Tuesday 24 October 2017

Leaders in waiting: Part One - Leo Varadkar

Enda Kenny is clinging to the party reins but jostling for position behind him are the leaders-in-waiting. In the first of four in-depth profiles, John downing looks at one-time 'pup of the Dáil' Leo Varadkar who dropped the right-wing persona that first got him noticed in favour of a more popular stance. When he took over the health portfolio, expectations of the GP were high - but he achieved little and left the job at the first opportunity. Can we expect more of the same from Taoiseach Leo?

Making a mark: Leo Varadkar in Dun Laoghaire during the early days of his tenure as Minister for Transport
Making a mark: Leo Varadkar in Dun Laoghaire during the early days of his tenure as Minister for Transport
Varadkar with Fine Gael frontbenchers Michael Noonan and John Perry during the 2011 election campaign
Leo Varadkar at a Dublin gay pride parade in June 2015
Varadkar leaving RTE studios with Miriam O'Callaghan after he came out on her radio show in January 2015
Varadkar, Olwyn Enright, Enda Kenny, George Lee and Lucinda Creighton during an FG campaign launch in 2009
Leo Varadkar and Lucinda Creighton in 2001
Varadkar at Electric Picnic in 2015
Varadkar with his parents last February during his election count. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Downing

John Downing

Michael Ring was shaking with rage.

It had not suited him to drive from Mayo in the middle of the August holidays to meet his boss, who was 25 years his junior.

The appointed meeting time of 9am meant leaving his home in Westport before 6am, which suited even less. Now his boss, who had only to come from Castleknock, was over an hour late, and the Mayo junior minister's anger continued to mount as he pored over the list of sports grants which did not contain a single allocation for his home base.

By the time Leo Varadkar, Minister for Transport, Sport and Tourism, arrived, his officials warned he should brace himself.

Varadkar with Fine Gael frontbenchers Michael Noonan and John Perry during the 2011 election campaign
Varadkar with Fine Gael frontbenchers Michael Noonan and John Perry during the 2011 election campaign

Through the closed doors the officials could hear Ring's booming voice, his message laced with expletives.

"It was a one-way conversation. Ring spoke - Leo stood there in silence," one source later recalled.

Ring laid it on the line to Varadkar: he had the name of being junior minister responsible for sport and tourism. If that was not borne out in fact, next stop would be Government Buildings to hand in his resignation.

Varadkar gave Ring back the list of grants and told him he could make whatever changes he liked. Henceforth, Ring would have full powers as "Minister for Fun", dispensing largesse in a time of scarcity. And, on this occasion, just three Mayo sports projects promptly made Ring's first sport-grant list.

That was in August 2011. The pair soldiered together with growing cordiality for three more years until the cabinet reshuffle of July 2014. One senior Fine Gael politician admits that Ring began by frankly hating Varadkar.

"But Ring actually got to like Varadkar, who was loyal to him and always backed him - right or wrong - in the many rows with officials. Many people believe that Ring would now back him for leader," the Fine Gael politician says.

Leo Varadkar at a Dublin gay pride parade in June 2015
Leo Varadkar at a Dublin gay pride parade in June 2015

From being the "young pup of the Dáil", Varadkar had became a collegiate and pragmatic member of government.

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Varadkar was by some distance the undisputed "young pup of the Dáil" in his first term, from May 2007 to February 2011.

Fianna Fáil spin-doctors had him in their sights from day one, and pounced after Fine Gael did an onslaught about alleged overuse of the government jet. In February 2009, a backroom practitioner of the dark arts unearthed one of many Varadkar blogs. It was a first-person account of a marathon journey to Dublin from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, where he had done a volunteer stint.

There had been stops in Moscow and Heathrow.

"I really can't wait to get the keys to one of those government jets. My bowels aren't feeling the may west today. Not sure whether to blame the Mongolian food or Aeroflot," Varadkar had written, unwisely oversharing in cyberspace.

Varadkar leaving RTE studios with Miriam O'Callaghan after he came out on her radio show in January 2015
Varadkar leaving RTE studios with Miriam O'Callaghan after he came out on her radio show in January 2015

From his first Dáil days in June 2007, he had gone for the opponent's jugular. He joined Fine Gael colleague Gay Mitchell, and his own constituency rival, the Socialist TD Joe Higgins, as the only ones who ever raised the hackles of the emollient Bertie Ahern in public.

In September 2007, Varadkar said Ahern's claim of unexplained money "won on the horses" was the "defence of drug dealers and pimps".

In the Dáil, Varadkar spoke of Ahern's tarnished political legacy. He compared it with blemishes on the reputation of Tony Blair over Iraq, and Bill Clinton's diminished standing over personal misconduct.

Ahern, the three-time Taoiseach, hit back, saying he personally could take criticism from a new deputy "not a wet day in the place" but he would not allow a total novice castigate his pals, Blair and Clinton.

"I'd say he'll get an early exit," Ahern said of Varadkar.

But the young Fine Gael deputy came blasting back, saying he would take no lectures from Ahern about gutter politics. "The gutter is Bertie Ahern's natural habitat," he said.

Varadkar with his parents last February during his election count. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Varadkar with his parents last February during his election count. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Other unseemly political battles followed.

In summer 2008, as unemployment continued to spiral, Varadkar proposed offering three months' dole to migrant workers as an incentive to leave. There were rowdy Dáil exchanges with Fianna Fáil's Conor Lenihan, with Lenihan insisting he did not give Varadkar a "Nazi salute" - just a "half-wave'.

The following autumn there was a huge overspending scandal at the national training authority, FÁS. Varadkar turned the heat up on Tánaiste and Enterprise Minister Mary Coughlan, in what many saw as very personalised attacks.

He had dubbed her as the "Sarah Palin of Irish politics", drawing parallels with the malapropisms and gaffes of the notorious US vice-presidential candidate.

On television, the gentlemanly RTÉ presenter John Bowman tried to stop an anti-Coughlan rant.

"The Tánaiste can speak for herself," said Bowman.

"Just about," replied Varadkar.

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His politics began at school, when he joined Fine Gael as a pupil at the fee-paying King's Hospital. At Trinity College, where he briefly studied law before switching to medicine, he was active in Young Fine Gael and its European umbrella group, the YEPP, the youth wing of the Christian Democrat group.

It was at Trinity that he met Lucinda Creighton, who is a year younger than him and who became a fellow Young Fine Gaeler and long-time friend. Creighton became Fine Gael TD for Dublin South East in 2007, and EU Affairs Minister in 2011, but left Fine Gael acrimoniously in 2013 over abortion legislation and went on to found the ill-starred Renua.

The young Varadkar was a prolific letter-writer to newspapers on diverse topics, staking out a right-of-centre stance which saw him dubbed "Tory boy".

An early sampling of this very brash correspondence goes as follows: a commentary on Ahern's first cabinet in June 1997 (he was against it); a critique of the Koyto protocol on global warming (he was for it); efforts to stave off the abolition of duty free by the EU (he was sympathetic, but keener on castigating Fianna Fáil minister Mary O'Rourke).

The young Varadkar was getting noticed, especially in Fine Gael. His first electoral foray came in a bid to win a seat on Fingal County Council in June 1999. Aged 20, and a second-year medical student, he polled just 380 votes, way off the pace.

Read more: Fundamental questions to be asked about Leo's leadership qualities

But he was co-opted to Fine Gael Senator Sheila Terry's council seat in October 2003, as new dual-mandate rules obliged her to leave Fingal Council. His continued local activism paid dividends in the June 2004 locals, which saw him win almost two quotas, with 4,894 first preferences, the highest vote in the country.

From then on, politics and medical studies became his total life. By the May 2007 general election campaign, he was a junior doctor in Tallaght Hospital, working up to 60 hours per week and still finding time for politics.

"Why?" one political journalist asked.

"I suppose I want to change the world," came the brash reply.

But he went on to say you cannot complain about services like health and stand on the sidelines.

Ultimately, he hoped to combine politics with practice as a GP. "I think I'll be able to combine the two. The Dáil only meets for 80 days," he continued.

Notably, he did continue his studies to the end, completing his GP qualification with an internship at the Newbridge Family Practice in 2009 while already an elected TD. To this day, colleagues and rivals see medicine as his fall-back position - if politics does not work out.

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Leo Varadkar's first election to the Dáil, on May 24, 2007, aged 28, was almost an anti-climax. In the tight three-seater that was Dublin West at the time, he was declared on the fifth count, behind poll-topper Brian Lenihan of Fianna Fáil, and 500 votes behind future Labour leader and Tánaiste Joan Burton.

The surprise loser was veteran socialist Joe Higgins. Not for the first time, Burton had defied predictions and avoided being squeezed out.

At the count centre, his proud mother Miriam beamed: "He's a very ambitious man."

These days, Varadkar's party supporters like to stress his links, via his mother, to the farming community near Dungarvan in Waterford. His Indian-born father, Dr Ashok Varadkar, shuns the limelight, and one of his few public appearances was a photocall in summer 2015, alongside Fine Gael secretary general Tom Curran, and Dr Martin McAleese, urging a "Yes" in the same-sex marriage referendum.

All three men were underlining their pride in their sons who had publicly stated they were gay. Varadkar, by then Health Minister, had publicly declared his own homosexuality on RTÉ radio on Sunday, January 18, 2015, his 36th birthday.

It made headlines across the globe and got major news coverage at home ahead of the marriage referendum to be held five months later.

As a story, it quickly fell away but it is clear that he handled the occasion very well and deftly read the changing public mood.

"It's not something that defines me. I'm not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician, or a gay politician for that matter. It's just part of who I am, it doesn't define me, it is part of my character I suppose," he told presenter Miriam O'Callaghan.

Varadkar's parents first met in England where Ashok was a doctor and Miriam a nurse. They eventually settled in Castleknock, opening a doctor's practice, at first in the family home, with the parlour doubling as waiting room.

Ashok Varadkar has since sold the practice and retired but his sisters maintain the links to medicine. Sophia is a doctor in the neurology department of Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London, while Sonia is a nurse at the Coombe Hospital in Dublin. The family remain close and his parents and siblings are intensely proud and protective of Leo.

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Labour leader Eamon Gilmore had put his young Turk, Alan Kelly, into the Transport Department as a junior minister in March 2011 to specifically "mark" Varadkar. Labour still wrongly feared he was a right-wing ideologue and Kelly, who could match Michael Ring any day for aggression when roused, was seen as up for the task.

Like Ring, Kelly was given a chunk of terrain as his own without any interference. The Tipperary TD took responsibility for rural transport, taxis and other issues. Some in Fine Gael complained that Kelly had too much space, but as in the case of Ring, Varadkar insisted it was the way to go. It was wise management of - the "Ringer" and "AK47" - two of the nation's most obdurate politicians when they hit their stride.

The junior-senior minister relationship can be especially poisonous. The contrast with James Reilly's Health Department, where Labour junior Róisín Shortall left in a blaze of controversy after just 18 months, comes to mind.

"Leo the ideologue" did surface briefly in summer 2013, when Varadkar spoke of privatising up to 20 Dublin Bus routes. Labour say they quickly disabused him of that notion, pointing out it would mean all-out war with the bus unions. The idea was deemed not worth a major bus strike to compound the deep-seated recession blues.

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Some recall it as the day 'Tory boy' died as Varadkar publicly jettisoned ideology for pragmatism.

It was September 2009 in a room at the Hilton Hotel by the Grand Canal in Dublin 6. Varadkar, 30 years old but over 10 years in active politics, was part of the Fine Gael "economic team" on tour and trying to wow business people.

He was sitting alongside colleagues including their star-signing George Lee, who had famously buzzed in from RTÉ to great fanfare four months earlier, but would acrimoniously buzz out again in another five months.

An exasperated business operator asked what was surely a rhetorical question about the party's stance on the minimum wage, which was "crippling his business".

Varadkar, as enterprise spokesman, took the scenic route answering via reflections on small business as an engine for job-creation and economic growth. Then came the killer - he did not believe cutting the minimum wage would help the economy.

'Tory boy' was suddenly the 'workers' pal'. The Fine Gael backroom team thought it was time to push that one out there.

"I think there is something really indecent about a society that tells people on €17,000 a year that we're going to take money off you," he said soon after and on many subsequent occasions.

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Through two full winters as Health Minister, Varadkar had dreaded a full-blown "trolley crisis" such as has landed upon his successor as Health Minister, Simon Harris, in recent weeks.

Soon after he was appointed to the Government's "no-win department" in July 2014, he revealed he had the updated count of numbers of people on hospital trolleys on his computer screensaver. For him, the full trolley crisis never materialised over those winters of 2014/2015 and 2015/2016.

But his level of dread can be gauged by an incident in January 2015. He was accused of leaking his own email which threatened that "heads will have to roll" in the Health Service Executive (HSE) over trolley numbers.

Varadkar's relationship with HSE boss Tony O'Brien was "spikey" at its best. There were some pretty tough exchanges on text between the two.

"Leo was happy and relieved to leave the Department of Health. His only anxiety was that he would be asked what he had done there," one source in the health services reflected this week.

His move to the Social Protection Department coincides with a freeing of government purse strings and also followed some heavy-lifting by his predecessor Joan Burton on issues like changing the lone-parent payment regime.

For some former colleagues, it is his time in the Health Department, as a young and gifted politician with a major grounding in the subject, which raises most questions about Varadkar as a potential Taoiseach.

"It is clear he is a good 'practitioner' in the business of politics. If events fall right, there is every chance he will be Taoiseach. But what would he do for the Irish people in that office? When you look at what he did in the Department of Health - or more precisely what he did not do - you have to wonder," one former minister says rather cuttingly.

His most notable move came in August 2014, just a fortnight after his switch to Health. He announced via the Irish Independent that plans to move to universal health insurance by 2019 - a major stepping-stone to ending the infamous two-tier service - could not happen.

Varadkar's major act as Health Minister was to manage his party's quiet walk away from their cornerstone promises. As a political act, it succeeded and passed with minimum comment - but could we expect more of the same underachieving politics from Taoiseach Varadkar?

To one ardent Fine Gael backbench supporter, the question borders on calumny. That TD's response points to the ingrained fatalism about the health services at every level of Irish society.

"Leo did what he could do in health and avoided what he could not. People don't miss what they don't expect," the Fine Gael Varadkar acolyte argues.

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