Fine Gael’s focus is on Brexit but health and homelessness cannot be far behind, writes.
LOW key, statesmanlike, sober socked, Leo had the welfare of the country in his hands as he launched his party’s campaign in the gleaming surroundings of the industrial jewel of Cavan and the border counties, forklift manufacturer Comiblift.
It was good to get out of Dublin, he said, as well he might — Brexit, the peace process, and jobs all reflected in the choice of venue. Setting the scene, his director of elections Paschal Donohoe said Brexit was the “vital background to the election”, and Fine Gael had “the plans and the people to keep the country safe”.
The finance minister lapsed into a reverie as his boss outlined the perils ahead should the country stray from the path of reason, lost in serene thought as Leo spelt out how Cork’s Billy Kelleher had already shown how Fianna Fáil was split and couldn’t be trusted . . . hadn’t their only MEP warned he would vote against the Brexit deal in Europe?
He warned that would jeopardise the trade deal the country needed if our economic prosperity was to be sustained before conceding it was all a straw man argument anyway, as Fianna Fáil had little influence in Europe.
More dire warnings about our hard-won peace from Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. We were at the halfway point of Brexit, we had the right team — was now the time to change it?
It fell to local minister and the undisputed Empress of Farney Heather Humphreys to put it more earthily: “We’re not out of the woods on Brexit” and this is not the time for “the Fianna Fáil junior B team”, begging the question of what Micheál Martin’s preferred starting 15 might be.
So far, so on message. This slick Fine Gael event a world away from 2016 when the party ran into instant trouble with a confused and lacklustre economic launch that got mired at once in the riddle of the fiscal space.
This time the message was sharply honed: it’s half time in the bruising Brexit tie; the country is ahead, but only just — this is not the time to change the team. Get used to it — you’ll be hearing it a lot over the next three weeks.
Or as Hilaire Belloc put it, “always keep ahold of nurse/for fear of meeting something worse”. That would be Micheál Martin then, Mr Varadkar striding briskly past a picture of his rival cutting the ribbon at Combilift 15 years ago as he was shown around the impressive plant.
But the potential for events to scuttle the most tightly controlled agenda was vividly illustrated by the dreadful accident on the banks of Dublin’s Grand Canal when a homeless man was gravely injured by heavy lifting equipment involved in clearing tents from the area.
Leo Varadkar happily posing on lifting gear in Cavan as part of his campaign launch might have been a misjudgement, but his comments demanding a response from Dublin’s Fianna Fáil Lord Mayor was a blunder that politicised an unfortunate accident and led to an immediate rebuke from Mr Martin, his first misstep in response to the first question from the media in his first general election campaign as party leader.
Fine Gael has fashioned a campaign with a laser-like focus on Brexit and the economy, but homelessness has already imposed itself and health cannot be far behind.
To those issues add the cost of childcare, problems for crèche owners, insurance costs, and Vat in the hospitality sector, all raised on the canvass later in Virginia in neighbouring Cavan with local candidate TP O’Reilly in which there was little mention of Brexit.
Leo’s style in these encounters is to listen intently, eyes sometimes focussed slightly above your head, then to respond with a detailed account of government actions. His small talk has improved although he’s still no master of repartee.
It’s clear he will be held in reserve in a campaign that will have Paschal Donohoe and Simon Coveney to the fore pushing their twin messages of Brexit and the economy.
But events are sure to intervene; chatting to the finance minister, even he agreed that no plan survives initial contact with the enemy, even if he preferred the Mike Tyson version: “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face”.