Hugh O'Connell: 'Varadkar dubbed 'a real gangster' as he goes undercover on secret trip to help Isil row candidate Murphy'
Never before has an occasion involving a Taoiseach and one of his own by-election candidates days out from the polling day been shrouded in such secrecy.
It was almost as if Leo Varadkar didn't want people outside Wexford to know he was heartily endorsing Verona Murphy on the town's Main Street.
Mr Varadkar was supposed to come here last Friday but went canvassing with Emer Higgins - the party's best hope of a Dáil seat - in Dublin Mid-West instead. When the unofficial word spread on Sunday night that he would be in Wexford yesterday, queries to Government and Fine Gael figures went largely unanswered. Local media were also kept in the dark.
It was all the more bizarre given two Fine Gael press officers accompanied Mr Varadkar to Wexford where he and Ms Murphy declined to take questions during their 40-minute walkabout.
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In Ms Murphy's constituency office, which faces out onto the misty Wexford harbour, two ladies working on the campaign insisted they didn't know what was happening before softening up a little.
"Don't we need more straight talkers?" said one of them as she handed over Ms Murphy's literature bearing the same slogan.
Mr Varadkar arrived around 2pm with a sizeable delegation that included Ms Murphy, who was all smiles as she studiously avoided journalists.
But she was warm and engaging with voters, arguably making her a more natural canvasser than the famously awkward Taoiseach.
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Still Mr Varadkar, who was dressed casually, has improved enormously in recent years and was happy to chat as they popped in and out of shops. "The same day as the 'Toy Show'," he helpfully reminded voters when asking them to go to the polls.
Former MEP, TD and senator Avril Doyle, who is centrally involved in Ms Murphy's campaign, was a tour de force as she dragged the pair around. Less visible were local ministers Paul Kehoe and Michael D'Arcy, who stood well back.
Most people the canvassing team met were non-committal but there was no sense that Ms Murphy's controversial comments linking migrants to Isil last week have harmed her.
"She speaks what everyone thinks," said Cora Flood, who had just met Mr Varadkar and Ms Murphy in Hassett's Allcare Pharmacy.
"I think I would vote for her."
Ms Flood described Mr Varadkar as "lovely" after they briefly chatted about the merits of the Revolut prepaid debit card she was holding. "It changes the way you spend," said Mr Varadkar before wandering off. It was typical of his sometimes awkward small talk. In a dry cleaners Mr Varadkar remarked to the woman behind the counter that he'd sent a tie to be dry-cleaned recently and it came back with white powder stains. "It came off," he added.
In the credit union Mr Varadkar got a mixed reception. "You're a real gangster you are, you know that? You have that look about you as well," Martina O'Connor told the Taoiseach to his face. Mr Varadkar laughed it off as did Ms Murphy, who told the woman: "You know where my office is, you come in and talk to me." Ms O'Connor later said she thought the Taoiseach was "OK" and that all politicians are gangsters anyway.
Things got more hostile for Mr Varadkar outside a short time later when he was heckled by a man with an English accent outside an Intreo office. "There's a load of homeless people over there underneath the bridge, do you wanna go see them?" the man shouted.
Mr Varadkar, who had ignored the man, got into his car and ghosted his way out of Wexford.