Not since the days of Big Tom and the Mainliners Showband tours has the country been traversed as extensively and in rapid-speed. Since the Dáil term ended back in mid-July, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been travelling the highways, byways and waterways of Ireland.
From Belfast to Galway, Cork to Leitrim, Donegal to Meath and back again: our Taoiseach is a man on a mission — but this is not some lazy staycation. What is Leo Varadkar up to?
In the wake of May’s local and European elections, the Taoiseach appeared to open the door to a general election in the coming months, telling reporters gathered in the RDS count centre: “I’m certainly not ruling it out.”
He more recently reverted to the line that he is not planning a general election this year, but Mr Varadkar was careful to stick in a caveat that it might not be up to him given the precarious nature of the arrangement with Fianna Fáil.
After three and a half years of sticky tape confidence-and-supply it is clear that all parties and none have been gearing up to go to the polls. Before the Dáil rose, the tension in the chamber, the increasingly personal remarks and pointed exchanges between party leaders became noticeable.
Could Varadkar’s grand summer tour of Ireland be the first leadership canvass of a 2019 general election? When it comes to a national ballot Fine Gael top brass and the Taoiseach know that they will have some ground to cover even to retain their current seats.
With 50 of the 158 seats, Fine Gael came back after 2016 as the largest party, helping them form a Government with Independents, but it was still 26 fewer than the number they claimed in 2011. Varadkar cannot let the numbers slide further.
But he will be hampered by the fact that a number of party stalwarts who currently occupy what have been considered as safe seats for Fine Gael, will not stand in the next election, whenever this happens. Included in the list are former taoiseach Enda Kenny in Mayo; former finance minister Michael Noonan in Limerick; and previous ceann comhairle Sean Barrett in Dun Laoghaire.
Sitting TD Darragh Murphy has indicated that he will not stand in Cork North Central, while John Deasy has yet to be selected in his constituency of Waterford. Added to that is the fact that former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has left the Dáil to take up a seat in the European Parliament.
Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, has so far only lost only one sitting TD — Cork’s Billy Kelleher, who has also been elected to the European Parliament. Micheál Martin’s party is already eyeing up an additional 10 seats across the country, with a particular focus on Dublin.
Another theory is that the Taoiseach, keen to cast aside any impression that he does not do the social element of leadership well, is forcing himself to mix a little more. While predecessor Enda Kenny was a notorious man of the people who would not be satisfied until every hand was vigorously shaken and the crown of every baby patted, Mr Varadkar by his own admission can be shy.
Since the Dáil rose, the city-slicker Taoiseach has barely spent a minute inside the Pale and instead has been showing up at everything from the Galway races to GAA matches, traditional music festivals, and even an agricultural show.
On July 18, Mr Varadkar took a trip to the sunny South East. Along with opening the new Gorey to Enniscorthy bypass, Mr Varadkar also took a spin into Wexford town, where he cut the ribbon on Verona Murphy’s constituency office and told local media he is confident that the election candidate will be successful.
“I know that Verona, once elected to the Dáil, will be a real addition to the team. We’re hoping to take three seats in the next general election,” he told the crowd.
Naturally, local junior ministers Paul Kehoe and Michael D’Arcy, were on hand to pose with the Taoiseach that day when he inspected the €400m M11 extension. The following week he was up in the Donegal Gaeltacht a for a special Cabinet meeting in Glencolmcille. Pictures of the leader in Roarty’s pub were posted on his Twitter page, where he bumped into Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown councillor Emma Blain.
The next day, July 26, Mr Varadkar spoke at the Glenties Summer school, paid a visit to 100-year-old Rodgers with Minister Joe McHugh before heading down to the Joe Mooney Summer School in Leitrim that evening.
The Leitrim Observer d escribed Mr Varadkar’s attendance at the annual traditional music festival in Drumshanbo as a “surprise visit”.
However, two people who had been tipped off to the VIP appearance and were therefore in situ to pose with the Taoiseach were general election candidates Frankie Feighan and Sinead Maguire.
Mr Feighan was only last month added to the Sligo-Leitrim general election ticket by the party’s executive council after Gerry Reynolds announced he would be stepping away from politics.
But it was only a short session for Mr Varadkar as the next day he was in Powerscourt for the wedding of Limerick TD Tom Neville and Fair City actor Jenny Dixon.
The Taoiseach quickly made his way back out west on Monday, July 29, where he stopped by Galway Port and attended the Galway races with sitting local TDs Hildegarde Naughton and Seán Kyne.
“Taoiseach Leo is just a country boy at heart,” read the headline in the Tipperary Star after he spent last Monday in Nenagh at the North Tipperary Agricultural Show.
The paper reported that Fine Gael sources said the unexpected visit was a “last-minute decision” by the party leader.
However, it was again no surprise to candidates Mary Newman Julian and Garret Ahearn, who no doubt will be using the pictures in their general election literature. Fine Gael was left without a single representative in Tipperary after the 2016 general election, when former minister of state Tom Hayes lost his seat.
Mr Varadkar spent around two hours observing the prize cattle and locally-produced vegetables, but told the Tipperary Star that he was not at the show because there might be an election in the offing.
A spokesperson for Mr Varadkar emphasised that it is the job of the Taoiseach to get a sense of the public mood by meeting as many sections of society as possible.
“He feels as Taoiseach that it’s very important to engage full-stop. He feels it’s extremely important to be out and about and out where people are,” the spokesperson said.
“It’s for the same reasons that Cabinet meets outside of Dublin far more frequently than it used to,” the spokesman said, referring to the recent Donegal trip.
He added that the summer recess, when there are no Cabinet meetings, is often the only time the Taoiseach has to get out of Dublin for significant periods of time and he is keen to use the break to attend as many events as possible.
Is this just a summer jaunt for Leo Varadkar or the first signs of an impending election?