Taking questions for some 40 minutes at his policy launch yesterday, Leo Varadkar looks cut from a different cloth to the incumbent leader, writes Alison O’Connor.
After the first few days of a seemingly runaway campaign, it was more than time to see what lay beneath the Lycra in Leo Varadkar’s campaign. What exactly would he do if he becomes our next taoiseach?
So his policy launch yesterday was timely, given that most of the optics the day before had been given over to the leadership hopeful revealing his apparent vitality in a 5km race on Dublin City streets.
The issue, which always follows Leo, is to wonder about the substance behind it all. It was invariable that, after his macho display, or the boom boom roll call of parliamentary party names, it would crop up again.
In his launch of ‘Taking Ireland Forward’, Leo, who had the tagline underneath his photograph of ‘Courage to Take Us Forward’, stood easily in front of the assembled media. He took questions for more than 40 minutes, giving off a definite sense that there was nothing that would throw him. It was very easy to imagine him as taoiseach.
Sometimes things only become clear once the race has actually begun. As you look at this particular aspirant, it isn’t just the generational change that contrasts with the previous incumbent but the urbane ease with the media — the sense of “ask me anything”, rather than nervous handlers hanging around waiting for the custard pie question that could potentially see their boss flailing about, unable to supply an adequate answer.
Leo stood on his own in front of a lecturn, faced by journalists sitting at desks in a ‘V’ shape in front of him. There was no sign of any other politicians.
He outlined details on a document which had more of the feel of an election manifesto, even though, as he repeated, he doesn’t intend to call one if he finds himself in the job of taoiseach.
He looked confident, but even Leo, one imagines, might have been a bit bashful at the comparisons drawn by Wicklow TD Andrew Doyle. While declaring his support yesterday, the junior minister spoke of Leo in the same breath as Nelson Mandela and John F Kennedy.
The brutal efficiency of the first phase of the Varadkar campaign — leaving the Coveney camp in a spin — goes to answer some of those questions about Leo’s application to the task at hand and his ability to deliver.
He didn’t do all that on his own, so it also shows a talent for picking a team which can deliver for him.
None of this, of course, tells us exactly how he might behave as a taoiseach, a far more complex job than that of a party leader, and one that requires high levels of concentration over a large range of issues, as well as considerable people skills — but it does fill in more of those missing jigsaw pictures.
His was a more detailed document than that launched the previous day by Simon Coveney and had some interesting aspects, not least some that will cost a considerable amount of money, such as pension payments being index-linked by law. This would cost €126m next year — that’s according to a question he answered in the Dáil himself a few months ago. The document also says water charge repayments should be repaid before the end of this year.
He wants to double the budget for arts, culture, and sport over seven years at a cost of €44m.
Allowing himself plenty of room for manoeuvre, he reiterated his salad buffet approach to politics, saying he didn’t like being tied down by philosophy, but rather is “interested in the philosophy of the future”.
Cue mentions of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and French president Emmanuel Macron, “who take the best of the left and the best of the right… and stand up to the far left and the far right”.
That leaves plenty of wriggle room all right.
It also attempts to cast Coveney back in the mists of time, more specifically to a half a century ago when Fine Gael’s ‘Just Society’ document was launched.
Varadkar didn’t specifically mention the people who like to loll around in bed in the morning while he’s out in the Lycra, but he did say that Irish society cannot be split into “one group of people who feel they pay for everything but qualify for nothing due to means tests and another that believe they are entitled to everything for free and that others should pay for it”.
He’s not just appealing to the core Fine Gael voter but possibly even those former Progressive Democrat voters who may still be out there without a political home.
He also spoke of how compassion “should guide us in all that we do” and there should be a threshold of decency below which nobody can fall.
But his proposal to legislate to make Labour Court recommendations binding on employers and unions in “essential public and security services”, because people should no longer be inconvenienced by strike action, sent out a very definite right-wing signal.
He clarified that this would apply after a Labour Court recommendation had been made, and mentioned those involved in emergency services and “life and death” services, as well as air traffic control, but didn’t rule out bus and Luas workers.
On the Citizens’ Assembly on the issue of abortion access and repealing the eighth amendment to the Constitution, he said its recommendations would be refined into a question that would be put in a referendum next year and there would be no whip on Fine Gael party members.
Varadkar indicated that he would be in favour of allowing abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where the long-term health of the woman is at risk, and in cases of rape.
He said he would want Fine Gael to be a “warm house” for those who are traditional or have liberal views on the issue. His own view on abortion has evolved over time, he said, but he didn’t believe a leader’s view should define party policy. A bit like not tying yourself down to any particular political philosophy, not leading or being seen to lead on the abortion issue, could equally be viewed as a cop-out.
Varadkar and Coveney agree on its availability in cases of rape. Both could do with studying some of the contributions to the Citizens’ Assembly, particularly that of NUI Galway’s legal expert Tom O’Malley, which made it starkly clear that trying to legislate in specific cases of rape was nigh-on impossible under our current legal system.
As with the other issues, though, Varadkar handled this issue with fluency, using those considerable communications skills of his. His policy launch was a definite success.
He just needs to continue as he has been doing to stay on course to win this race. The questions remain on his ultimate ability to deliver once in office, but he has done as much as possible to quell them for now.
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