Why 'facile' Leo is squaring up to 'cranky' Mary Lou
Leo Varadkar temporarily shocked Mary Lou McDonald into silence this week when he compared her to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Andrew Lynch considers the week's very calculated clash between the Taoiseach and the middle-class Dubliner seen as Sinn Féin's most likely next leader
Leo Varadkar gave Sinn Féin fair warning. "I'm not putting out an olive branch to them," he declared during the Fine Gael leadership election last May. "I think Sinn Féin remains the greatest threat to our democracy and our prosperity as a State. Part of my mission, if I have that opportunity as leader, is to take Sinn Féin on and expose them."
This was the week when Varadkar started to deliver on his promise. He did so, however, in a slightly unexpected way. For two days running, the Taoiseach launched stinging personal attacks on Sinn Féin's leader-in-waiting Mary Lou McDonald - and gave us a preview of how he intends to deal with her if she succeeds Gerry Adams before the next general election.
The first Leo-Mary Lou clash took place last Tuesday afternoon. During a Dáil exchange over childcare costs, Varadkar clearly shocked McDonald by comparing her to one of the most reviled politicians in Europe.
"Even though their politics is completely different, Deputy McDonald reminds me more and more of [French far-right leader] Marine Le Pen," he declared. "Because she always goes back to her script. She delivers a scripted question and when I give her an answer and ask her a question, she goes straight back to the script again."
On this occasion, in fact, the Sinn Féin woman seemed to have lost her place - because she was temporarily rendered speechless.
Just 24 hours later, the pair had an even more bitter encounter. In response to a query from Mary Lou about AIB's tax practices, Leo began by saying: "I wish to compliment Deputy McDonald on the flawless delivery of your script. Pauses, intonation and everything was absolutely perfect as always. Hope you didn't spend too much time practicing it this morning."
A visibly shaken McDonald then started heckling, prompting Varadkar to accuse Sinn Féin of having "an innate contempt for democracy and free speech". Later he remarked, "You're very cranky today," to which she retorted, "I find you facile and dismissive on important issues."
Finally the Dáil chairperson, Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell, became sick of McDonald's interruptions and asked her to leave the House. The Taoiseach gave her a mocking wave as she walked over to his seat, spoke a few more angry words and warned, "I'll write to you", before storming out of the chamber.
Bad-tempered spats in Leinster House are obviously nothing new. These ones, however, had much more political significance than usual. As members of the Taoiseach's inner circle privately acknowledge, he is using a strategy that can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece: define your opponent before they have a chance to define themselves.
In other words, Varadkar has already started planning for the Sinn Féin leadership change that everyone expects to take place in 2018. While Gerry Adams is still regularly dogged by his alleged links to IRA atrocities, almost every voter in the country formed an opinion of him long ago. By contrast, McDonald's public image is very much a work in progress - and the Taoiseach clearly thinks she has weaknesses crying out to be exploited.
Varadkar stressed that his comparison of Mary Lou with Marine Le Pen was based on style, not substance. He could have chosen a more obvious example from the UK, where Prime Minister Theresa May's habit of relying on stilted soundbites such as "strong and stable" has caused one parliamentary sketch writer to dub her The Maybot. The nickname stuck and did May severe damage during last June's general election, feeding into a widespread reception of her as cold, mechanical and unfeeling.
Many other politicians around the world have been undone by an inability to think on their feet. In early 2016, Marco Rubio looked like a strong contender for the US Republican presidential nomination. During a candidates' debate in New Hampshire, however, he seemed to freeze and repeated the same attack on Barack Obama word-for-word four times.
"There it is, everybody," his rival Chris Christie sneered. "The 25-second memorised speech." Rubio's poll numbers nosedived overnight and a few weeks later he dropped out of the race.
Could something similar happen to Mary Lou? Even her biggest critics would admit that she is always impeccably well briefed for media and parliamentary debates. Her chief weakness, as the Taoiseach's advisers have spotted, is that she sometimes appears to be trying too hard - speaking in lengthy sentences that sound rehearsed rather than spontaneous.
Leo Varadkar is not the only party leader who has McDonald in his sights. At the Fianna Fáil think-in last week, Micheál Martin was asked if a change of Sinn Féin leadership would make it easier to share Government Buildings with them. He shot down the idea in no uncertain terms by pointing out, "Whatever Gerry says, Mary Lou will say."
This is another line of attack for which McDonald must start bracing herself. She has often been mocked as a Sinn Féin nodding dog who is slavishly devoted to her party leader and even backs up his ludicrous claim that he never actually joined the IRA. Assuming that she does replace him in due course, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and others will insist nothing has really changed except the face on Sinn Féin's election posters.
There is a sinister undercurrent to all these charges. Micheál Martin maintains that while Sinn Féin has officially abandoned violence, its strings are still being secretly pulled by the IRA Army Council. If so, then McDonald may find it difficult to persuade the hard men in west Belfast that their movement can be led by a middle-class Dublin woman who has never fired a gun in her life.
Younger Sinn Féin members must have watched this week's Dáil rows with deep unease. For them, the whole point of choosing Mary Lou as leader is that she would represent a decisive break from the party's blood-soaked past. They have fond memories of her appearance in a 2013 TV3 documentary, where she was filmed shopping at her local Superquinn and quipping, "I'm just looking for Cheerios… Cheerios and a united Ireland."
Although Sinn Féin have certainly made electoral progress in the Republic under Gerry Adams's leadership, right now they seem to have hit a glass ceiling of around 15pc. Mary Lou plans to offer herself as the 'Heineken candidate', capable of reaching voters that other leadership contenders just can't reach. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin are well aware of the danger, which is precisely why their verbal assaults on her have already started to step up a gear.
The next general election is shaping up as a three-way contest between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. McDonald's party has been quietly executing a u-turn in recent months, signalling that it is now ready to consider a coalition with one of the two big parties. Ironically, it may be Varadkar and Martin's shared contempt for her that finally pushes them together and brings almost a century of Civil War politics to an end.
"Neither cranky nor rattled!" Mary Lou McDonald tweeted after her bruising experience with the Taoiseach on Wednesday evening. "Would take more than that nonsense to rattle me. I'm well used to Leo type carry on in the Dáil."
She may have to get even more used to it in the years ahead - and if this week's scenes are anything to go by, the burgeoning Leo-Mary Lou feud will not make for pretty viewing.