Friday 24 January 2020

Niall O'Connor: First week throws up plenty of 'women problems' for Leo

Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Photo: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos
Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Photo: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos

Niall O'Connor

Leo Varadkar arrived at Government Buildings with a spring in his step. It was a minute after eight and the new Taoiseach had recently stepped off a plane from London, where he held talks with one of Europe's most prominent female politicians.

By all accounts, his discussions with Theresa May were both impassioned and intimate.

Mr Varadkar told the British prime minister that Brexit was a "tragedy" and his "heart breaks" over the UK's decision to leave the EU. His supporters insist a later reference to the Hugh Grant film 'Love Actually' shows the Taoiseach's soft side.

But little did Mr Varadkar realise that Day Seven of his tenure would also throw up some of the hallmarks of a break-up in a romantic comedy.

With two hours to spare before he was due to chair his first Cabinet meeting as Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar continued a round of calls to his new junior ministerial team. But there were two calls he knew would be particularly difficult. For the crime of backing Simon Coveney in the leadership contest, Mr Varadkar had decided to drop two juniors: Dara Murphy and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy.

Both politicians made pleas to be kept, with Ms Corcoran Kennedy insisting she had devoted all of her work to her role in the Department of Health.

But Mr Varadkar was not for turning. As one party source noted last night: "He dropped her like a hot potato."

With just an hour to go until Mr Varadkar chaired his first Cabinet meeting, another influential woman arrived through the gates of Leinster House.

Mr Varadkar would have been well aware that Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan was arriving for a grilling, this time over the Templemore 'slush fund'.

He may well soon find himself making another similar call to the one he made to the junior health minister. If the Garda controversies continue to stack up, Mr Varadkar may have to again issue a vote of no confidence.

Meanwhile, in one of the anterooms of Government Buildings, Mr Varadkar greeted his new Fine Gael team for a discussion ahead of the wider Cabinet meeting.

It was a chance for reconciliation between 'Team Leo' and 'Team Simon' after a bruising leadership battle. But minutes into the meeting, a recently scorned female minister was seen getting emotional.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor had been at the centre of controversy after it emerged her super junior minister job is in doubt because Fianna Fáil is not prepared to support the necessary legislation.

Ms Mitchell O'Connor embarked on what witnesses described as a "complete rant", telling her new Taoiseach she has a masters degree and is eminently qualified to serve as minister with responsibility for higher education. Sitting awkwardly across from her was Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, who had replaced her as Jobs Minister.

The Cabinet meeting was dominated by a discussion about another powerful female, former attorney general Máire Whelan. But Mr Varadkar didn't want any of his colleagues divulging details to the media, telling those present they are bound by confidentiality.

As Mr Varadkar reflects on his first full week as Taoiseach, he will be wondering just exactly how he has found himself with so many women problems.

Irish Independent

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