Saturday 19 October 2019

Countdown to success - how Varadkar can make a dream start with crucial early gains

Hand over: Leo Varadkar is looking to hit the ground running as he takes over as Taoiseach. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Hand over: Leo Varadkar is looking to hit the ground running as he takes over as Taoiseach. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Shane Coleman

This morning next week, Leo Varadkar should be travelling into Government Buildings for his first full day's work as Taoiseach. It's a huge challenge. A good start is essential. Brian Cowen and Albert Reynolds are two examples of Taoisigh who never really recovered from a shaky beginning. Whereas Enda Kenny prospered for far longer largely on the basis of what he did in the first couple of years in office. Here's 10 things the new Taoiseach might do to ensure he hits the ground running.

1. Make sure his best men and women are on the pitch. Sounds obvious but some of Enda Kenny's cabinet choices last time around were baffling. Geography will always be a factor in cabinet selection, as will gender balance. Plus, any leader needs to reward those who helped get him or her to the top. But ability and work ethic must be the most important criteria. Of the current Fine Gael ministers, Paschal Donohoe, Simon Coveney, Heather Humphreys, Richard Bruton (probably) and also Simon Harris should be the first names on the new team sheet (punishing the latter for backing Coveney would send out a really bad signal). After that though, it's far less clear cut. New energy and ideas are required. The last government wasn't working so a Bertie Ahern-style minimalist cabinet reshuffle won't suffice.

2. Get the best from Simon. It's irrelevant whether Coveney is Tánaiste or not. Since the foundation of the State, there have been only four tánaistí out of 24 who could realistically have been regarded as obviously next in line as head of government - Brian Cowen, George Colley, Seán Lemass and perhaps Kevin O'Higgins. It's far more important Coveney stays in Housing - the single biggest issue around. The Ireland 2040 spatial plan is vital in ensuring a repeat of the disastrous planning errors of the past - a major cause of our housing crisis and the over-dependence on Dublin - is avoided. Coveney gets that; and has the bottle to see the job through.

3. Lay down the law to the Independents. Varadkar doesn't get to pick which Independents are ministers, but he can point out a few home truths. Of the current Independent ministers, arguably only Denis Naughten has really performed. Shane Ross has been a massive disappointment in a department that, far from being "a doddle", is fundamental to people's quality of life. If he's going to stay in Transport, he has to start delivering. And the likes of Katherine Zappone, Finian McGrath and John Halligan also need to seriously up their games. There's been too much Independent grandstanding and not enough substance this past year.

4. Learn to love Fianna Fáil. OK, not love, but live with. The old rabble-rousing rhetoric that Varadkar used to engage in towards FF must go. The single most important relationship he'll have in government is with Micheál Martin. Of course, they will each have their own agendas, but for as long as the current Dáil lasts (and possibly beyond it), Varadkar needs to at least meet Martin half way.

5. Ignore the calls for a snap election. There are no shortage of pundits right now pushing the line that the new Taoiseach should avail of the honeymoon period; manufacture a row with FF and rush to the country. Stop right there. The far away election hills are rarely greener in reality - just ask Theresa May. Remember Charlie Haughey in 1989? Even if the election does go well for FG - a big 'if' - Varadkar will probably still be back to square one, dependent on a deal with FF to stay in office. Concentrate on the job in hand, Taoiseach.

6. Ignore opinion polls. There'll be an inevitable massive honeymoon in the polls for Varadkar and FG. But it's not sustainable. The worst thing the new government could do is try to chase those bubble ratings.

7. Be your own man. Varadkar came up with one of the best political lines in recent times about wanting to represent those voters who got up early in the morning. And then, when union leaders and leftie liberal types got into a flap, he spent the rest of the leadership election retreating. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It struck a chord with middle-ground, private-sector voters and it's they, not earnest newspaper columnists, who'll decide the next general election. They feel, with some justification, they're picking up the tab for everything. Varadkar's instinct was to speak directly to them. He should have the courage of those convictions. Those people who level the risible charge of 'Thatcherite' at Varadkar won't ever vote FG anyway.

8. Promise nothing, deliver something. A 30pc first preference vote in the general election would be a great return from Varadkar. He can do that by giving it straight to people. No big public-sector pay increases. No nonsense about abolishing USC. The voters aren't fools. They know money is tight. Be fiscally prudent; concentrate on delivering on capital/infrastructure projects, particularly in housing and transport and simply being competent. Do that and 30pc-plus is achievable.

9. Consult the wise men. Brexit is the biggest challenge the country will face under Varadkar's leadership. So great, he needs to think outside the box. A council of wise men and women to advise him on policy, and lobby for Ireland at EU level, could be of huge help. The likes of Enda Kenny, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern, the current EU ambassador to Ireland David O'Sullivan, former European Commission Secretary General Catherine Day, Micheal O'Leary, Pat Cox, Mary Robinson and Ray MacSharry should all be sounded out about donning the green jersey.

10. Restore confidence in the Garda. The last two governments never got to grips with the series of controversies involving the force and their authority was undermined as a result. The new Taoiseach can't afford to be as hands off on the issue as his predecessor.

He also needs a strong, decisive and astute minister in the Justice portfolio. Varadkar's instincts were right on the whistleblower controversy. More of the same is needed.

Shane Coleman presents Newstalk Breakfast, weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent

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