Wednesday 13 December 2017

Cork claimed the league but Dublin took the All-Ireland - now let both sides celebrate

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern Picture: Frank McGrath
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern Picture: Frank McGrath
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Leo Varadkar was only a few weeks in Leinster House when then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern predicted he'd have "an early exit".

The brash young TD wasted no time making a name for himself as something of a firebrand.

Back in 2007, he accused Ahern of inhabiting the gutter and, as he gained in confidence, he would go on to suggest Mary Coughlan was the Sarah Palin of Irish politics. He likened Micheál Martin to a character from the movie 'Total Recall'.

It all led to the perception that Leo Varadkar was a man to rally the troops, something of a revolutionary in a party that was comfortable in its own conservativeness.

Then there was Simon Coveney. He took a Dáil seat following the tragic passing of his father, served as an MEP and has roots steeped in Fine Gael.

The perception of the merchant prince was impossible for him to shake off.

The result of the Fine Gael leadership contest confounds what most in the party would have predicted just two weeks ago. Leo Varadkar was the 'man of the people'. He travelled the country doing the now-infamous chicken supper circuit, cutting ribbons on constituency offices and shaking hands with the punters.

Read More: The 'Tory Boy' whose ability to stay distance has seen him scale political mountain

Simon Coveney was holed away in Dublin, busying himself with boring policy documents.

His campaign plan was simple. It focused on his qualifications to be Taoiseach. He would tell people he had experience in Europe, didn't shy away from difficult problems like housing and water, and was of good, traditional blueshirt stock. He was the classic stability candidate who expected to be supported by the Cabinet big-hitters and party elders.

But when Mr Varadkar pulled minister after minister from behind a curtain in the opening days of the leadership campaign, the Cork TD had to fight a new game.

He switched his focus from Leinster House and went to the grassroots. He told them they had been ignored by the process, which gave such a heavy weight to "the lads up in Dublin".

The Housing Minister said he was "fighting for the soul of this party". Yesterday he won that battle - but lost the war.

The wounds inflicted on Leo Varadkar were not fatal, but they will sting. He wanted a clean sweep that would give him a mandate to run Fine Gael as he saw fit.

As a result, there will be a post-mortem into why 65pc of the grassroots went against him. Were his team too confident after getting such heavy backing in the parliamentary party? Was it a mistake to limit his media performances during the campaign? Or was it simply a case of the members deciding to give the underdog a chance?

Read More: Coveney lacked the killer instinct needed to secure the biggest job in Irish politics

Whichever conclusion they reach, it will have to be studied closely by the new Fine Gael leader before he calls a general election.

The Opposition will use this result as a stick to beat the incoming Taoiseach with. Watch in the weeks ahead as Fianna Fáil tosses the accusation across the Dáil floor that Mr Varadkar isn't even wanted by the majority of his own party.

In the heat of debate, it might even make a comparison with Donald Trump, who failed to win the popular vote but still took all the power.

Coveney supporters last night said he will now be in prime position to effectively demand the job of Tánaiste. That would be a wise move on the part of Mr Varadkar if he wants to quickly reunite a party more divided than anticipated.

But his mandate stands. He played by the rules and won. As one minister wryly put it: "Cork won the league but Dublin won the All-Ireland."

Now the onus is on both sides to come together and realise that Fine Gael politics is not as important as national politics.

Mr Varadkar's election is an iconic moment in Ireland's history and shouldn't be wasted dwelling on the past.

Irish Independent

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