Monday 22 April 2019

Stage set for Varadkar's rat pack

The new Taoiseach will want to do things his way, but will need former rival Simon Coveney and supporter Paschal Donohoe in his corner, writes Philip Ryan

FUTURE: Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael members at the Mansion House in Dublin last Friday night after he was announced as the newly elected Fine Gael party leader. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
FUTURE: Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael members at the Mansion House in Dublin last Friday night after he was announced as the newly elected Fine Gael party leader. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

The Dail canteen at 10am in the morning would seem like an unlikely place for the passing of the torch between two of the country's most venerable politicians.

But last Friday, this is exactly where outgoing Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Enda Kenny met his soon-to-be successor Leo Varadkar. Kenny was having breakfast with his staff and Finance Minister Michael Noonan when Varadkar arrived in the canteen.

Varadkar joined some backbench TDs who were supporting him in the leadership contest for a quick bite to eat as the final minutes of the campaign ticked by.

Noticeably, it was Kenny who joined Varadkar at his table when the backbench TDs left. The Taoiseach seemed to do most of the talking and onlookers suggested the Fine Gael sage was passing on some timely advice as he prepared to relinquish control of a party he has led for 15 years.

Earlier that morning, the Taoiseach tweeted that the new leader would have to "dedicate their life in service of the people of this great republic".

Two days earlier, when asked in the Dail by Independent TD Noel Grealish what advice he would give his successor, Kenny said: "Illegitimi non carborundum", which is loosely translated into English as "don't let the bastards grind you down". Kenny wasn't in the Mansion House on Friday to see Varadkar crowned Fine Gael leader but the two men did speak briefly on the phone once the result was known.

They will speak again over the weekend but the words of wisdom are likely to end there for the time being. Kenny's reign is over. There is a new Fine Gael leader and, as he has throughout his whole career, Varadkar will want to do things his way.

This is not to say he does not listen to advice. In fact, his closest advisers always insist Varadkar listens to a wide range of opinions before forming his own. But the torch has now been passed and Fine Gael will be a different place under its new leader. The holy Fine Gael trinity of Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan and Frances Fitzgerald will be replaced by a new troika of Leo Varadkar, Paschal Donohoe and Simon Coveney.

It was no coincidence that Noonan was at breakfast with Kenny and his staff on Friday and it was even less of a coincidence that Fitzgerald joined them a little later.

These three politicians have been at the heart of Fine Gael for the past six years - or in Fitzgerald's case since she was appointed Justice Minister in 2014. They are party elders who guided the young Turks through the apocalyptic days of the recession. They have had a good innings and will be remembered fondly.

Noonan, like Kenny, has agreed to step aside and will grace the after-dinner speaking circuit once the new leader takes the throne. Fitzgerald will hang on. The Tanaiste was described by Varadkar as his "mentor" at his campaign launch and he intends to keep her in Cabinet once he announces his new ministries.

Despite lots of speculation about how she would vote and indeed whether she would run herself, Fitzgerald pledged her vote to Varadkar on the second day of the campaign - three days before publicly declaring. Varadkar's advisers insisted last week that she would be an important part of his team in the coming years.

Varadkar has his ideas for his party and the country, which he detailed throughout the campaign. While outlining his vision, he also pointedly criticised his opponent for having none.

But now that the battle is over, Varadkar will not be as dismissive of Coveney as he was during campaign debates and interviews. Coveney will play a critical role in Varadkar's new cabinet. The Fine Gael election campaign has arguably done more for Coveney's standing in the party than it has for Varadkar.

Coveney impressed many with his robust debating style and willingness to take on Varadkar in the trenches even after it became clear that he was up against a far superior army. Varadkar won over the party's elected members some time ago, but Coveney showed them over the last three weeks that he was more than just an also-ran.

Coveney has cultivated an image of being the heart and soul of Fine Gael - the leader who never was because he cared too much about people that the party doesn't represent. Not bad going for a multi-millionaire son of Cork's richest businessman-cum-farmer.

Coveney is portraying himself as the socially conscious yin to Varadkar's right-wing economically conservative yang. Coveney's rhetoric about making Fine Gael a party for everyone can reach into homes across the country which Varadkar would not darken unless he was sure that every member of the household was out of bed before 7am that morning.

Varadkar would be unwise not to utilise the reinvented magnanimous merchant prince and his man-of-the-people image. It must also be somewhat of a worry to Varadkar, and to Fine Gael at large, that far more people, thousands of more people, wrote 'number one' beside Coveney than Varadkar in the secrecy of the ballot box.

Maybe, just maybe, Varadkar isn't quite as popular as he and his team might have thought.

Varadkar will also be wary of giving Coveney too much power after he has proven to be very popular among the party membership. Coveney's ambition to lead Fine Gael did not end on Friday evening. In some respects, it has been emboldened. He can now wait and watch as his rival is confronted with the greatest challenge of his political career.

Coveney can allow Varadkar the time and space to make his own mistakes while quietly building a stronger base within the party for a future contest.

It should also be noted that the two men are good friends, which was evident from the warm embrace they gave each other at the count centre following Varadkar's win. Coveney won't public undermine Varadkar or make his life difficult in office. He will be an asset and an important prong in the new Fine Gael political trident.

Paschal Donohoe, the new Michael Noonan, is the other key minister in the new regime. Donohoe has been groomed by his mentor Noonan in the delicate art of fiscal rectitude and is ready to take on a new challenge. He hasn't covered himself in glory in his handling of the public sector pay deal to date but he is respected by those involved in the negotiations.

Fianna Fail TDs are also quietly impressed by Donohoe's stewardship of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform but he will feel more pressure in the coming months as the Budget comes closer, especially if he finds himself replacing Noonan in the Department of Finance.

Donohoe is close to both Coveney and Varadkar, although their relationship is described as professional rather than personal by those who know the men.

Varadkar is the chairman now, even though questions have been raised about his temperament in negotiation scenarios, and has realised ultimate power. He is a true blue Fine Gaeler and has promised to implement his party's traditional values in Government and across society in general.

He will face little resistance from the Independents in Government but Fianna Fail will be working hard to knock the shine off his historic appointment as the country's youngest and first gay taoiseach. He will need Coveney and Donohoe in his corner to face down this challenge.

These three politicians with an average age of 41 (compared with Kenny, Noonan and Fitzgerald who have an average of 68) now bear the weight of the country on their shoulders. Their time has come. The rat pack of Irish politics is now the headline act.

Sunday Independent

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