Monday 17 December 2018

Ups and downs of political reality face Varadkar as he follows power out west

The Taoiseach raced around those famous hills but not everything went so smoothly in San Francisco

Leo Varadkar with Apple CEO Tim Cook
Leo Varadkar with Apple CEO Tim Cook
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Ups and downs are part of life in San Francisco. The city's massive hills offer up a certain wonderment and more than a little challenge to the average visitor.

But Leo Varadkar had no such issues as he was whizzed from tech giant to tech giant in a fleet of SUVs escorted by the secret service and a hail of sirens.

Adjusting to life as Taoiseach can't be easy and neither can being repeatedly introduced as "the gay son of an immigrant".

Varadkar with Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg. The Taoiseach
had a 'big win' with Facebook but suffered a loss in his talks with Apple
Varadkar with Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg. The Taoiseach had a 'big win' with Facebook but suffered a loss in his talks with Apple

Yet the combination of both opened doors for Leo Varadkar last week in a part of the United States that has lost its mind to social media, open-plan offices and 'dress down everyday'.

In little over 48 hours, the Taoiseach drank the Kool-Aid with the top brass from Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Stripe, Microsoft and others.

He was given the Key to San Francisco and lauded as the new generation of leader who is giving the world hope against a backdrop of crazed governance.

However, his trip to the West Coast also coincided with two major defeats - first when news broke that our bid for the Rugby World Cup had flopped and then a very business-like meeting with Apple boss Tim Cook.

While Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg seemed delighted to be just hanging with the trendy Taoiseach, Tim Cook brought his guest back down to reality by pulling the plug on a €850m investment.

Varadkar told a series of breakfasts, brunches and lunches in Seattle and San Francisco that he chose to bypass Washington and New York for his first official trip Stateside because the "power is shifting west".

There may be some truth to that in economic terms but there's no escaping the fact that he would also have been quite happy to avoid any potential for meeting Donald Trump ahead of the inevitable St Patrick's Day shindig.

His audiences didn't really care about the politics. The young elite turks of Silicon Valley were just happy to be in his presence.

And at times Leo Varadkar looked torn between wanting to be one of the hipsters and being a 38-year-old prime minister.

Enda Kenny had set a very rigid precedent for these types of trade missions. He would meet the executives, talk about making Ireland the best small country in the world to do business and then press the flesh with anybody capable of using a camera phone.

Mr Varadkar was more focused on his meetings than his handshakes. At most of his pit stops, he addressed small groups of hand-picked, often ex-pat, workers before moving on to his next engagement.

The schedule was tight, starting with Microsoft in Seattle last Wednesday where he talked about an "economic miracle" that has taken place in Ireland. The crowd lapped it up, even his own overused version of Enda's 'best small country' line, which is that he sees Ireland as a country "at the centre of the world".

He set the tone for all his speeches by describing how Ireland has no anti-immigration party or mood.

"Nobody in Irish politics is arguing that our economy would be stronger if we shut down immigration," he said.

From Seattle, Varadkar found his way to San Jose via an Alaska Airlines flight that was more than intrigued by his presence.

Passengers waiting to board looked on bemused as the eight big vans and police cars pulled alongside the plane before the secret service did their checks.

"I'm a bit terrified," remarked one at the sight of the all the commotion, before being told she probably couldn't be getting on a safer plane that day.

Another passenger was downgraded from the first-class seats as the crew worked to ensure Varadkar and his team were at ease. Some American passengers did recognise the Taoiseach, albeit they couldn't get close enough to talk to him as the Irish delegation was allowed off the plane before the captain switched off the seatbelt light.

After an event with 60 "potential investors", Varadkar was on his way to San Francisco to prepare for what was probably an unprecedented day of meetings - certainly for an Irish dignitary.

First up was Facebook, where the Taoiseach strolled through the world's largest open-plan office and drank a stomach-burning shot of 'ginger and orange' from the health bar in the rooftop garden that stretches for nine acres.

The Taoiseach considered dropping his shirt and tie in favour of a more casual look for his head-to-head with Mark Zuckerberg but ultimately decided to go with statesman over cool dude.

It worked because Zuckerberg promised him "several hundred" new jobs next year before posing in front of a 'Cead Mile Failte' poster. The Taoiseach couldn't stop grinning as he made the announcement to the four Irish journalists present.

As an added bonus, Zuckerberg went on to post a Facebook message about how he was so inspired by the trendy Taoiseach.

Next up was Google's Indian American chief executive Sundar Pichai. The company sent out an email to its workforce looking for Irish staff in the Silicon Valley to apply for a chance to take part in a meet-and-greet with Mr Varadkar.

The opportunity for an hour off with champagne and buns was oversubscribed within minutes.

No big jobs announcements here but the Taoiseach did get a framed Irish doodle, which seems unlikely to end up beside the Paul Henry artwork in his Government Buildings' office.

So far, so good - but all eyes were on how events would go at Apple and they didn't start well. The Taoiseach was left waiting on the pavement as Tim Cook mistimed his appearance for a photo opportunity.

Varadkar quickly got over that though as the Apple boss congratulated him on his "big election win" before guiding him inside to what sources say was a tough talk.

At no point did Cook say he wouldn't build the €850m data centre in Athenry but "the body language made it clear" that the deal was off. The mood was dragged right down by the elder statesman of Silicon Valley.

It's unusual for any leader to allow a bad news story to emanate directly from a trade mission, but no amount of strategic messaging could paper over this one. It felt like everyone had gone from J1 to jaded in a matter of moments.

Nonetheless, Varadkar went on that night to collect his Key to San Francisco, following in the footstep of a handful of political leaders such as Enda Kenny and Francois Hollande, but also singer Tony Bennett.

Nobody, not even Mayor Ed Lee, seemed too sure what the massive key actually opens. Certainly there were no sheep being grazed in Union Square.

And eventually after a secret meeting with the Stripe brothers, a jobs announcement at a tech company called Twilio which include a live link-up with beer-drinking staff who stayed back late in Dublin, and a tourism event, Varadkar was done and on his way to the Wexford Opera Festival.

He left behind between 30 and 35 secret service personnel, a big win at Facebook and a massive loss at Apple.

Being Taoiseach certainly has its up and downs.

Sunday Independent

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