Sunday 18 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Serious leaders should want to be respected, not loved like pop stars'

Writing fan mail isn't the worst thing a Taoiseach could do, but it speaks of a growing lack of gravity in public life

STARS IN HIS EYES: Leo Varadkar’s eagerness to meet Kylie Minogue at her Dublin concert seems to have overcome his desire to appear like a serious statesman. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP Photo
STARS IN HIS EYES: Leo Varadkar’s eagerness to meet Kylie Minogue at her Dublin concert seems to have overcome his desire to appear like a serious statesman. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP Photo

Eilis O'Hanlon

Leo Varadkar is a man who revels in media attention, so he must have been delighted last week to make headlines everywhere from London's Evening Standard to the South China Morning Post.

He was particularly big news in Australia, because the story which grabbed the world's attention was the gushing fan letter which the Taoiseach had handwritten to pop star Kylie Minogue before her concert in Dublin last October asking to meet.

That, and the fact the Government twice denied Freedom of Information requests before finally relenting and letting us all see what the Taoiseach does on the State's official headed notepaper.

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Be fair. This is all far less embarrassing than the situation in which the two world leaders with whom he's most often compared find themselves right now. Canada's Justin Trudeau is embroiled in a corruption scandal which may well lose him his job. France's Emmanuel Macron faces weekly protests from the Gilets Jaunes which have seen nearly 2,000 of his own citizens seriously injured in assaults by the police.

By comparison, fanboying over Kylie is a forgiveable faux pas. Leo V Varadkar, as he shall now henceforth be known, is guilty of nothing except falling for what Noel Coward called the potency of cheap music, and he's hardly alone in that. Politicians who've appeared on the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs in recent times have revealed a similarly kitsch taste in music. It's a testament to how pop culture has invaded all our brains. Can't Get You Out Of My Head, as Kylie might say.

Whether it has any deeper significance than that is doubtful. Some people did wonder what the rest of the world must think of Ireland when they see the Taoiseach behaving in this manner, but the truth is that it doesn't matter what people abroad think of the Taoiseach, any more than it matters what we think of their leaders. It's none of our mutual business.

Irish people care too much about the opinion of strangers. It speaks to a peculiar lack of self-confidence. We're always worrying about what other people think. We did the same when Leo made a bit of an eejit of himself on his first visit to Downing Street, by referencing Hugh Grant's famous dance down the stairs in the film Love, Actually. If that was the worst thing to happen in No 10 in the past few years, the Brits would have got off much more lightly than they have.

Compared to the slow motion car crash that is Brexit, it's doubtful that multinational corporations are holding urgent meetings to withdraw investment from Ireland because of the Taoiseach's giddy over-enthusiasm at the prospect of meeting a celebrity.

If Leo wants to bop about his office in Leinster House to Spinning Around, even if it's in a pair of gold lame hotpants like his heroine, who cares, as long as he's doing his job?

But there, perhaps, is the rub. The letter to Kylie was written on October 3 last year. That same day there was a huge rally in Dublin about rising rents and homelessness caused by the housing crisis.

It was also the day that 119 Irish troops on UN peacekeeping duty in Syria were due to come home, only to discover that a diplomatic mix-up meant they had to stay for another two weeks. The Taoiseach was meant to be preparing for another summit in Brussels the next day. The Budget was just a week away.

Now we know what was really on Leo's mind that day. It's like an Oliver Callan sketch, with thousands massing angrily at the door as the Taoiseach finishes his fan mail. Indeed, it's most reminiscent of the Callan's Kicks episode in which Leo muses sadly that he's "just too cool for Ireland". That portrayal looks more cruelly accurate each week.

No doubt, his supporters would defend the Taoiseach's ability to multi-task, but in so far as it speaks to a growing lack of gravity and seriousness in public life then it's hard not to be slightly demoralised. October 3 was also the day that UK prime minister Theresa May danced on to the stage at the Tory party conference to the strains of ABBA's Dancing Queen. It's as if we're now ruled by people whose ultimate goal is to become internet memes. Being able to laugh at oneself all too easily tips over into being laughable.

As it happened, Kylie didn't perform on that occasion due to a throat infection, but Leo did get to meet her at the rescheduled date in December, later becoming embroiled in a row over whether he paid for his meal. He sternly denied any impropriety, tweeting to insist that he only had drinks, for which he paid, before adding, hilariously, that "I have the receipt to prove it too."

He should have been aware of the dangers of stepping outside his comfort zone. When New York band LCD Soundsystem played a gig in Dublin in 2017, the Taoiseach also posed for photographs with them. The guitarist subsequently declared that Leo was a "tosser", and the Taoiseach had to publicly deny allegations that he walked away from one of the musicians because they were wearing a Repeal The Eighth tote bag.

The spat was all rather undignified, though the Taoiseach stayed admirably above it, but these are the things that can happen when you court celebrities. As a breed, they're notoriously flighty, flaky.

At least Kylie was gracious enough not to embarrass the Taoiseach. Not that she needed to. He's proved more than capable of doing that without help. Tweeting a picture of himself putting a spoon in the dishwasher was another gem.

One shouldn't make too much of these incidents, but it's equally important that politicians don't make the offices that they occupy look ridiculous, because they're only holding them in trust, and they need to hand them over in good shape at the end of their tenure. A man may become Taoiseach, but it's only ever for a short time, and he should never fall into the trap of conflating the self and the title. The Taoiseach, alas, is prone to overplaying his hand.

His recent announcement to reporters that "I am the European Union" was far more toe-curlingly cringeworthy than anything he said to Kylie.

Tony Blair's attempt to hitch himself to the Britpop wagon when he was prime minister should have been a warning to all politicians. Either Leo V Varadkar failed to notice how badly that ended, or his eagerness to meet Kylie overcame his desire to come across like a serious statesman. That's the worrying bit.

He's said to be shy and awkward in company, but even that doesn't stop him wanting to hang out with celebrities in the desperate hope of absorbing some of their voguish glamour.

Leaders ache to be liked, even loved, but there are other, less ephemeral ways of doing that. By working hard and championing policies that meet real public need, to name one crazy example. We have enough celebrities satisfying our need for glittery distraction, and, best of all, it doesn't matter when they mess up.

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