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Martina Devlin: Leo enters lion's den in his close encounters with public servants


Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar canvasses in Carpenterstown, Co Dublin, yesterday

Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar canvasses in Carpenterstown, Co Dublin, yesterday

Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar canvasses in Carpenterstown, Co Dublin, yesterday

LEO Varadkar is giving me a lift. I'm repaying him by snooping round his car. There's a large Brown Thomas bag at my feet -- I re-angle my position to peek in, assuming it might contain a new suit for the election campaign.

Instead I spot a can of Red Bull, a Kit Kat and an empty packet of Dolly Mixtures: fuel for the campaign trail.

On the back window is 'The Little Book of Buddhism' by the Dalai Lama -- fuel of a different class.

The deputy pulls over and opens his boot to give me a Leo Varadkar pen. In fairness, I ask for one when he mentions them. I'm counting on something that glows in the dark, but it's standard issue fare.

Still, it's more than any other candidate has handed over. No, I tell a lie. Conor Lenihan ponied up for an Americano.

Leo's car boot is a treasure trove. Beside the election leaflets I spy a gym bag and a plastic carrier of clothes. "That's my dirty laundry", he says.

And indeed, the top item is one of those striped shirts beloved of British Tory MPs which he seems to favour.

There's also a bottle of whiskey in a box. I'm surmising fuel of yet another kind, but he says it's an emergency raffle prize -- TDs never know when they might have to donate something.

It's quite a disappointment to leave that Golf behind and set off canvassing with Leo in his Dublin West constituency. I feel I can learn so much more about him from the contents of his car.

Still, we head for the doorsteps of Carpenterstown, where he chivalrously tells voters he'll tell me to get lost if they don't want the media eavesdropping. Leo is nothing if not direct. Or perhaps he spotted the rummaging.

He spends a long time at each door, not having perfected the exit strategy of other candidates, and meets a lot of public servants.

Naturally they are agitated about Fine Gael's plans to take 30,000 of them off the state payroll.

They want assurances they won't suffer any more pay cuts, and Leo matter-of-factly tells them he can't make promises he isn't sure will be kept. Many of his listeners do a double-take. Isn't that a politician's stock in trade? He says reform is the best way of protecting their income.

It makes a pleasant change for him to encounter someone who isn't a public servant, Clare Mercier, who urges him to take over as party leader in a few years' time because he's "articulate, intelligent and good looking".

She even cites a poll ranking him third most attractive election candidate.

"I'm not sure I have the personality for it," he replies -- a reference to his outspoken tendencies.

Afterwards, Leo says it scares the living daylights out of him to be cited as a future Fine Gael leader: "It's like putting a target on my back."

He is only 32, and has never served as a minister. Mind you, that's about to change. He'd love to get his hands on the social protection portfolio: "I'm sure that would terrify some people who think I'm a Thatcherite."

But he says there is a huge amount of work to be done in cracking down on social welfare fraud and making the best use of the €20bn annual budget.

Leo has agreed to a leaflet drop asking voters to give their first preference to his running mate Councillor Kieran Dennison in parts of the constituency, because the party believes it can get two Fine Gael TDs elected there. If successful, this strategy would push out the Socialist Party's Joe Higgins.

"I think I'm taking a small chance," admits Leo. "But I'm trying to be a team player."

And then there's the small matter of his unsuccessful heave against Enda Kenny last year.

"I lost a few brownie points over that," he acknowledges. "I think I'm forgiven but I'm not 100pc sure. I'll only know if I get a ministerial job."

Insurance worker Kevin Finney comes to the door and says he doesn't believe Enda Kenny has the right leadership qualities.

"I have had my tussles with him, but he does take advice and doesn't think he knows everything," Leo tells him.

Peter Donaldson, who works for Dublin City Council, says: "We had no holiday last year and there'll be none this year. We've lost 15pc of our income in this household over the past 18 months.

"My son is almost 18 and if there are more pay cuts he won't be going to college." He'll probably vote for Joe Higgins."

Leo tells him "let's get it over with" in terms of reform and warns that if Ireland delays we might be overwhelmed. "I'm going to be overwhelmed anyway," shrugs Peter.

"I didn't party during the Celtic Tiger years," says public servant Bernie Neylon.

She resents how she and her colleagues have been scapegoated.

"You should try being a politician," Leo responds.

Irish Independent