Monday 21 May 2018

Leo survives... but now the hard part starts

In the toughest week of his term as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar faltered. Can an inexperienced leader learn from his mistakes - and survive the difficult times ahead?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Bobo the dog at the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party Meeting in the Minella Hotel, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.
Pic:Mark Condren
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Bobo the dog at the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party Meeting in the Minella Hotel, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. Pic:Mark Condren
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

He has survived a tumultuous 10 days. Leo Varadkar has had to watch his Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald resign having served as minister of a department that he himself has described as "dysfunctional".

By the start of this week, the clock was ticking on the time bomb of a Christmas election that nobody professed to want - with the danger that candidates would intrude on the festivities like a bad Santa with badges and brochures.

Under pressure: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Under pressure: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Leo has now caused a significant number within his own party to question his judgment, and even ponder behind the scenes whether they picked the right candidate back in June.

At least, he can console himself that he got through it all. His little local difficulty has been sorted out.

But now, the really hard part starts.

On December 14, the Taoiseach will have to travel to Brussels for a summit of heads of government, and try to guarantee a deal that ensures we have no hard border between the two parts of the island.

Between now and then, he will have to deal with scatter-brained leaders on the British side, who have been slow to clarify what they want, and he may find the experience a bit like picking up mercury with a fork.

Cool diplomacy will be needed as much as tough talk.

One former cabinet minister, who worked alongside the Taoiseach, says: "In the Brexit talks, he faces the most onerous responsibility to help the country out of a potential crisis since Éamon de Valera led Ireland successfully through World War II.

"Leo and Enda before him had been doing well in Brexit negotiations.

"But it was a grave mistake for Varadkar and Micheál Martin to take their eye off the ball like they did in recent days," the former minister said. "They both played their part in getting involved in a kind of guerrilla warfare that could have led to an election that would have been disastrous for the country."

The cabinet minister, who served under Enda Kenny, says: "Leo ran a smart campaign to be elected leader, but recent events have shown that he lacks experience, and Simon Coveney might have shown more wisdom in the circumstances.

"Now, he will have to batten down the hatches, work closely with Simon now that he has appointed him Tánaiste, and hope they can get the Government to the other side of the summer."

We now know a lot more about Varadkar's capabilities as a leader than we did a fortnight ago, and the signs are not positive. One commentator argued, admittedly from the Fianna Fáil side, that he seems to lack emotional intelligence. Or is he showing political immaturity?

Leo Varadkar's who was elected Fine Gael leader is congratulated by Simon Coveney Pic: Mark Condren
Leo Varadkar's who was elected Fine Gael leader is congratulated by Simon Coveney Pic: Mark Condren

The most charitable interpretation of his mixture of recklessness and indecision in recent days is that he is still inexperienced, and will learn from his darkest week in office.

"He hit Becher's Brook on the first round, and he may have been given an early warning that he needs to be decisive, fast and more precise in his thinking," says Frank Flannery, a long-time Fine Gael adviser, who has seen the party through many ups and downs. "You only really learn the skills of being a leader when you have to go through this type of crisis."

In the normal course of events, the controversy swirling around the Department of Justice over emails and a legal strategy adopted by garda legal representatives against the whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe might not have merited a resignation by a minister in the eyes of a Taoiseach.

But once Fianna Fáil announced on Thursday of last week that they planned to put down a motion no confidence in Ms Fitzgerald, the survival of the Government was at stake and Varadkar was required to take swift action in the national interest.

Instead, he allowed the controversy to fester for another five days to its almost inevitable end.

Removing ministers is one of the onerous responsibilities of being Taoiseach.

In the midst of a crisis, Leo Varadkar's predecessor Enda Kenny had a way of calmly putting a hand on the shoulder of the embattled colleague and smoothing their path to the door.

"You have to remember that Enda Kenny had seen many upheavals before," says Flannery.

When it came to his toughest decision so far, Varadkar showed no such steel. Perhaps it was out of misplaced loyalty to a highly regarded minister.

Flannery says: "There is a law, I find, when it comes to dealing with a crisis. When questions are being asked and documents are leaking out, it is inevitable that another document will appear.

"A system that is able to produce one missing email is highly likely to produce another one. That is why it is better to move early with a solution to the crisis than leave it late.

"Leaving aside the fact that Frances was a capable minister, there was an inevitability about what would happen. If the solution had arrived earlier it would have been better for all concerned."

Early on in the crisis, Fine Gael TDs backed their leader, but when they went home to their constituencies, it became clear that they would incur the wrath of voters if they ever went near a Christmas canvass.

The high-stakes poker game between Micheál Martin and Leo may have become an intriguing spectacle inside the political bubble - but outside of that, it seemed to be impressing nobody.

One backbench Fine Gael TD told Review: "Nobody wanted an election at Christmas, because that is a time for families and people coming home. The Taoiseach should have ensured that it was sorted out by the weekend, particularly when he knew that there was more information coming out.

"Because the controversy continued for days, we got sucked into a whirlpool," says the TD.

Nobody doubts Leo's capabilities as a campaigning politician, and his "blitzkrieg" leadership campaign in the summer was perhaps one of the slickest in the modern era.

He has a talent for getting noticed, and in his short term in office, few taoisigh have attracted so much publicity across the globe, including the cover of Time magazine.

Burden of office

But sometimes a Taoiseach can buckle under the sheer responsibility of the highest office, particularly in a week like this.

Willie O'Dea has said that Brian Cowen was a highly intelligent figure, but he was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the problems with which he was confronted.

Is there a danger that Leo might also feel the burden of office is too heavy?

He looked rattled when he appeared in the Dáil without the Tánaiste by his side on Tuesday afternoon, as he announced her resignation and answered Leaders' questions.

In an ad-libbed response to a question, he was ruefully honest about the difficulties he faced in doing the job. "As I found out as both a doctor and a politician, diagnosis is a damned sight easier than surgery and the cure.

"It is not difficult to identify some of the obvious problems that exist in our country and in some deep parts of our State.

"Identifying them is one thing, but trying to get a grip on them… and trying to deal with those fundamental problems is a real struggle."

He spoke of the problems in the Department of Justice as if he was in some way detached from them.

Was it wise for a Taoiseach to revel in his own powerlessness, and then also flag up to other EU negotiators that he had not been able to give the upcoming Brexit summit any of his attention for a number of days? This was rectified later in the week, when the Government's attention again focused on Brexit.

Some observers also felt it unwise to launch a full-frontal assault on the Department of Justice, while deflecting attention from the shortcomings of his own ministers. Could all the department's officials be tarred with the same brush?

For the second time in a fortnight, the political dynamic of the upcoming election has changed dramatically.

The impending resignation of Gerry Adams as leader has the potential to put Sinn Féin in a much stronger position with Mary Lou McDonald at the helm.

And after the Fitzgerald crisis, the stature of Micheál Martin has been enhanced, although cynics would suggest that he dressed up political opportunism as high principle.

One political rival said Martin played his cards well - but it was a huge risk that could have left the country rudderless in the Brexit negotiations.

In the coming months, the Taoiseach will face issues just as grave as the resignation of a Tánaiste.

If the Government survives until then, he will have to navigate the Eighth Amendment referendum campaign on abortion, an issue that can cause political damage. And the housing crisis is only likely to get worse in the medium term.

Despite the difficulties, his friend and political ally Senator Neale Richmond insists that Leo has embraced the job with enthusiasm and feels that he has brought in many worthwhile initiatives.

"He does enjoy the job, but doesn't necessarily enjoy the intrusion into his life and so much ­attention on him - and that he has so little control over his own time, whether it is having a coffee with colleagues or meeting family for dinner."

Leo's mettle will be tested further in the ­coming months as he faces a welter of intractable ­problems. If he has not already discovered it, he will find that political life at the top, like history, is one damn thing after another.

@KimBielenberg

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