Leo Varadkar is making his way through the People’s Park in Dun Laoghaire like Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem, the crowds falling at his feet.
Then appearing before him, out of nowhere, a dissonant voice bearing a grievance.
Anne Maria Griffin-Lucy tells him that his government needs to do something about inappropriate development. She had experience locally of a development of 50 apartments on school lands that she tried to challenge in the High Court. An excellent judge, she says, told her to think again. The cost of seeking justice in court is crazy.
“We have a housing crisis,” Leo tries. “I appreciate that,” Anne Maria says. “But they are building irrational types of housing all over Dublin,” she says. The local TD Mary Mitchell-O’Connor tries to calm the waters. Leo listens and nods and engages. And then he’s pulled away, back onto the path strewn with palms.
If Mr Varadkar required a shot of confidence in the wake of tumbling poll ratings then the south Dublin town was the right place for him. They love him there. Marjorie Hand adores him.
Leo greets her and she hands him her dachshund, which he holds and cuddles for the cameras. “He’s gorgeous,” Marjorie says, about Leo, rather than her mutt. “Lovely, I love him to bits.” And will she give his party a scratch? “Oh yeah, I’ll be voting Fine Gael, born and bred.”
For a few hours there was no big bad world out there waiting to smite him at the ballot box. On Sunday, the market in the People’s Park was thick with families and people young and old, strolling through the stalls, sampling good food in the brisk January air.
Just before entering the Park, Mr Varadkar is taken to the local butcher’s van.
He buys some real red meat, and despite an offer to give him a freebie, insists on paying. This, one of his handlers point out, is the fourth time he’s bought meat on the campaign trail. Wherefore the vegan Leo driving farmers from their beef?
Mary Mitchel O’Connor is at his side, representing the farmers only massive.
“I’m a farmers daughter myself,” she points out. Are you listening rural Ireland?
The Taoiseach approaches the Seoul kitchen stand. There he meets Jeff, a fine, strapping young man who appears chuffed at the encounter. “I like him, I like him,” Jeff says after the caravan has moved on. “Yeah, I’d vote for him. I think he’s doing a good job.” Another woman stands at the fringes of the caravan and spots the star at the centre. She wriggles her way through, her daughter’s hand in hers and then she pushes forward the child for a blessing. Leo is in his element. He is horsing into a falafel concoction like he’s trying to show that anything healthy Micheál Martin can eat, he can eat better.
The People’s Park is not a microcosm of the country, but the representation of the constituency bears some resemblance to the national picture. Fine Gael currently holds three of the four seats, the other being occupied by Richard Boyd Barrett, the kind of socialist you could bring home to your mother in Dun Laoighaire.
This time around, the Blueshirts will be doing well to snaffle two seats. On Sunday there were three sets of campaign workers there, all wearing colour-coded jackets. There was purple for the sitting TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor, blue for Councillor Barry Ward and orange for councillor Jennifer Carroll MacNeill. Absent are the retiring Sean Barrett and the ejected Maria Bailey.
Without a fair wind, Fine Gael might be reduced to a single seat. One of the reasons that the party entered this election on the back foot is that it had lost a whole rake of sitting TDs, including the pair in Dun Laoighaire. Retirements, defections, resignations and poor Maria Bailey mean that the advantage of possession is missing in all of these seats.
Getting somebody new elected is not easy. Running as a newbie on a party ticket looking for a third term in government makes it all the more daunting. If Fine Gael don’t pick up two seats here, high office will be slipping from their grasp.
But this is the kind of the backs-to-the-wall scenario that Fine Gael elected Mr Varadkar to tackle. Notably, during the party leadership battle with Simon Coveney in 2017, he was far more popular among elected representatives than members. The former saw somebody who had the magic that is known to popular politicians. He had it all, the glamour, the smarts, youth, a connection with the electorate forged on his propensity to say what was on his mind. As far as the Fine Gael reps were concerned, he was the man to win elections.
So far, it hasn’t turned out like that. Some of the sheen was lost during his tenure as Taoiseach. Telling it like it is as a young gun minister is all very well, but that butters no parsnips when you’re leading the country. There is also the “empathy” thing, the fact that he appears – probably unfairly – to be tone-deaf to the real struggles that the new prosperity has brought for many. His party is now, as he put it on Sunday, three points down heading into the second half.
And we don’t yet know whether his half time team talk will work some minor miracles.
After Dun Laoighaire it was onto another bastion of the good burghers of south Dublin, Dundrum village. There he is met by Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan and Senator Neale Richmond, the local candidates. Maybe Josepha is worried or maybe she’s just being Josepha but late last week she put out a video of various members of her family saying how “amazing” she is. The video purported to bring viewers into her salubrious abode. The centrepiece of the kitchen was what one wag described as the biggest island in Irish politics since Innisvickillane.
On Sunday, she brought the Taoiseach up through the main street in Dundrum village. Along the way, Leo pointed to a poster across the street. “There’s Shane Ross,” he said, as if he was about to experience a terrifying flashback to a cabinet meeting.
In the local Oxfam shop, the delegation bumped into Paul who is warm and polite, but pats his daughter’s head and says he’ll be voting green for her. Leo engages on emissions and realistic targets. He is joined briefly by Josepha who eventually retreats into a vacant stare. But Paul has encouraging words for Neale Richmond for sticking it goodo to Nigel Farage in a debate.
Out on the street again a gaggle of schoolchildren emerging from the Dundrum Town Centre are beside themselves at having run into, like, the leader of the country or something.
So it goes in the heartland. But what of the big picture? Fine Gael appear to be relying on the wind whipping up and being at their backs in the second half.
Fianna Fáil’s late rally to win a third term in the 2007 election is cited, but there are crucial differences. Back then, everybody was living in dreamland and Bertie Ahern did have the illusory magic that seduces voters to believe. Mr Varadkar’s task is of a far greater magnitude, and whether he has the capacity to pull it off will become apparent within the next week or so.