Tuesday 17 September 2019

John Downing: 'The perils of trying to mix 'auld church sins' and 'new political wins' are now really clear for Leo'

Warm welcome: Archbishop Diarmuid Martin speaks to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a plenary meeting yesterday. Photo: Sam Boal/ RollingNews.ie
Warm welcome: Archbishop Diarmuid Martin speaks to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a plenary meeting yesterday. Photo: Sam Boal/ RollingNews.ie
John Downing

John Downing

So, is Leo Varadkar losing it? Is he trying to rediscover his young tiger mojo, harking back to when he goaded the usually unflappable veteran Bertie Ahern to a very rare display of public anger?

Is that why he wound up insulting an ageing generation of fervent Catholics while trying a klutzy put down of his rival Micheál Martin? Let's do a more stand-back look at what actually happened.

It came to a head on Wednesday afternoon after a long series of testy exchanges involving Mr Martin and several others on the Opposition benches, including Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty.

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These personalised bad-mannered ding-dongs are not new. Sometimes, it's a weekly case of kettle, pot, black. Often we think the various protagonists deserve one another.

But things move beyond the Leinster House bubble when outsiders are somehow dragged into proceedings. Ostensibly, Fianna Fáil leader Mr Martin - whose party props up the Fine Gael-led minority Coalition - was following the money on Wednesday.

The as yet untold story is about where overspending on mega-projects, like the National Children's Hospital and the rural broadband rollout, will leave other important, promised developments.

The Dunkettle Interchange upgrade in Cork, and other projects like hospitals in Cork and Limerick featured in a series of questions about inevitable cuts.

But Mr Martin's 30 years at Leinster House, his 21-plus years as a government minister, and his eight years leading the Opposition, did kick in over a series of rolling question sessions. It must be remembered that the Fianna Fáil leader was very spiky and personalised in his questions which finally goaded Mr Varadkar.

Mr Martin directly accused the Taoiseach of being "petty, silly and idiotic" in his responses, and of trying to characterise questions about taxpayers' money as being against local developments.

Red mist, hopefully not of a Cork kind, descended upon An Taoiseach.

Mr Varadkar said Mr Martin was really telling his own story, with "partisan and personal accusations", which more correctly belonged with the Fianna Fáil leader.

"He kind of reminds me of one of those parish priests, who preaches from the altar, telling us how to avoid sin, while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself," Mr Varadkar said.

Oh dear, where did that come from? But things could have been worse. Potentially lurid allegations of behind-the-altar carry-on were mercifully not added. The fallout yesterday saw reasonable and decent Catholic clerics and faithful arguing there was no call for any of this.

An Taoiseach, as ill-luck would have it, was attending a summit with all Ireland's religious leaders. He unequivocally apologised.

Clearly, not a good day at Leinster House for An Taoiseach. Clearly, also, time to recalibrate and rethink how he has been going just a little after two years in office as leader of the country and leader of his party.

These are two distinct roles with different sets of demands.

Errors in one job feed into the other. These are jobs in which everyone is looking for you all the time.

Learning to do both at much the same time takes time. And in politics it's often scarce.

And so we return to our original question: is Leo losing it?

Is this a case of head-staggers after the heady heights of the European Union summits on Sunday, resumed on Monday? Probably not, but Mr Varadkar has shown his inexperience trying to gain new political wins via auld church sins.

Irish Independent

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