Wednesday 16 January 2019

Varadkar the worldwide celebrity, but what's happening on ground at home?

The confidence and supply deal has in itself, regretfully, become a distraction from the proper running of the country

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

When Leo Varadkar went to work last Friday morning his advisers could be forgiven for beating him over the head with a copy of his 'Marking the Anniversary of the Republic' speech delivered two nights before and warning him not to lose the run of himself.

There he was, on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world, a pointless enough accolade but nice all the same and something which will look good on Fine Gael election literature.

Not only that, but the homeless 'rough sleepers' numbers had fallen dramatically; the economy was getting boomier and the abortion referendum was looking more like it would pass.

Add to that, Fine Gael and the Taoiseach's own poll ratings were still quite strong; the Opposition, remarkably, was passing on an opportunity to slam dunk 'take out' another of his ministers - and the sun was shining.

What was there not to like? At such moments Leo Varadkar could be forgiven for believing his own publicity, to come over all statesmanlike, to knit together a narrative which presents himself as the true inheritor of the Republic, stitching in his own themes as those of the tradition of Fine Gael and the honour of the State.

Two nights before, at O'Connell House on Merrion Square, Varadkar channelled his inner Macron in a speech which set out the prospect of marking Republic Day on April 18, 2024, at which time he would hope still to be Taoiseach, although, in fairness, he had the good grace to admit that others might hold a similar ambition.

In that speech he cited his party's "distinguished history" such as the creation of the State and its institutions, like the Defence Forces, the Garda and the Supreme Court.

Then he weaved his own ambitions seamlessly into the history of Fine Gael and the State: the electrification of Ireland linked to Project Ireland 2040; Ireland into the United Nations linked to his description of this country as a small island at the centre of the world; and, of course, "rescuing and rebuilding the economy on more than one occasion when it was wrecked by others".

This was Leo in vision mode, playing on his image as a young leader of a newly emerging country; one which has, or is the process of throwing off the conservative shackles of the past - and he freshly minted, to boot, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. It was heady stuff, indeed.

Back in the real world, his advisers would have told him that this time three years ago Fine Gael and Sinn Fein were neck and neck in the opinion polls with Fianna Fail at a relatively distant third, and we know how that worked out in the subsequent election.

Elsewhere, earlier in the week, at a meeting of Fine Gael ministers, Damien English, who led Simon Coveney's leadership campaign successfully on the ground, silenced the room with an assessment, according to reports, that "Fianna Fail is starting to get ahead on the ground" - a view which chimes with that of the backroom people in Fianna Fail, based of their private constituency polling.

So, after that thrashing over his head, Leo Varadkar probably reminded himself that it was best to concentrate on the job at hand: the abortion referendum and the Brexit talks and then negotiations on the Budget.

At times like this it is easy to get distracted from the realities, or to lose sight of them.

The harshest reality of all, however, is that the 'confidence and supply' agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail has been a worthwhile but ultimately failed experiment and, worse, has in itself now become a distraction from the proper running of the country.

As the deal nears its scheduled end, it is fraying at the edges to a point perhaps, and regretfully, beyond repair.

The reality is that politicians of all parties, and none, have been in an exhausted state of permanent election mode since the last inconclusive election two years ago.

As a result, heretofore normal discourse has descended into fractious claim and counter-claim, defined by increasingly personalised attacks and marked by a degree of nastiness, even within parties, which is not really doing anybody any good.

Within Fianna Fail, a breakdown in normal civility has opened up three factions: those who want to collapse the Government in the Budget negotiations; those who would prefer to see through the Budget and related legislation, and those who would not mind extending the 'confidence and supply' deal in the rather uninspiring hope that something, somewhere might emerge to trip up Leo Varadkar.

At this stage, even Varadkar himself is said to be privately of the view that it is difficult to see the Government going on much further, and certainly not until 2021.

All of this leads me to conclude that a reasonable compromise will be to call it quits after the Budget-related legislation is passed, with an election in February or early in the new year.

The inevitable question is what will happen after that, the answer to which is nobody really knows.

For example, to what extent, if at all, will Leo Varadkar's 'star quality' butter many parsnips? How real is Sinn Fein's latest apparent bounce under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald? And can Fianna Fail sneak ahead with - at a guess - a VAT cut for property developers and a return to social partnership?

And if Fianna Fail does manage to get ahead, the question then will be whether Fine Gael is prepared to cobble together another 'confidence and supply' deal until 2021.

Sooner or later, however, the body politic will have to face the biggest question of all: will Fine Gael and/or Fianna Fail be forced to form a coalition Government, either with each other or Sinn Fein - or will some other issue, either known or as yet unknown, eventually emerge to influence the public to restore or find a (new) form of stability?

Until that question is answered, it seems to me we will be left with short-term governments comprised of exhausted politicians in a state of permanent election; fractious, occasionally cruel and, well, unbecoming of a Republic facing into the 75th anniversary of its foundation, marked back then, as Leo Varadkar reminded us last week, by a huge crowd of men, women and children on O'Connell Street, so large that many fainted, illuminated by a display of searchlight batteries across the city and tar batteries lit on the hills, who began to shout 'Up the Republic'.

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