Nothing was said to dent Leo’s happiness. He could not stop smiling, and neither could his proud mother and father... Once the vote was passed, the family were engulfed by well-wishers from all sides of the floor, writes Lise Hand. 

IRELAND’S new Taoiseach is the youngest-ever. (Big deal). Ireland’s new Taoiseach has an ethnic heritage (No biggie). Ireland’s new Taoiseach is gay. (So?).

Ireland’s new Taoiseach used to do pilates with Gerry Adams. (What?! OMG! LOL!). Well. You think you know somebody.

It was the Sinn Féin leader who dropped this bombshell in front of that lesser-spotted political animal, a full house in the Dáil chamber. Leo Varadkar is “a decent man”, Gerry declared. “I don’t know him well though he and I once attended the same pilates class.” Leo’s expression suggested that he didn’t know whether to laugh or crawl under his chair. One sentence from Grizzly and his carefully-honed cool was in flitters on an exercise mat.

It’s tough at the top, as he’s about to find out. Yesterday was a huge day not just for him but for his proud family and partner who sat beaming in the distinguished visitors section, and most TDs on all sides of the chamber are mindful not to go in with boots flying on the new guy (it’s always a guy) on the day of his election.

But the Green’s affable Eamon Ryan couldn’t resist putting a non-leather, tofu-lined boot in when it was his turn to speak. “We wish him the best and we will work politely with him but we cannot vote for him. He is too right wing. Despite all the pilates, frappuccinos, skinny lattes, avocado mash and jogging, there is not a scintilla of green in him,” he spluttered.

Leo looked quite wounded.

There were bouquets and brickbats for Leo in equal measure — especially from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who had to walk a precarious tightrope between throwing a few digs to show his party’s independence, while not being so rude that the whole confidence-and-supply palaver would go up in a heap.

“The very definition of the job of Taoiseach and the Government is to represent all of the people. It is not about picking winners and losers or finding new labels to divide people. It is about representing every citizen,” he warned Leo.

A long line of opposition TDs were eager to speak. Despite voicing their disapproval of the new Fine Gael leader many of the leftwing deputies are delighted with Leo’s elevation. Simon Coveney, with all his fuzzy-left social justice agenda wouldn’t have done at all.

Instead they have a shiny new bete noir to coalesce against — a fire-breathing rabid right-winger who eats poor people for breakfast, a Maggie Thatcher in a blue shirt and running shorts. His “people who get up early in the morning” is the new “basket of deplorables”.

It is the dawn of Leo-Liberalism.

The family and partner Matthew Barrett (right) of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, with the President’s wife, Sabina Higgins, at Áras An Uachtaráin. Picture: Maxwellphotography.ie
The family and partner Matthew Barrett (right) of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, with the President’s wife, Sabina Higgins, at Áras An Uachtaráin. Picture: Maxwellphotography.ie

Richard Boyd Barrett gave short shrift to the “fanfare” of the past few weeks. “People want hope not hype, policies not pantomime,” he said. He pointed to the shock result in last week’s British election and the massive support for Jeremy Corbyn — a man outside the Westminster bubble who was talking about grassroots issues.

“They were not the issues the media were talking about, nor those with which the bubble was concerned. They were issues such as housing, health, education, equality and tax fairness,” said Richard, firing a warning shot that Leo’s honeymoon would be of short duration.

Even Mick Wallace, a chap who rarely shirks a verbal scrap, finished his critique on a gracious note. “We will be merciless in our efforts to hold him to account but we respect him and will treat him with respect and our criticism will never be personal. We will not be voting for him. We do not agree with his politics but we wish him well because it is in everybody’s interests,” he said.

Tipperary’s Mattie McGrath supplied a surreal moment, as only Mattie can do. He quoted from ‘The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. “Meet the old boss/Same as the new boss,” he quoted to much mirth.

But nothing was said to dent Leo’s happiness. He could not stop smiling, and neither could his proud mother and father, Miriam and Ashok, who closely followed proceedings. Once the vote was passed, the family were engulfed by well-wishers from all sides of the floor.

The Fine Gael TDs had been giddy all day. Earlier in the morning one backbencher was loitering close to the plinth, hoping for news of the new Cabinet sucking some sort of concoction through a straw. “It’s left over from Copper’s last night. I think it’s tequila,” he (half) joked. Others scurried about, checking out each other’s ties and suits like it was backstage at the Rose of Tralee. Anyone spotting new clobber was hoping for the sparkly tiara of a front bench seat.

All attention was on the new boss Leo and his family, including his adorable young niece and nephew, Susannah and Nicholas who solemnly signed the visitors log. And almost unnoticed, the old boss slipped away around 5pm. Enda Kenny had been sitting in the public restaurant having his dinner at the very moment when Leo Varadkar was in the Áras receiving his seal of office from President Higgins. As he departed from Leinster House a short while later, he was surrounded by a group of visitors who wished him well, but almost poignantly the last hand he shook was that of his old sparring-partner Gerry Adams who had waited quietly to say farewell to him, just before Enda got into his car and headed west.

But already every interested party was trying to look busy at the bottom of the staircase which leads to the ministerial corridor. Would Leo emulate Albert Reynolds’ Night of the Long Knives and sack a bunch of ministers, or would he play safe?

Mayo’s Michael Ring — a popular man around the place — ascended the stairs to a roof-rattling cheer. He took fright and scuttled down the corridor, for fear of hexing his chances. His hopes for a chair at the big table had been dashed twice before but now it looked like third time lucky for him.

And so it proved to be, when Leo finally led in his new cabinet just before 8pm. There was Ringer, happy as a clam. Not everyone looked so content, though, including a demoted Mary Mitchell O’Connor, and Sean Kyne and a downcast Simon Coveney who swaps the chaotic farrago of Housing for the chaotic farrago of Brexit and Foreign Affairs.

Leo unveiled his new(ish team), and then the opposition passed judgment. Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty was unimpressed. “After 20 minutes you look old and stale,” he told the new Taoiseach.

Poor Leo. The honeymoon’s over already.

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