Colette Browne: 'Taoiseach standing by Verona Murphy is baffling - and if she's elected it could come back to haunt him'
Never backwards about coming forward, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar underwent a radical transformation this week when he became the Scarlet Pimpernel of Irish politics.
In Wexford on Monday, the media sought him here, they sought him there, they sought him everywhere. Eventually, they caught up to him while he was pressing flesh on the Main Street with the party's by-election candidate Verona Murphy.
Judging by Mr Varadkar's rictus grin in the photograph of the pair which appeared on the front page of this newspaper yesterday, he was less than thrilled that the blood hounds in the media successfully tracked him down.
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While Mr Varadkar couldn't stop photographer Douglas O'Connor from taking a few snaps, he wasn't willing to field any questions from the assembled journalists, giving them the cold shoulder as he strode through the street with Ms Murphy.
Unusually for a by-election, even local journalists were denied an audience with Mr Varadkar. This is despite the fact that party leaders travel to regional areas, to join canvasses for candidates, with the express intention of drumming up some much-needed press coverage via their presence.
Mr Varadkar's silence was even more bizarre when one considers the party sent two press officers to Wexford with him. Presumably, they were dispatched with specific instructions from party HQ: On pain of death, don't let this odd couple open their gobs anywhere near a microphone.
Compare this to Mr Varadkar's positively exuberant canvassing efforts on behalf of newbie MEP candidate and former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh earlier this year when he was literally dancing on the streets. On that much happier occasion, Mr Varadkar and Ms Walsh engaged in an impromptu jig and posed for countless selfies in Galway. Needless to say, there was no fatwa on contact with the media either.
The Taoiseach's obvious reluctance for his trip to Wexford to be documented by the press begs an obvious question. Why did he bother going there at all? Was he under some kind of contractual obligation to put in at least one half-hearted performance with Ms Murphy on the campaign trail?
Initially viewed as a prize candidate by Fine Gael, because of her high profile as the president of the Irish Road Hauliers Association and her competent media performances when advocating for that organisation, the sheen has rapidly worn off.
Ms Murphy's outrageous comments, in which she said Isil comprised "a big part of the migrant population" and had "already manipulated children as young as three or four", have turned the dream into a nightmare.
Not content with propagating dangerous conspiracy theories about migrants, Ms Murphy has also dissed Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy as a prima donna, excoriated "organisational dysfunctionality" within the Road Safety Authority, and said addiction and bad personal choices are the root cause of homelessness.
Given her trashing of Fine Gael housing policy, and her parroting of racist tropes about migrants, one wonders if anyone in the party actually bothered to speak to her before asking her to join the ticket.
While Ms Murphy's campaign had become decidedly more muted since her multiple foot-in-mouth episodes, Mr Varadkar's decision to lend his personal support to her on Monday propelled her back into the limelight.
The Taoiseach may have been trying to keep it low key, but if he thought he would be able to slink in and out of Wexford before the press caught wind of his visit then he was naïve. In the event, having been trailed there by reporters, he could at least have deigned to answer a couple of questions - because his continuing support of Ms Murphy prompts a large number. Like, for instance, why is the leader of the country promoting a candidate whose public comments on migrants are reminiscent of those which can usually only be found in the darkest recesses of the internet?
- Read More: Hugh O'Connell: 'Varadkar dubbed 'a real gangster' as he goes undercover on secret trip to help Isil row candidate Murphy'
Why, at a time when the issue of direct provision centres is such a sensitive one all over the country, is the main party of Government linked to a candidate who openly associates migrants with terrorists?
Why, when the stakes of this by-election are relatively low - given any successful candidate will be facing another election within six months - is Fine Gael unwilling to properly censure Ms Murphy for her remarks?
Cajoling an apology from Ms Murphy before carting her off to visit an asylum centre, to cynically use vulnerable people to rehabilitate her public image, does not suggest the party takes an especially dim view of Ms Murphy's comments.
It's not as if deselecting candidates is anathema for Fine Gael. Maria Bailey was deselected this month for bringing the party into disrepute after she took a derided and misguided personal injuries action. Clearly, the party feels Ms Bailey's ill-advised legal action was much more damaging to its electoral fortunes than Ms Murphy's denigration of migrants.
The episode has also exposed the party for talking out of two sides of its mouth when it comes to the issue of vile commentary on migration.
On Monday, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe pointedly requested that Independent TD Noel Grealish clarify "the apparent ethnic basis" of a question he raised in the Dáil concerning remittances from Nigeria.
Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar was in Wexford kissing babies with a candidate who has claimed migrant children as young as three are in thrall to a bloodthirsty terrorist group and need to be "deprogrammed". Maybe Ms Murphy can clarify if there was any ethnic basis for those comments.
Fine Gael, as both the largest party in the country and the party of Government, should do better. It should set an example and have a zero-tolerance approach when candidates stray into divisive and dangerous rhetoric.
Ms Murphy did not make an offhand remark about migrants. She repeated the same reactionary dross over a number of days to a number of different media outlets.
As someone who is clearly intelligent and articulate, she could have been under no illusion as to the import of her comments. She was happy not just to make them and to give them credence, but to repeat them and stand over them publicly. She should have borne the consequences of those comments - a swift and unequivocal rebuke from Fine Gael which saw her deprogrammed from their ticket.
After the election, if Ms Murphy is seen to have benefited from stoking up fear by targeting migrants, then other politicians will surely follow her example and Fine Gael will be seen to have helped open a Pandora's Box.