Last Sunday morning, I boarded an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to New York’s JFK airport.
I was in economy class, but had a view of who was boarding after me.
I knew Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would be on the flight, as was his team. We were all heading to New York for the Government’s official launch of its bid to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2021.
As I was getting settled, Diaspora Minister Ciaran Cannon passed me on his way to his economy seat and we exchanged hellos.
A few minutes later, Varadkar appeared at the door and was ushered quickly to his seat in business class. His chief of staff, Brian Murphy, who often abroad gets mistaken for the Taoiseach, and another top official also turned left at the door to enjoy the spoils of the best seats.
Super Junior Minister for Defence, Paul Kehoe, was also lucky enough to grab a seat in a plumb spot.
Varadkar’s press spokeswoman and private secretary were not so lucky and had to rough it with Cannon, myself, and the rest of the “ordinary” people.
That morning’s Mail on Sunday was fresh in my mind, as the paper’s political editor, John Lee, ran an exclusive interview with Independent TD Michael Lowry who, earlier that past week, had been convicted in court on tax offences. Lowry and his company, Garuda, were fined a total of €25,000.
In the interview, Lowry spoke plainly about his deal, which assured the Government of his support.
It was clear, for purely political reasons, Lowry agreed there would be no formal deal.
What Lowry made plain was that Varadkar, en route to becoming Taoiseach, rang him and canvassed him for support.
During that phonecall, Lowry said his support for Varadkar was unconditional, but had pointed out there were issues in his constituency, like Clonmel hospital, that needed money and attention.
That is a very large “but”.
The message was clear. Keep the goodies coming to Tipperary and I’ll back you.
This was despite the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal report in 2011, which concluded it was “beyond doubt” that Lowry imparted substantive information to Denis O’Brien, which was “of significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence”. Lowry’s role was described as “disgraceful and insidious”.
The report referred also to Lowry’s “cynical and venal abuse of office” and his brazen refusal to acknowledge the impropriety of his financial arrangements with Mr O’Brien and Ben Dunne.
Now, it is well-rehearsed that both Lowry and O’Brien have strongly rejected the findings of the tribunal and have described it as a “stitch-up”.
But Fine Gael in government accepted the findings of the report and supported a motion of censure on Lowry, which was passed by the Dail without a vote.
So, as we landed in JFK, we made our way into Manhattan for the first event of an intensive, two-day programme around the Government’s UN bid.
Varadkar, along with Tánaiste Simon Coveney, held a press conference mid-afternoon Sunday, New York time. Apart from the UN bid, the Lowry story was top of the agenda.
James Ward, the political correspondent of the Daily Mail, led the questioning of Varadkar on Lowry.
The Taoiseach confirmed the core aspect of Lowry’s claims, insofar as he did seek his support.
“When I was running for Taoiseach, before the vote happened in the Dail, I naturally rang around a number of independent TDs, to ask them for support or to ask them to abstain, as the case may be. As confirmed by Michael Lowry in his interview, he didn’t seek or set down any conditions, nor were any concessions made to him. So, he doesn’t have a formal agreement,” he said.
I then followed up with a question: “But do you not accept that you have a credibility problem, because your spokesman gave a very clear impression, last week, at the post Cabinet briefing, and separate to that, that there was no special arrangement, no deal.
"It is now clear that you canvassed Michael Lowry’s support, a man who is now a convicted criminal. That does not sit comfortably with many people. Is there not an inconsistency there?”
A clearly-irked Varadkar responded: “First of all, I would point you to comments I have made in the Dáil consistently on this and not a briefing a spokesperson gave.”
I pointed out that his spokesman speaks on his behalf, to which Varadkar said sharply: “I speak on my behalf.” Ouch.
That night, we were present as the Government invited 150 UN ambassadors to U2’s sold out show at Madison Square Garden.
From the stage, U2’s mouthy frontman, Bono gave a massive shout-out to
Varadkar, Coveney, and former President Mary Robinson, for their work on behalf of Ireland.
It was PR gold, from a Government point of view.
This was only bettered by Bono’s outing the night after, during the formal launch of the bid at UN headquarters. Varadkar, used to being the star attraction in the room, was relegated to the role of understudy for the understudy.
Undoubtedly, Bono was the main draw on the night and was mobbed by ambassador after ambassador, seeking to have a selfie taken.
But Robinson is also a star in UN circles and the cheers for her far outweighed those for either Vardkar or Coveney.
Between those two events, Varadkar held a private lunch, for a small group of diaspora based in America. At it, he made some mild enough criticisms of the media.
He had a bit of a lash at us political correspondents for being too numerous and too obsessed with tittle-tattle and trivial gossip.
Some of the annoyance expressed about this was the failure to inform the media of this gig, and that reporters had to scramble to report on it, as we were all boarding our planes home.
He primarily annoyed people by aligning himself with media-hating US president, Donald Trump.
On Thursday, back in Dublin, Varadkar confirmed he did say he sympathised with Trump and that the latter stands up to his critics in the media.
As someone who has largely gotten a favourable treatment from the Irish media, Varadkar’s comments reflected how sensitive he is about criticism.
He clearly did not like being asked about Lowry and one assumes he did not appreciate playing understudy to Bono and Robinson at his own gig.
Such sensitivity will need to be abandoned, if he wishes to remain in the high office he currently occupies.
At that doorstep on Thursday, the Taoiseach was asked a curveball question and rather than answer it immediately, he took his time and then declined to answer.
“Look, I can learn,” he quipped as he left.
That remains to be seen.
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