Alison O'Connor: The portrait of Michael Collins will be back in the Taoiseach's office... but will Leo?

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment at the Convention Centre Dublin for the announcement of the members of the new Cabinet. Pic: Maxwells
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment at the Convention Centre Dublin for the announcement of the members of the new Cabinet. Pic: Maxwells

Micheál Martin had hardly received his seal of office from President Michael D Higgins but his Twitter bio was changed to reflect his new status: “Taoiseach and Uachtarán Fhianna Fáil. TD for Cork South Central.”

Although he would have spent a considerable amount of time taunting the Fianna Fáil leader for being out of touch when it came to such things as social media, Leo Varadkar was far slower to change his “from “Taoiseach. Leader @Fine Gael, TD for Dublin West”.

His last tweet as Taoiseach was a photo of the Taoiseach’s office showing a painting of Michael Collins on the wall. “Clearing out the office tonight,” he wrote on Friday night.

“This portrait has hung proudly over the fireplace for 9 years. Beidh sé ar ais.”

It is human nature that Micheál Martin, who waited so long to finally reach that high office, would want to advertise it from whatever platform he could. For Leo Varadkar, it must take some getting used to the fact that he walked into the Convention Centre in Dublin as the leader of the country, but while he was in there that honour passed a few seats away to the man with whom he has had, to say the least, a fractious relationship.

Convention, at any rate, would dictate that he refrain from broadcasting his new ministry until his new boss appointed him to it.

Saturday will be remembered as historic for all sorts of reasons. There was the sitting of the Dáil in the cavernous and rather sterile surroundings of the National Conference Centre with everyone socially distanced from each other and not a political handshake to be seen.

All the other extraordinary circumstances — not least that we are in the midst of a pandemic, and had to wait for the votes of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens on Friday to endorse the programme for government — made this memorable, almost to the point of eclipsing the significance of the coming together of the old Civil War enemies.

But the history books will record that moment. Leo Varadkar addressed the issue himself during his speech when he said that, for him, Civil War politics ended a long time ago in our country, but that it ended on Saturday in our parliament.

The new Tánaiste’s emotions could not have been anything but mixed. The poor performance of Fine Gael in the general election campaign seems a distant memory now after our experiences of Covid-19 and lockdown.

Earlier this month, an Irish Times/IPSOS poll saw Leo Varadkar getting a personal approval rating of 75%, with satisfaction for the Government at 72%. Countries all over the world have seen some measure of a rally-around-the-flag eaffect as a result of Covid-19, but these figures meant that Leo Varadkar left the job as Taoiseach at a time when his political capital was in the stratosphere.

It is just over three years since he took over as leader of Fine Gael and subsequently as Taoiseach in June 2017. On that summer day in the Mansion House, the party was giddy with possibility surrounding how far the new leader, with what they saw as his almost rock star appeal, could take them. He was seen as someone who could appeal to a group wider than just the previously converted.

It didn’t work out quite like that, even though he performed extremely ably, along with Simon Coveney, on Brexit. In many ways, the economy did do very well under Fine Gael, particularly on the employment front, but there were constant criticisms on the performances in health and housing.

But, in a mistake that Fine Gael and its leaders have made previously, the party went into the general election in February expecting that voters would, and should, show gratitude for what had been delivered.

They seemed to believe that when people looked at it really honestly they would recognise that criticisms on housing and health were not really fair. It was also hoped that the fiscally responsible budget delivered last October by finance minister Paschal Donohoe — drawn up in the event of a no-deal Brexit — would overshadow the fiasco that is the overrun of the budget for the National Children’s Hospital.

Back to the National Conference Centre. In the speech made while he was still taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said Fine Gael now entered government for a third consecutive term, something it had never been able to do.

He then went on to have an uncharacteristic moment of humility when he said that Fine Gael would now be able to get right “some things we didn’t get right” previously.

Having already served in the departments of transport, tourism and sport; health, and social protection, his new portfolio in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is unlikely to prove controversial, although Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Saturday evening that it had an “urgent agenda”.

Obviously jobs will be a major issue, both during and after the pandemic. The new minister will be straight down to it given that the programme for government promises a “July stimulus”, part of a three year recovery fund to centre around employment and businesses.

If this new Government survives, it will be a wait of two and a half years before Fine Gael get the opportunity to return that painting of Michael Collins to the Taoiseach’s office.

Leo Varadkar has said he wants to take back up the mantle. He has spoken about devoting more time in the intervening period to rebuilding Fine Gael, something he did not have time to fully devote himself to as taoiseach.

His close political ally, former housing minister Eoghan Murphy, no longer a member of Cabinet, is expected to assist him with this task. The pair certainly conducted an impressive campaign when Leo Varadkar went for the Fine Gael leadership. Travelling around the country in his new ministerial job with a large budget to stimulate employment will not hurt this task.

But there are some, including within his own party, who have always questioned his long-term commitment to Fine Gael and Irish politics — there is always the sense that he would jet off at the drop of a hat for a “big job” in the EU or the US.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

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