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Varadkar enjoys being Taoiseach and has no desire to relinquish his power

Philip Ryan


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Mandate: Leo Varadkar declared he had promised voters that he will not share power with Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Mandate: Leo Varadkar declared he had promised voters that he will not share power with Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

REUTERS

Mandate: Leo Varadkar declared he had promised voters that he will not share power with Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Opposition is not Leo Varadkar's first choice. He's spent two years in the Department of the Taoiseach and he likes it there. Government came easy to the country's youngest ever leader and he is not of a mind to give it up so quickly. He would be very reluctant to give up the State dinners with international dignitaries, the late night summits in Brussels and the personal relationships with world leaders.

Politicians don't get into politics to sit on Opposition benches. Well, most of them don't. Some do seem to be happy to spend their careers there. Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe are not like that. They have their feet under their ministerial desks and won't be rushing to leave.

As one senior Fine Gael source said on Saturday night: "We'll have 40-plus seats, Fianna Fáil will also and Sinn Féin maybe a few less.

"We're in Government Buildings and unless Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil do a deal, how do they get us out?" the source asked.

So that's the attitude: Fine Gael is in power and more than happy to stay there if the numbers stack up.

Some Fine Gaelers also believe Micheál Martin was in fact batting his eyelids at them last night rather than Sinn Féin when he was questioned about coalitions. Martin's strident opposition to working with Sinn Féin certainly softened yesterday.

But senior Fine Gael figures believe his ideological objection to the former political front of the Provisional IRA has not changed. Instead, they believe he is paving the way to a grand coalition with Fine Gael which lots of Fianna Fáil TDs would be happy to stomach.

Fine Gael believes Martin is putting the prospect of a Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin government in the ether to give him a stronger hand during coalitions talks.

Last night, those close to Martin were tight-lipped about his intentions.

Meanwhile, Varadkar's team was insisting there was no way in hell he would lead Fine Gael into coalition with Sinn Féin.

At his local count centre, Varadkar said any mandate Fine Gael received is based on promising voters he would not share power with Mary Lou McDonald. He plans to stick to this promise.

Fianna Fáil may use a similar excuse after a couple of weeks of talks with the other parties.

Varadkar is still open to talking to Fianna Fáil but if that doesn't work out he will seek to lead Fine Gael in opposition.

If Martin chooses Sinn Féin, Varadkar will be happy to lead Fine Gael from opposition benches. It is very unlikely there would be a heave against him. There will certainly be rumblings about his leadership and the campaign Fine Gael ran.

But he has ensured all his leadership rivals were centrally involved in the election. Donohoe was Fine Gael's director of elections and Simon Coveney appeared beside Varadkar in nearly every leaflet and poster.

Varadkar thinks ahead and around corners. He has no intention of giving up power just yet.

Some in his camp even suggested Michael Noonan's intervention during the campaign which saw the former finance minister announce that Paschal Donohoe was his preferred candidate for the Fine Gael leadership could play into Varadkar's hands. "If you were really Machiavellian you could summarise that was a warning shot to anyone who thinks that Coveney would automatically succeed Leo," the source said.

Last night, one minister who is expected to keep their seat insisted Varadkar would be allowed to remain as leader no matter where the party is sitting in the Dáil.

Fine Gael TDs were even relishing the idea of being the opposition to a Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin government.

"Certain TDs would not have to canvass in the next election if the two of them went into power together," one TD said.

Varadkar would fit naturally into opposition too. He made his name on the opposition benches after being elected in 2004.

He enjoyed the freedom of being able to say what he liked. He regularly caused controversy and made headlines with his comments and policy propositions. It wasn't always positive but he certainly carved out a reputation of being an outspoken TD.

He compared Bertie Ahern's cash flow problems to that of drug dealers and attacked former Fine Gael party leader Garrett FitzGerald for being boring.

He apologised for the latter, not the former.

Five years on the other side of the Dáil chamber could do Fine Gael a world of good in terms of public support. Especially with Brexit on the horizon and all that could mean for our fragile economy.

After all, we are told Sinn Féin is determined to scare any foreign investment out of the country when we need it more than ever.

Sitting back and watching Fianna Fáil grapple with Sinn Féin in government could also be the break Fine Gael needs after nine years in power.

Varadkar and his supporters did not give Enda Kenny much of a chance to rebuild the party after the 2016 General Election - and he was Taoiseach at the time.

But granted, Kenny had led Fine Gael for 13 years.

Those who you would expect to be sharpening their knives are keeping their cards close to their chest for now.

Those who lose their seats will be disappointed with the leadership. But most of those expected to miss the quota are intrinsically linked to Varadkar.

They voted for him in the leadership contest and supported his election campaign strategy.

There were very few who didn't back him for the top job and those who did were rewarded with ministries.

The coming days will be filled with back-channel communications between all the parties and Independents.

We could see a series of special árd fheiseanna being held to give leaders cover for opening talks with each other. Final deals may also have to be put to the party memberships.

Varadkar's political career was not dead last night but it certainly has plateaued. He will be disappointed he won fewer seats than Kenny did four years ago.

He will be determined to remain in government but not at any cost.

In Opposition, Fine Gael will be hopeful that a Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin government would not last long and Varadkar will lead them into a subsequent election.

It's all to play for over the coming days and there are still a lot of twists and turns left in the Varadkar story.

Irish Independent


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