Sunday 13 October 2019

How a two-year plan fell perfectly into place as Varadkar swept his rival aside in leadership race

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney Photo: Frank McGrath
Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney Photo: Frank McGrath
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It was a day after his 36th birthday in January 2015 when a casually dressed Leo Varadkar arrived at RTÉ for a long overdue appointment.

His interview with Miriam O'Callaghan had been postponed on several occasions due to the endless crises in the Department of Health.

The fact he was about to come out as gay was well-known in media circles but nobody dared write it until the minister went public.

The following morning the headline on the front of the Irish Independent read: "Varadkar on track to be first gay Taoiseach".

It's exactly the type of response he was hoping for. He needed to get the 'gay thing' out of the way and make sure conservative elements in Fine Gael had time to adjust to the idea before any tilt for the top could be launched.

The marriage referendum presented the ideal opportunity to broach the topic - yet even Mr Varadkar will struggle to believe that it only took two and a bit years for that headline to be proven prophetic. With the seed planted the Dublin West TD got back to "surviving" Health and not so subtly agitating against Enda Kenny in the background when the opportunity presented itself.

Leo Varadkar leaving RTÉ studios with Miriam O’Callaghan after he revealed he was gay two years ago
Leo Varadkar leaving RTÉ studios with Miriam O’Callaghan after he revealed he was gay two years ago

The following September Mr Kenny did an interview with this reporter in which he revealed he would "not seek a third term as Taoiseach".

"And I would like to think at that point you would have a squad of men and women who are ambitious, who have got talent, who have got experience," he said.

Read More: This race is done and dusted: FG's young guns will bring Leo to power

The outgoing Taoiseach's statement was not well thought out and opened a succession debate that made Mr Kenny deeply uncomfortable. For Mr Varadkar and, to a much lesser extent, Simon Coveney it signalled the start of a race that is now nearing the end.

When Fine Gael flopped in last year's election Mr Varadkar was not enthusiastic about the prospect of a makeshift government made up of Independents and underwritten by Fianna Fáil.

His close supporters were not shy about expressing the view that 'new politics' was little more than a mechanism for keeping Mr Kenny in power.

Chinese whispers about the need for a change turned into a low-level campaign that on occasion blew up into the media as the 'rebels' struggled to hold their fire.

There are contradictory reports as to why Mr Varadkar was demoted from Health to Social Protection - but after the initial embarrassment in the media he realised it was a blessing in disguise. With a bit more time on his hands Mr Varadkar engaged in regular Irish lessons. Just this week, on the same day as Enda Kenny announced his retirement, the would-be Taoiseach was sitting his Level 4 exam for public and civil servants.

He also quietly held clinics for TDs, senators and councillors in his ministerial office every Wednesday evening, allowing them to bring local delegations into Government Buildings for a hearing.

Read More: Celebratory mood at cake and coffee charm offensive - but Leo insists contest is not over

Behind the scenes he assembled a small but trusted team led by junior minister Eoghan Murphy.

A list of TDs and senators to privately approach was drawn. It was a delicate process that had to be kept "underground".

Wexford TDs Michael D'Arcy and Paul Kehoe were recruited along with Carlow/Kilkenny's John Paul Phelan.

"They were tasked with figuring out the lay of the land. Different people had relations with certain TDs and they would sound them out," said a source.

"Everything would be channelled back to Eoghan Murphy who compiled the master list. Initially the group was touching base around once a week but for the last few weeks it's been every day."

At the same time Mr Varadkar was playing the role of 'social king', inviting TDs and senators for dinner, drinks and even taking some for a day at the races.

Josepha Madigan, a first-time TD from Dublin-Rathdown, was brought into the inner-circle to add some "emotional intelligence into the mix".

She also offered a helpful female perspective, given it was well-known that Mr Coveney had newbies Maria Bailey and Kate O'Connell on his team.

EU Commissioner 'Big' Phil Hogan was sending advice from Brussels. The CEO of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland John Carroll was hired. And the whole operation was overseen by Mr Varadkar's closest lieutenants and full-time staffers Nick Miller (press adviser), Brian Murphy (special adviser) and Philip O'Callaghan (policy adviser).

"There were others too, including former TDs, but they only agreed to help on the basis that their names would never be revealed," said a source.

Each person in the team was assigned specific roles and operated on a "need to know basis".

"You only went to the meetings relevant to your area. Lessons were learned from the 2010 heave when everybody was in the room for every meeting."

A code of omerta was applied. After Mr Kenny's imaginary conversation with Katherine Zappone over whistleblowers the plan was ratcheted up to the next level.

Read more: Coveney bid in meltdown as Leo sails towards a landslide

"Once the sh*t hit the fan minds were fully focused. The phony war was ending."

Mr Coveney's team had only woken up to the race in recent months but was widely briefing journalists that it would win the Seanad, break even in the Cabinet and that the Dáil was all to play for.

It was to dispel this theory that Mr Murphy and Mr Varadkar plotted a 'Day One Blitzkrieg' of the Leinster House plinth. As Mr Coveney lodged his nomination papers at Fine Gael HQ, a group representing nine senators gathered in Buswell's Hotel opposite the Dáil where they were briefed by Mr Miller to say that Mr Varadkar was "the best man for the job".

None of the names was impressive but together it indicated that Mr Coveney hadn't won the Seanad. The defection of Roscommon senator Maura Hopkins hurt the Cork TD most. He'd spent time on the phone to her the previous night trying to lure her over the line.

Richard Bruton epitomised the level of secrecy adopted by Mr Varadkar. His announcement was so closely guarded that even those closest to the next leader were taken by surprise.

RTÉ's 'News At One' was offered Senator Paddy Burke as a guest but declined.

"They missed the significance of Enda Kenny's man in the Seanad backing Leo but it wasn't lost on the party," said an insider.

There followed a series of choreographed endorsements, including one from junior minister Helen McEntee who Mr Coveney had hoped to get. The final onslaught was sending Paschal Donohoe onto 'Morning Ireland' to describe Mr Varadkar as "the most capable politician of my generation".

Charlie Flanagan followed suit and as the bandwagon pulled out of the station almost everybody jumped on board.

Fine Gael parliamentary party endorsements for leader

The Fine Gael parliamentary party makes up 65pc of the total electorate.

That makes each of the 73 members' votes worth 0.9pc of the total ballot.

Of the remaining electorate, 230 party councillors account for 10pc, while the remaining 25pc is rank and file members.

Leo Varadkar
Simon Coveney

Total: 45

Total: 19

Ministers: 17

Ministers: 5

TDs: 16

TDs: 5

Senators: 11

Senators: 8

MEPs: 1

MEPs: 1

Richard Bruton -MinisterSimon Harris - Minister
Frances Fitzgerald - MinisterDamien English - Minister
Michael Ring - MinisterDara Murphy - Minister
Eoghan Murphy - MinisterDavid Stanton - Minister
Sean Kyne - MinisterMarcella Corcoran Kennedy - Minister
Joe McHugh - MinisterKate O'Connell - TD
Helen McEntee - MinisterMaria Bailey - TD
Charlie Flanagan - MinisterSean Barrett TD
Paul Kehoe -MinisterHildegard Naughton - TD
Patrick O'Donovan - MinisterPeter Fitzpatrick - TD
Regina Doherty - MinisterTim Lombard - Senator
Mary Mitchell O'Connor - MinisterJerry Buttimer - Senator
Paschal Donohoe - MinisterPaudie Coffey - Senator
Heather Humphreys - MinisterJames Reilly - Senator
Pat Breen - MinisterColm Burke - Senator
Catherine Byrne - MinisterJohn O'Mahony - Senator
Andrew Doyle - MinisterPaul Coghlan - Senator
John Paul Phelan - TDGabrielle McFadden - Senator
Noel Rock - TDDeirdre Clune - MEP
Tony McLoughlin - TD 
Alan Farrell - TD 
Michael D'Arcy - TD 
Tom Neville - TD 
Josepha Madigan - TD 
Pat Deering - TD 
Jim Daly - TD 
Brendan Griffin - TD 
Ciaran Cannon - TD 
Colm Brophy - TD 
Peter Burke - TD 
Fergus O'Dowd - TD 
John Deasy - TD 
Joe Carey - TD 
Neale Richmond - Senator 
Catherine Noone - Senator 
Paddy Burke - Senator 
Martin Conway - Senator 
Michelle Mulherin - Senator 
Maura Hopkins - Senator 
Ray Butler - Senator 
Frank Feighan - Senator 
Maria Byrne - Senator 
Joe O'Reilly - Senator 
Kieran O'Donnell - Senator 
Brian Hayes - MEP 
Enda Kenny - Outgoing Party Leader *Martin Heydon - Party Chairman *
Michael Noonan - MinisterMichael Creed - Minister
Bernard Durkan - TDSean Kelly - MEP
Mairead McGuinness MEP  

* Outgoing leader Enda Kenny and party chairman Martin Heydon will not make an endorsement

Irish Independent

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