On The Plinth: Varadkar wants the trophy, but his team is walking off the pitch

On The Plinth: Varadkar wants the trophy, but his team is walking off the pitch

In trying to be the great people pleaser, Leo Varadkar has shunned his once most loyal supporters, including the infamous five-a-side group, who paved his way to the Taoiseach's office.

Under Varadkar's leadership this team has all but disbanded, with one-time captain Eoghan Murphy exiting politics completely; others losing seats amid accusations of not being supported by the party in the 2020 elections; and the last remaining TD Brendan Griffin having now bowed out, confirming on Monday night he won't stand in the next election.

A number of those who say they put their "head on the block for him" numerous times now feel "very let down" by the Fine Gael leader.

"To me there is no loyalty in him, I would have had a lot of time for him," said one of the original five-a-side.

It was late 2011 when a group of disgruntled Fine Gael members, unhappy with how the party and its leadership was going about things, began to agitate.

"It was more about retaining some core Fine Gael values within that coalition," said a member of the original group who used the example of their opposition to the continuation of increments for top public servants at a time when everything else was being cut back.

The first meeting was attended by around 10 politicians, however, Brian Walsh and Martin Hayden quickly opted out.

One Fine Gael member no longer in Leinster House said: 'I think [Varadkar] is totally obsess with what the media might think.' Picture: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie
One Fine Gael member no longer in Leinster House said: 'I think [Varadkar] is totally obsess with what the media might think.' Picture: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

It was this casual association of backbench TDs — Anthony Lawlor, Pat Deering, Brendan Griffin, Noel Harrington, Paul Connaughton, Sean Kyne, Sean Conlan and Eoghan Murphy — who were all first elected in the 2011 election, that would go on to be known as the five-a-side club.

"I suppose in a way that little group of people then would have become disillusioned with Enda [Kenny], so the idea of change was something that over time became more attractive to us.

The notion that there would be a change in leadership was something that I think was universally adopted by all of us as being something we wanted."

In stoking the Fine Gael fire they created the environment to allow Varadkar ascend.

By the summer of 2016, Griffin had come out on national radio to publicly articulate the frustration that many had been venting privately.

The momentum grew significantly at the Fine Gael think-in in Newbridge, Co Kildare the following September when what was described by one TD as a "swarm" of journalists descended on Griffin, Daly, and Deering while sitting together in the hotel. All three declared that a change of leadership was required for the good of the party and the country.

Griffin, probably knowing the impact his comments would have, didn't return to the party discussion and instead quickly went up to his room, got his bags and high-tailed it to Dublin.

As the weeks and months progressed and it became obvious that Kenny's tenure as Taoiseach was running out of time, the five-a-side worked behind the scenes mustering support for Varadkar but also went out on a limb to move publicly against the then Taoiseach.

In early 2017, Deering told RTÉ's Morning Ireland he would table a motion of no confidence in Kenny if he did not set out a timeline for his departure for example.

As the leadership contest officially got underway Eoghan Murphy — who was often described as the five-a-side captain — along with John Paul Phelan and Paul Kehoe became instrumental in sounding out councillors and TDs.

Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD and former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD and former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Murphy responsible for a managing the masterplan and Phelan was asked to draw up a "spouses list" for Varadkar so he knew more about this he was hoping to lure onside.

Varadkar claimed leadership of his party with 51 of the 73 members of the parliamentary party backing him back in 2017.

So how, after cultivating a tight group of politicians around him did Varadkar allow his band of supporters to unravel?

I think he is totally obsessed with what the media might think. 

"I would be of the opinion that you are better off standing for something than standing for nothing, but he would try to be all things to all people," said one Fine Gaeler no longer in Leinster House.

This is echoed by others who have arrived into national politics since the elevation of Varadkar, with one politician stating that he focuses on "things that don't really matter".

Pointing to an overemphasis on obtaining gender balance and constantly promoting female party members, the politician said Mr Varadkar has let his strongest allies down in order to achieve something that is not remarked upon by the grassroots or the general public on the ground "Micheál [Martin] is loved across the country and he only has one woman in Cabinet," the Fine Gael source said.

While difficult to imagine now, many in the party claim that Murphy would have been seen as a future leader of the party before he was shunted into housing by Varadkar.

"He won Leo the leadership race and then he was rewarded with absolutely fuck all and got no support," said a source who would have been very close to Murphy.

They added that while Murphy was "diligent" working 14-hour days in the Department of House "it wasn't a natural fit in any shape or form".

Others have said that, not wanting to disappoint more vocal politicians or cause a row with Simon Coveney, he went for the easy option in putting Murphy into an ill-fitting portfolio, which then became a contributing factor in the Dublin Bay South TD leaving politics altogether.

Those close to Deering say the former Carlow TD felt he got little to no support during the election, with Leo Varadkar coming down to the constituency the day before the election when it was too late.

Sources say he felt extremely "hurt" when he was passed over not once but twice for the Seanad with Michael D'Arcy initially being selected ahead of him and then Maria Byrne being chosen as his replacement when he took up a job in the private sector.

At a recent parliamentary party meeting Sean Kyne also hit out at the party leadership for the lack of support he received in the 2020 election. 

He told colleagues that no effort was made to change the constituency strategy as it was presumed that he would retain his seat even though there were significant local issues.

Meanwhile, Griffin who is expected to soon formally announce his decision not the run in the next election, has been left somewhat disillusioned after being overlooked for the chief whip position in December.

When Varadkar contacted Griffin to let him know he had lost out just 45 minutes before the Cabinet was to be publicly announced, the Kerry TD told his party leader that he had already been informed through the national newspapers that morning, something which sources say left a very bitter taste in his mouth.

While not officially members of the five-a-side having been elected prior to 2011, it worth noting that former junior ministers Phelan and Kehoe, who now sit on the backbenches, are among nine Fine Gael TDs already signaling that they may not contest the next election.

Another supporter, Joe McHugh, has already announced he will not be running in the next election.

Varadkar focuses too much on the "aerial battle" of politics but "neglects the ground war" and the "mobilisation of the troops on the ground", Phil Hogan recently claimed in an RTÉ interview with Sean O'Rourke.

In setting his sights on the ultimate trophy, Varadkar has let his team walk off the pitch.

Did you know?

The Irish language version of the Constitution, or Bunreacht na hÉireann, takes precedence over the English text if there is seen to be a conflict between both versions.

In 2015, the Government was forced to change the Irish-language version of the wording of the same-sex marriage referendum because of a possibility that a marriage between a heterosexual couple might be found unconstitutional.

Hot topicals

Presidential visit: The European Parliament president, Roberta Metsola, will visit Ireland for two days later this week. There will be a joint sitting of both the Dáil and Seanad on Thursday when the Maltese MEP, a member of the European People’s Party along with Fine Gael, will address the House.

Roberta Metsola will address TDs and senators on Thursday. Picture: John THYS/AFP via Getty Images
Roberta Metsola will address TDs and senators on Thursday. Picture: John THYS/AFP via Getty Images

Losing his troops: Last week, the Irish Examiner reported that up to nine Fine Gael TDs are now not expected to contest the next general election. It would be a massive blow to Leo Varadkar’s party and is likely to be raised at their weekly meeting on Wednesday evening.

Driven mad: The Transport Committee is to discuss current delays affecting NCT testing and driving tests on Wednesday. Representatives from Road Safety Authority and Applus Car Testing Service will attend. East Cork TD James O’Connor has previously claimed that there has been a “major breach in the NCT customer charter” as drivers who have to wait more than 28 days are not getting a test refund as should be the case.

James O’Connor said the NCT customer charter has been breached.
James O’Connor said the NCT customer charter has been breached.

Wood for the trees: The controversial Coillte deal was raised at committee, in the Dáil, and at the parliamentary party meetings last week. It is likely to rumble on for at least another week.

From the archives


February 4: Fianna Fáil won its first overall majority in Dáil Éireann. The Cork Examiner reported that Frank Aiken was the principal speaker at a “victory demonstration” held by the Fianna Fáil Cork branch on Grand Parade in the city.

“Four city bands attended and two torchlight processions, starting from different points in the city, converged on the Parade, and assembled a big gathering despite the inclemency of the weather.” 


February 2: The British Embassy was burned in response to Bloody Sunday. 

“The embassy in Merrion Square, Dublin, which lay under siege for the past three days, faced its final onslaught of angry protesters yesterday afternoon, when, after about 40 petrol bombs were thrown, it was gutted by fire,” a front page report in The Cork Examiner stated.


February 7: As he prepared to take over from Charles Haughey after his sweeping victory in the Fianna Fáil leadership race, Albert Reynolds promised a new, open style of running the party and the country.

He said his new cabinet would be selected on merit alone.


February 4: In the wake of a High Court decision, social welfare minister Proinsias De Rossa promised that 70,000 married women entitled to equality arrears would be paid at a cost of £240m (punt) to the State.

Then Democratic Left TD Kathleen Lynch described the court ruling as a “marvellous and hard-won victory” for the thousands of married women who had in the past been “diddled” by successive governments.

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