ALISON O'CONNOR: Varadkar hasn’t done much in first year yet he’s still ahead of the rest

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with former Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Exactly what it said on the tin — that’s what Leo Varadkar has done in the year since he was elected as our Taoiseach, give or take a few diversions. He has delivered for parliamentary party colleagues who elected him on the basis that he would increase Fine Gael’s popularity, broaden the party’s appeal, and bring a good dollop of that elusive X factor.

It’s probably fair to say that even the 65% of the wider Fine Gael party who did not vote for him in the leadership contest must feel somewhat appeased that even if their man, Simon Coveney, did not win, the one that did has been very good for the party.

In the discussion of politics, disasters are always given more coverage than successes.

While Varadkar has skated very close to the edge on one or two notable occasions, the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald as justice minister being one, given his relative youth and newness to the job, he has, all in all, had a very good 12 months.

He can still be socially awkward, will never pass any glad-handing tests, and has any number of colleagues in the Dáil who are better public speakers than him, but he has found his own way of doing things.

Earlier this week, this newspaper’s political correspondent Elaine Loughlin wrote of how this time last year the world looked on as an openly gay man of Indian heritage became leader of a small country on the edge of Europe.

While the international media made much of Varadkar’s backstory, it was almost a footnote to the Irish public, she added.

This is absolutely true. Sometimes I think we don’t quite realise the significance of how much we have moved on as a country.

The recent description on Twitter, by John Taylor, or Lord Kilclooney, of our Taoiseach as a “typical Indian” (denying subsequently he was racist!), were appalling.

But if there is any positive to be taken from such disgusting remarks, it is that Irish voters don’t give a hoot about Varadkar’s heritage, and those particular remarks highlight that even in the cesspit that can be social media, Taylor stands out as a racist oddity.

Nor, it seems, are people that bothered by his homosexuality. There were a few mutterings from his own party early on about the number of gay pride events he was attending, but only in the context of other things not being done, not out of any intolerance.

Not that long ago it would have been difficult to imagine us having an abortion referendum without our Taoiseach’s “gayness” being used as part of the armoury of the no side — all it would have taken were a few bots posting a few tweets.

How wonderful to think it was considered so utterly beyond the pale and, ultimately, counter-productive that it simply did not happen.

Now we don’t want to get totally carried away here with how liberal we Irish are now as a race. The Taoiseach has the political advantage of looking like most Irish people do, except he’s always got a wonderfully healthy glow.

Reflecting on the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, he will always be credited as the Taoiseach who got the proposal through the Oireachtas and, ultimately, the public.

During the campaign there were some criticisms that he could have taken a more upfront role. In hindsight, and with the large majority that backed yes, it can be said he was wise to play it safer and not lay himself open to being accused of having a far too liberal agenda as a result of his own life experience.

There was considerable political skill involved in this most contentious of issues being finally dealt with in Irish society; how remarkable that there was no internal Fine Gael strife (at least none that spilled over), despite a significant number of TDs and senators being no voters.

Again, no one would have predicted this in advance and that stands in such sharp contrast to the experience with the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act, 2013.

At the end of his first year in charge, the two main opposition leaders that face Leo Varadkar across the floor of the Dáil chamber find themselves in significantly different positions.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has gotten off to a flying start in her new job, while Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin suffers the never-ending difficulty of having a significant rump of his parliamentary party not appreciating a good leader. More pointedly Fianna Fail is left facing a Taoiseach they are simply not sure how to deal with effectively, or how to take on in a general election.

The biggest slur they have managed to throw at Leo Varadkar is that he is image-obsessed and all spin and no substance.

Certainly at times, like during the recent extreme weather events, the videos, the outfit changes, and being flanked on the telly by a garda and a soldier would appear to prove that point.

But he is capable of learning lessons, whether through self protection or simply copping on, and it will be interesting to see if he manages to reign in those excesses in the future.

There’s an interesting video on the Fine Gael website which sums up much of the Varadkar approach. It’s billed as a town-hall conversation with the Taoiseach, where he is on a stage in the Mountmellick Macra na Feirme hall being interviewed by Fine Gael MEP and former journalist Mairead McGuinness.

The audience is sitting in the usual way audiences do at political meeting do in a local hall, row by row, facing the stage. But the set is carefully curated, all shabby ’70s chic with a slub green sofa, standard lamp with fringed shade, three ceramic swallows flying up the wall, and what looks like velvet patterned wallpaper.

As well as taking questions from the party faithful in the hall, live links brought in Fine Gael meetings in Donegal, Bantry, and Sligo with their own carefully choreographed questions. It was nicely stage-managed, and apart from some small technical glitches, went off very well.

Clearly there was no prospect of an ambush here and we heard everything from his thoughts on Syria to how he tries, but doesn’t always succeed, to get to the gym four times a week, around 7am.

Even allowing for the home crowd, the Taoiseach came across very well — giving all the appearance of being open and direct and with that “telling it as it is” shtick that he has down to a fine art.

A year in, it’s impossible to tell how much of Leo Varadkar is marketing, how much is heartfelt, how much is sensibly, simply keeping up with the way the world works now.

He faces any amount of major challenges — Brexit, homelessness, the dire state of our health services — none of which have come close to being solved by any of his input; indeed health and housing have deteriorated significantly and in fairness Brexit is a beast of multiple parts.

But whatever the truth, he has had a very good first year and is well placed for a general election any time soon.


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