Writing on the wall for troubled Taoiseach?

As he steps out of his car on the rooftop parking at Irish Examiner headquarters, with dusk falling, Leo Varadkar stops to observe the landscape of Cork City.

Writing on the wall for troubled Taoiseach?

As he steps out of his car on the rooftop parking at Irish Examiner headquarters, with dusk falling, Leo Varadkar stops to observe the landscape of Cork City.

He takes a minute to gather himself. He appears tired and troubled.

Munster was an unhappy hunting ground for Fine Gael in the 2016 election, losing 15 seats, and General Election 2020 has not gone to plan for his party.

Handed a strong cup of coffee by his aide, the Taoiseach finally approaches us to say his hellos. Shy and reserved, it is an awkward enough interaction as we greet each other, despite having known each other since 2007.

Once the formalities are out of the way, the Fine Gael leader and I sit down in an expansive office away from prying eyes and ears and begin the interview he has come to give.

He cannot but admit the campaign has been “very difficult” for him and his party.

“I would say that, certainly, we feel that the first week of the campaign was very difficult,” he concedes.

“It was very much a focus on all the many real problems that the country has, like health and housing, but lots of other ones.

Bertie Ahern actually said it to me, he said, you know, don’t pay too much attention to opinion polls, because when the election is called, public opinion resets. And it can reset in your favour.

“It can reset against you. As it happened, public opinion reset against us at the start of this campaign or just before it. I think that probably would have happened anyway, even if the election had been called in November.”

He admits the best time for Fine Gael to have had the election was back before October 2018, when he and his party were polling well ahead of Fianna Fáil.

“I think the best time for Fine Gael in terms of calling the general election would have been a long time ago, 2018,” he says. “The nature of politics, particularly when you’re a new Taoiseach and you’re part of a new Government, is you have a honeymoon period and you’re doing well in the polls.”

Mr Varadkar makes it clear that when he called the election last month, it was a time not fully of his choosing.

“But I decided early on that wasn’t going to be the reason why the Dáil would end,” he says. “And I feel that I put the country first by making sure that we didn’t head into an election until we had a Brexit withdrawal agreement over the line and also the Northern Ireland institutions up and running. Would a summer election have been nicer? Of course it would. That is not what politics should be about.”

Translating that negative mood toward his party to local matters, I ask him about Colm Burke’s chances of winning a seat in Cork North Central in the wake of former minister Dara Murphy’s resignation, first revealed by the Irish Examiner.

He says while he thinks Mr Burke will win a seat, it would be ‘unjust’ if he lost out as a result of the Murphy controversy.

“I’m confident that we will take a seat in Cork North Central,” he says. “You know, we’d over 20% of the vote in the by-election. Yeah, that’s not that long ago. And that’s more than a quota.

“But I do think the controversy around Dara Murphy has made things more difficult for Colm and also for Lorraine O’Neill [Fine Gael’s other candidate in the constituency]. And I think that’s really, really unfair in many ways, because there’s actually nobody who is more diligent, hard-working, head-down that Colm Burke. He really is a grafter.”

Asked about Mr Burke’s poor election track record, Mr Varadkar says: “I think this time might be his time. But it would be a real shame, I think, if somebody who is a total grafter and so committed to, you know, the everyday work of politics, to individual queries, to local issues, you know, was the one who ended up being damaged because of somebody else’s actions.

That would be a real shame. It would be unjust actually.

But all the promises being made by Mr Varadkar, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, and Tánaiste Simon Coveney are undermined by the failure to deliver many of them on time.

Just reference the National Children’s Hospital, broadband, and locally the M20 motorway, the event centre in Cork, and Dunkettle interchange upgrade. Such delays have annoyed the hell out of people.

Leo Varadkar was given a Brigids cross by Gillian Murphy while canvassing in Kinsale on St. Brigids Day. Picture. John Allen
Leo Varadkar was given a Brigids cross by Gillian Murphy while canvassing in Kinsale on St. Brigids Day. Picture. John Allen

“It’s annoyed everyone, including me, and Dunkettle is going ahead and works are under way at the moment and we’ll go to tender and that job will be done,” says Mr Varadkar.

“It needs to be done. It’s absolutely frustrating for everyone, and not just in Cork, but in the Department of Transport as well, and in Transport Infrastructure Ireland, that the tender came in at such a high cost. The decision was made by TII; the right thing to do was to re-tender it. It’ll come in at a lower cost and we can go ahead with it.”

He pays tribute to Mr Coveney for making sure the event centre was ‘saved’.

“I have to really compliment the Tánaiste for grabbing the event centre project by the scruff of its neck and saving it and coming to me, to Eoghan Murphy, to Paschal, to say that this has to happen,” says Mr Varadkar.

Cork needs this done and it will be transformative for the city.

“We took the decision to provide additional money; we took the decision to move it, essentially from arts to urban development. Now we just need to get through the planning.”

I put it to him that one minister told me recently that the best work he and Mr Coveney ever did was convincing everyone that they get on.

With a smile, he replies: “We actually do get on. We always did. You know, we’re a similar age, we are of a like mind on almost all kind of political issues, in terms of policy party issues. We’ve been in Government together since 2011.

“Like, the only time that our relationship would have been a little bit strained was obviously in the run-up to the leadership change and maybe the first couple of weeks after. That’s to be expected.”

Does he regret not appointing Mr Coveney as his Tánaiste at the outset?

His answer is intriguing.

“I don’t, because I gave Frances [Fitzgerald] my word. She was the sitting Tánaiste. She said that she would support me. It wasn’t a trade-off as such, but when the sitting [Tánaiste] backs you... I gave her my word that I would reappoint her.”

He goes on to say that the relationship is better given he is from Dublin and Coveney is from Cork.

Leo Varadkar and Christoper O’Sullivan, Cork County Mayor and Fianna Fail candidate whose paths crossed while canvassing with Senator Tim Lombard in Kinsale on Saturday listen to the concerns of a constituent. Picture. John Allen
Leo Varadkar and Christoper O’Sullivan, Cork County Mayor and Fianna Fail candidate whose paths crossed while canvassing with Senator Tim Lombard in Kinsale on Saturday listen to the concerns of a constituent. Picture. John Allen

“But, notwithstanding the very unfair way in which Frances Fitzgerald was removed from office — which I’ll never forgive Micheál Martin for, quite frankly, because it was terrible what was done to her — I think it has worked out well for the Government of the country.

It’s better to have, I think, Taoiseach and Tánaiste coming from different parts of the country. And I think that he has really shone in his role on Brexit and in Northern Ireland.

I conclude by asking what his biggest regret has been since becoming Taoiseach. He pauses and is unable to answer.

Time is called and he is off again. A man with troubles on his shoulders.

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