial Department of Agriculture, Varadkar is still hotly tipped as a successor to Enda Kenny.

The Taoiseach has suggested that he will serve a full term if he wins the forthcoming General Election.

Initially, there had been widespread speculation in Fine Gael circles that Kenny could step down in the middle of his next term. But, more recently, Kenny has expressed a desire to stay on. So, for Varadkar and other leadership contenders, it is likely to be a long wait.

And as many politicians know, there's many a slip between cup and lip. In the unlikely event that the election proves disastrous for Fine Gael, we could see Varadkar in charge of his party a lot sooner. A defeated Taoiseach would probably step down as party leader immediately after the election.

The Department of Health was famously described as "Angola" by Brian Cowen when he was minister, but it doesn't seem to stop politicians continuing to further their careers.

Cowen went on to become Taoiseach; another health minister, Micheál Martin, the creator of the ill-fated HSE, now leads his party; and Michael Noonan also became party leader for a time before going on to be Minister for Finance. Perhaps their stints in health did not damage them because we have such low expectations of how our health service is run.

Others might be delighted to get the hell out of health, but this is a role that Varadkar is said to have coveted since he was a child.

The son of an Indian doctor and a Waterford nurse, at the age of seven a young Leo declared to his mother that he wanted to be the minister for health when he grew up.

One might have hoped that with two doctors in charge over five years, the problems of the health service would have been alleviated.

But Varadkar and his predecessor James Reilly have shown that many of the problems seem intractable, no matter how much hard work and expertise they bring to the job.

To the outsider the targets for accident and emergency departments seem pitifully modest with patients not expected to spend more than nine hours on trolleys.

The reality was demonstrated by figures last September showing that almost 900 people aged over 75 were on trolleys in that month for more than 24 hours.

Varadkar is admirably frank in describing some of the problems in our healthcare system, but at the start of 2016 one has to wonder who will actually take responsibility for the mess.

Remarkably, the HSE was recently described by its own Director General Tony O'Brien as a badly conceived "centralised amorphous blob that nobody understood". O'Brien said it had had a "death sentence" hanging over it for years without ever being executed.

Varadkar has said he largely agrees with the criticisms.

The Government came to power promising a new system of universal health insurance that would pay for medical costs.

Now Varadkar concedes that it could be a decade - and a third term in government - before any kind of universal healthcare system could be up and running.

When he took office, Varadkar quickly distanced himself from James Reilly's promise to deliver universal health insurance by 2019, warning that the timescale was "too ambitious".

While the hospitals seem incurable and the state of the health service may not damage him in the long term, another of his measures could prove unpopular among a certain section of the electorate.

Varadkar recently published the Public Health Alcohol Bill which he hopes will introduce minimum pricing to the booze sector, heavy restrictions on advertising and a ban on on-pitch alcohol advertising during sports games.

The minister said this new legislation would reduce harmful drinking in Ireland and would discourage younger people from binge drinking. But some voters will be furious that this may have been the last Christmas when they could buy 15 cans of beer for €15. The minimum price of a can of beer will be set at around €2.

Varadkar has said he knew there would be strong opposition to the legislation but the State was preparing its defence in any event.

It is likely to face legal obstacles in the Irish and European courts, particularly in relation to minimum pricing. Proposals by the Scottish government for minimum unit pricing have run into legal hurdles in the European Court of Justice.

Varadkar has said the aim was not to cancel Christmas or to stop people from drinking but to discourage an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Varadkar believes people in Ireland like to believe binge drinking only affects a small number of people. However, according to him, the reality is most people drink too much.

If he continues in health, Varadkar may also try to press ahead with his ambition to slap a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, but Finance Minister Michael Noonan has so far resisted the measure in the face of heavy lobbying from industry interests.

Varadkar has softened his image considerably since he first arrived in the Dáil in 2007 and tore into Bertie Ahern right at the start. After likening Bertie to Charles Haughey, he said: "The gutter is Bertie Ahern's natural habitat.''

Early on as a TD he repeatedly goaded Mary Coughlan in the Dáil, suggesting that she was an embarrassment, who was unsuitable to represent the country overseas.

He was also considered a conservative reactionary. His suggestion that jobless foreigners could be paid to leave the country voluntarily was likened to a policy of the British National Party. Becoming the first senior politician to come out as gay has given him a more liberal sheen that could serve him well if he wants to become leader. Turning 37 this month, Varadkar seems to have mellowed in recent times, and amid the chaos of the HSE some might even argue that he is too laid back for his own good.

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