Wednesday 20 November 2019

John Drennan: We need voices like Leo's in power

He may be keeping a bit quieter these days but he still keeps Labour on its toes, writes John Drennan

We may not yet have reached the stage of wondering whatever happened to Leo Varadkar, but sometimes it appears to be a damn close-run thing.

Labour's pretend bete noire still makes the occasional sortie on to the airwaves where he engages in acts of gross political immorality like the criticism of public sector workers. But, one of the curiosities of the new Cabinet is the apparent willingness with which Leo has accepted the terms and conditions of the political probation he must serve if Fine Gael's last Rottweiler wants to continue hanging around the Grumpy Old Men.

Of course, curiosity has always been a defining theme of Varadkar's short career, as since his tart arrival, the Transport Minister has been the great curiosity of a Cabinet and a party that contains no shortage of political oddities.

Within Fine Gael, Varadkar has always attracted curious looks for, unlike the fluffy dynasties that predominate within that most cautious of parties, he is the consummate self-made man whose hard-edged political style is uncommon within a party that has rarely aspired to be anything more than pleasant.

However, the even more curious feature of his career is that while Varadkar is FG's Camus-style 'Outsider', he has also been able to balance this with the happier role of consummate insider via his status as one of Fine Gael's Cabinet ministers.

In truth, many thought the latter boon might not happen, for 'hail fellow well-met' Enda is not a man to forget Leo Varadkar's kindly suggestion, in the tepid heat of a Fine Gael power struggle, that Enda, who had in his mind elevated Leo to the rarefied status of being one of Enda Kenny's personal 'made men', was better qualified for the foreign affairs ministry than the Taoiseach's gig.

The sting of such a 'betrayal' was all the more sharp because Kenny may have feared that Varadkar's analysis was more correct than he would like it to be.

But Kenny was also sufficiently attuned to the reality that whilst the smack of firm discipline on the posterior of Leo would deliver short-term pleasure, in the long run, having a big beast such as Varadkar running around with a posse of 1922-style neo-conservative FG back-benchers might not be so good.

So Enda cast around for a poisoned ministerial chalice and decided Leo was up for the 'challenge' posed by the shreds and patches of the dilapidated transport ministry that was bequeathed to us by that multi-pensioned no-mark Noel Dempsey.

Unfortunately, Leo's first task was to shred his own department's capital budget while the horror stories in the DAA, Aer Lingus, Bus Eireann and Irish Rail has forced this red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist to engage in more bailouts than the troika.

It is unlikely an instinctive critic of what passes for governance in Ireland -- which, if you're asking, consists of the protection by political parties of carefully carved out vested interest groups -- has been entirely at ease with the exigencies of his ministry.

However, the good news for Enda is that one of the main consequence of these travails is that the preoccupied Mr Varadkar appears to have less time for spats with his Labour 'colleagues' than enemies -- and the critical term here is 'enemies' -- had hoped for.

The unprecedented spell of good behaviour means that within the whispering corridors of Leinster House, many wonder if Varadkar's evolution into the political equivalent of a silent movie may see him plummet down the rankings in the ongoing, though always unspoken, Fine Gael succession race.

In the wake of the rout of the coup d'etat of the innocents, the erasing of Richard 'the lesser' Bruton from the leadership stakes had meant Varadkar, to borrow a somewhat unfortunate phrase, swiftly evolved into Enda's 'anointed' successor.

However, increasingly over the term of the Grumpy Old Men, Leo Varadkar is now, at best, first amongst a growing group of equals. Simon Coveney may, in the past, have been derided for his inability to pass a conventional thought without uttering it, but he now offers that air of aristocratic safety that still tickles the unnerving erogenous zones of Fine Gael TDs.

And should Dame Enda use his mid-term reshuffle to stir the pot for fun, the promotion of Brian Hayes and Lucinda Creighton would leave the Cabinet with plenty of ambitious princes and princesses.

Those who are concerned about the silence of Varadkar, however, should not think the minister has been stifled by the mandarins or converted to the delights of that school of 'group-think' where never a critical word about public sector workers is uttered.

Instead it may actually be the case that Leo knows one of the most critical arts that must be learnt by all successful political practitioners -- and God knows, our Taoiseach is the proof of this -- is the art of re-invention.

It would, of course, be nice for a media pack, spoilt by the abyss of Biffo, if Varadkar were to retain his enfant terrible status where he pulled the pigtails of every sacred cow from Garret to Harney.

The problem for Leo, though, is that if he becomes the catalyst for a controversy-a-week, the minister runs the risk of becoming the equivalent of that excessively precocious child who is charming at 11 and tedious at 12.

So far the concern that Leo would go mad in a left-led coalition government, flounce out of Cabinet on some ideological pretext and be consigned to the ranks of the rest of the group of death on the Fine Gael backbenches has not been fulfilled.

Instead by moving softly, but without decommissioning the ideological big stick, Varadkar has shown he is capable of playing the sort of long game all political grandmasters must do.

Happily he has also done this without completely losing the art of stoking the sort of controversy that occurs in Irish politics when a politician gives straight answers to honest questions.

This trait sparked the ire of Enda in 2011 when Leo warned we might need a second bailout, though, oddly enough, in the wake of his disciplining by Enda on the issue, the subsequent Fiscal Treaty campaign was fought precisely on that basis.

The ideological dogs of war were also recently released when the pantomime dames of RTE were scandalised when Leo made the somewhat obvious point that a station which represents the interests of some but definitely not all of the people has an instinctual 'liberal bias'.

Varadkar has also engaged in a relatively solitary guerrilla war with the all-powerful Croke Park Agreement on issues such as the need for mandatory redundancies and the abolition of increments.

The latter incursion into Labour's hallowed ground managed to scratch the old democratic centralism gene of Eamon Gilmore, who essayed what the Labour leader believed to be a magisterial dismissal of the spectre of cabinet dissent.

However, whilst the political seals clapped when Gilmore said that "frankly, I would prefer if individual ministers did not get up every Monday morning and express a personal point of view on the Croke Park Agreement," the Tanaiste may not have been correct. Though they rarely like it, every government needs at least one outrider who, though part of the inner group, is not too afraid to point out that, on occasion, the emperor is actually naked.

In the case of Fianna Fail, during the initial Ahern era, Charlie McCreevy, much to the discomfiture of Bertie Ahern, played that role to perfection. Hindsight suggests it might be excessive to say Ahern's administrations lost an intellectual cutting edge when McCreevy left, but they certainly were left without an independent voice that was capable of cutting through the collective sheep-like bleating that constitutes Irish political discourse.

If they are to avoid the placid evils of 'group-think', every government should have its own Charlie McCreevy and Leo Varadkar is as good as we have.

Ironically, on one level, the transport minister's occasional forays may even be a unifying force for an increasingly fissiparous set of Fine Gael TDs can be consoled that whatever about the rest, Leo at least is sound on that latter day equivalent of the national question, now known as Croke Park.

They, and Enda Kenny too, we suspect, know that though he may be a bit quieter these days, Leo Varadkar hasn't "gone away, you know" but is instead "just taking a break".

Sunday Independent

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