Wednesday 22 May 2019

Leo the influencer in the land of the little people

Some successful Irish people can get their heads turned when they hit the international stage

CIRCUS: Leo Varadkar has called for a Republic Day to commemorate the ending of British rule. Photo: Sam Boal
CIRCUS: Leo Varadkar has called for a Republic Day to commemorate the ending of British rule. Photo: Sam Boal
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

You imagine Leo will be pleased to be in Time magazine's list of the 100 most-influential people. Time may not be the force it once was, and most of us never read it, but we still pay attention to it once every year or two when they make Enda their man of the year or they include Leo in a list along with other influencers like Rihanna, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Donald Trump and Oprah.

In Time's estimation, we are told, Leo is a man whose time is now, whose work will define the course of history in years to come.

Successful Irish people often tend to look abroad for validation. They often feel misunderstood in this bitter, begrudging little backwater. They see themselves as big picture people, internationalists. They have a broader vision than those of us who are stuck on this little island, with our parochial views and our parochial lives.

We often don't understand their big-picture thinking, their globalism. Many of them eventually get more comfortable with other internationalists like themselves, people who understand them - at places like Davos, or in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Look at how a guy like Big Phil thrives in Brussels, a colossus straddling the global stage, his utterances on everything taken seriously by the international press. When back here he will always just be Big Phil - never quite taken seriously and with the press annoying him all the time about pesky details.

Ah yes, these guys love the international stage, where people don't bother you incessantly with parochial concerns like the rollout of Irish Water, homelessness, rural broadband, the health service.

The international stage for these guys is like going into First Class. The air is better, and it's a bit quieter, away from the melee. You are among your own, and no one begrudges anyone else their seat. Everyone has their own story of how they got into First Class, but if you are there, you clearly deserve your seat, because you can afford it. So no questions asked.

From Emily O'Reilly to Suds and Mary Robinson, these internationalists never forget the old country. They will address us now and then, but generally only on matters of great import, and sometimes you feel you can detect a certain loftiness in their tone. "I have got out of the cesspool," they seem to say, "and I have seen the light. I have been free to concentrate on high-minded things, and I would encourage you all to do the same. Come out of the gutter and look at the stars."

You'd hope Leo doesn't get too international, too comfortable in the company of people like himself; important people, world leaders, high-minded thinkers, liberated from the parochial and the day-to-day drudgery and free to focus on the bigger picture. You'd hope Leo wouldn't start being more comfortable jogging with Trudeau than he is doing a To Hell and Back triathlon, or a Tough Mudder. Because it's important to remember the mud, the swamp from which we all came, and where most of us still live.

But sometimes you wonder about him. Like this business during the week about a Republic Day. It was, if you will pardon my language, a bit of a WTF moment. There is a growing cacophony about the ongoing housing crisis, the Government is potentially teetering on the brink having been dragged into the broader controversy involving INM, Denis O'Brien and the ODCE. And Leo is talking about more commemorations.

This time, Leo, always with the innate marketing man's eye, has decided that the decade of commemorations might be ending on a bit of a downer, a slight bummer. Seriously, this is what he said. Ending the decade of commemorations by remembering the Civil War might be a bit of a "downbeat note". So Leo thinks we should have a Republic Day, where we commemorate the ending of British Rule in Ireland on April 18, 1949.

Now Leo is aware that we have two big drinking festivals at this time of year already - St Patrick's Day and Good Friday - so he is suggesting Republic Day doesn't have to be a big deal every year, but that we should definitely go large on it for the 70th and the 75th anniversary.

I could be on my own here but I cringe at these militaristic displays on O'Connell Street and the laying of wreaths left, right and centre by Michael D. It's like something you'd see in Ruritania. And this is what's on Leo's mind? That we need more of this bread and circuses? When you hear that this is what was exercising him last week, you can understand why people might suggest he is out of touch.

But then, maybe this is just me being a parochial, small-minded economy passenger, too caught up with fighting with the guy next to me for armrest space to have time to see the bigger picture.

Maybe nothing great gets done by those of us who are caught in the petty squabbles of day-to-day existence. Maybe it's important to have guys like Leo, who think about the big set-piece events, and who can deal with the other international big hitters to make things happen. Maybe it's important to have a guy like Leo, who Trumpy can ring when he's having problems with local issues that threaten the big picture. And Leo sorts out a flurry of activity in Failte Ireland. Though then again, Leo would doubtless argue, as Denis Naughten would, that they are approachable, that anyone could ring them, not just other First Class passengers.

One last fascinating insight into Leo and the guys. According to the Indo, Fine Gael now has monthly private meetings of just its own ministers, presumably with a view to an election. At the recent one, there seems to have been some kind of "rough and ready" media-appearances league table read out by one of Leo's senior officials.

Paschal is apparently the top media performer right now. Paschal made a great contribution at the meeting, as did Damien English the Junior Housing Minister, who is clearly better at contributing to meetings than he is at solving the housing crisis.

Unencumbered by the pettiness of the rest of us, these guys were free to discuss what really matters - getting the message out there, and presumably making sure it's not too downbeat. Not that there is an election coming. As we saw from Denis's free pass last week, no one wants any instability or elections right now.

But there will be an election at some point. And what is being in Government for if not preparing for an election? Right guys?

Sunday Independent

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