Gerard Howlin: Varadkar's ruthless showmanship has fundamentally changed the game

Gerard Howlin: Varadkar's ruthless showmanship has fundamentally changed the game

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan. Having gotten the keys to a Hiace van, Varadkar reversed it back over the good doctor on live television. Picture: Sam Boal/

The importance of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s bravura performance on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live on Monday night was that he locked himself in. Having gotten the keys to a Hiace van, last seen when then health minister Simon Harris used it to reverse over the chief medical officer Tony Holohan on CervicalCheck, Leo reversed it again, back over the good doctor on live television. 

It was compelling showmanship, ruthlessly articulated and reprised the former and future Taoiseach’s leadership, in the spring when Covid-19 arrived.

It eclipsed, as intended, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, as both fronted up the national move to Level 3. Those were the successes of a tactician. 

The strategic consequence is that it fundamentally changed the game. Hitherto the former and future Taoiseach was a detached observer in the Government he is a deputy leader of. On Monday night, in doubling down on a policy, chosen in opposition to scientific advice previously treated as dogma, he stepped from the sidelines of responsibility to the small space between the crosshairs. 

That’s just on Covid-19. 

More fundamentally he ended the separation of Fine Gael from responsibility, within government. Fine Gael is now all-in in an unpopular cause. I wish them well.

I am sure Dr Holohan as an experienced public servant understands what an honour it is to be dumped on for your country. Nobody is more important than the whipping boy. I hope the Tánaiste also appreciates why, when the newfound responsibilities he has embraced, are revisited back on him. 

It was always palaver, but it was a good act. For months, government ministers in two administrations wore the Nphet diaper to their great benefit. It is regulation wear in a pandemic.

Dr Holohan was paraded like a prize character witness. I hope, especially after his previous beating, he didn’t foolishly forget the transactional nature of politics. He is a man of integrity, with a capacity and willingness to front publicly on his responsibilities. 

Those qualities are rare in the public service, which breeds its own resentment internally in the officers' mess. At a critical moment last Sunday night, he was deemed to pose a political threat, however. He should have been more careful by the way. 

But that’s bravery for you. Understandably, however, he had to be reputationally dispatched yet again. That’s politics; it is not personal.

Monday night’s hug of political responsibility over specialist advice by the Tánaiste is not important in regard to how it feels today, but about what we will think of it on Christmas Day. I was absorbed to hear that Sunday night’s leak of an intent to shunt up to Level 5 led on Monday morning to a rush on toyshops. 

Christmas was about to be cancelled. Sought-after toys must be urgently found, while supplies remained. Level 5 would have visited immediate, intense pain not only on people, but on the Government. There is a growing minority of belligerent malcontents. 

A Trumpian text, which is thankfully still on the fringes, would have been amplified. Now that people have what they thought they want, it leaves them free to complain about the fecklessness of the Government which didn’t roughly take them in hand in the first place.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Fianna Fáil colleagues, or more accurately sitting in the limelight of a television studio instead of them, is solidarity of a sort. Stepping out from behind the Nphet sandbag, to give the public a clear line of fire to your vital political organs is another. 

It was great to take down Holohan for not being half smart enough, but it was not smart at all to pull down all your own defences in the process.

My personal circle is not a scientific survey of anything except the need for me to get out more. But there was a lot of sniffling yesterday, about a ‘them’  — not an ‘us’ who are all in this together — who should have manned up, and done the decent thing. 

The slap of firm government is always preferred in the abstract, while resented in reality. On the subject of manning up, when the three wise men from Nphet went to meet the three party leaders in Government Buildings there was no woman at the table. Would things have ended so badly if there had?

Advising generally, I can tell you, requires detachment and dexterity. The essential nature of advice, as distinct from decision making, is detachment. A good counsellor gives advice regardless of whether it is accepted or not. 

It is a bad adviser who out of ego becomes angry. It is then that advice becomes a camouflaged diktat. Ironically it was politicians in government who elevated Nphet as the issuer of diktats to suit themselves. Tony Holohan might have understood  what was about to come in HSE CEO Paul Reid’s tweet. 

Of Level 5 he pointedly said it had to be considered by Government in a wider context of public health and the economy. 

Nphet, of course, is chock-a-block with senior HSE personnel. But no matter. When the herd move; better to move ahead of it.

Some opposition responses went beyond irony and into comedy. “Division and blame won’t help anyone” bemoaned Labour’s Alan Kelly. The Social Democrats and Sinn Féin complained of Varadkar’s rough treatment of Holohan. 

But if division, blame and verbal assault are taken off the menu what will they have for their supper? At least attack has some semblance of sincerity. Political sympathy is nearly always synthetic.

Politicians were foolish to abdicate responsibility in the first place. The opposition were on firmer ground when they correctly complained over months that there was virtually no accountability to the Dáil as extraordinary decisions were made in a national crisis. 

The scale of what was decided on compares with the Emergency. Only last week they bitterly complained about a belated visit to the latterly instituted Oireachtas Covid committee, and then only in company with the minister, sadly reducing the time both had to be questioned. But that was then.

Now we have responsibility back where it belongs. It is taken off the narrow gauge of expert advice, and back where it in truth always was, in the political. Expertise, disconnected from the practice of political power, is too narrow. 

So, of course, is the reverse. From February 8  to last Monday night, when Leo Varadkar kicked away the traces, there was for different reasons, different sorts of a caretaker government. 

One led by Varadkar as Taoiseach was outgoing, in a scenario where the Dáil hardly functioned at all. The other until now, and led by Micheál Martin, was so cantonised as to hardly be a collective. Varadkar’s unbridled fluency, funnelled tactically for an immediate objective, has had the strategic consequence of effectively creating a government, which previously existed only in name.

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