GERARD HOWLIN: Indifference and detachment will be key to Leo’s success as Taoiseach

In the great film The Last Mitterrand the dying protagonist and president of France identifies indifference as the critical quality required for leadership. It’s the necessary detachment — especially from friends and former causes.

Leo Varadkar doesn’t need just yet the depths of indifference François Mitterrand summoned with such regularity to ditch causes and dispatch friends. But it is a phenomenon of the Taoiseach’s office that you leave with fewer friends than you enter with.

“They hate me because I am a traitor. I was one of them. I know them well,” reminisced Mitterrand.

Jeremy Thorpe put it memorably to Harold Macmillan across the floor of the House of Commons in 1962 after the night of the long knives: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”.

Leaders must persevere. Self-preservation is the first requirement of that attribute.

Next Tuesday afternoon Leo Varadkar will enact one of the great pomps of a Taoiseach’s power. He will be driven away from Áras an Uachtaráin after being appointed as Taoiseach by the President. Having arrived there from Leinster House, he will return instead to Government Buildings.

There for the first time, but only briefly, he will enjoy the accommodation of the Taoiseach’s office. Whatever the years ahead hold he must now focus on the clock. In adjourning the Dáil to accommodate his visit to the President, a time will have been fixed for it to reassemble.

Those who do assemble on all sides of the chamber, are essentially the losers.

There are those in opposition who lost the election, or at least lost out in the formation of government. Those on the government benches, who assemble and wait for him to re-arrive, have not been chosen by the new Taoiseach for cabinet — the new cabinet lineout he will lead into the chamber. It’s spectator sport. It’s brutal.

In his office in Government Buildings, cleared of signs a predecessor had ever been there, the Taoiseach summons those he intends to appoint. He may have told some of his intentions in advance. Others will be exhilarated, and some simply relieved to be called to see him.

If on the backbenches they will leave Leinster House, or the ministerial corridor in Government Buildings if they are already a minister. They then pass through the electronically-controlled door that separates the north block of Government Buildings from the Department of the Taoiseach.

Behind them over several floors are the ministerial offices, the cabinet room and the Attorney General’s office linked by an overhead walkway to Leinster House beyond.

Inside and ahead of them is a long corridor of red carpet running the entire length of Government Buildings. The space was architecturally designed to match Mitterrand’s friend Charles Haughey’s hauteur.

At its end, those called turn left. Directly ahead is the Taoiseach’s office. On either side here in the south block of the building are rooms for the civil servants in his private office and rooms reserved for his political advisers.

This corridor ends in an apse and there as a striking metaphor for all who enter is a marvellous Children of Lir sculpture by Oisin Kelly. Within, the two chairs for visitors placed facing the Taoiseach’s desk are slightly lower than his. It was designed to be so in a meticulously curated space.

Before the process of appointments can begin, there is the altogether more difficult issue of disappointment.

Who serving at cabinet now will be told there is no longer any room for them? Will they be told by phone; told in person in advance; or forced to walk there and back to hear their fate? The body language and every facial twitch of everyone called over, and coming back is watched by endless eyes.

Given his handsome victory, and the permanent uncertainty about the lifespan of the government, it would seem unwise and churlish to rock the boat now. But it is of such as these that Mitterrand remarked in the movie: “They hate me because I am a traitor. I was one of them. I know them well”. But at least they are chosen for their role by a Taoiseach. It is un-chosen friends who may ultimately learn to “hate” the most.

In politics, enemies are often easier than friends. Friends have much higher expectations. Paradoxically it is easier to mollify an opponent than assuage the hurt of one who has formerly been close. At least a few in Leinster House next week will feel acutely Gore Vidal’s sentiment that “every time a friend succeeds I die a little”. Those who will feel the most are those friends left behind. Not all who caballed can be called to cabinet.

Unlike France’s presidential system where a president is effectively an elected monarch, here the multi-seat constituency means every TD is a chieftain.

A landslide victory such as Fine Gael enjoyed in 2011 puts a taoiseach out of reach of his backbenchers for a time. But minority government and a Fine Gael party of 50 TDs, with an election potentially sooner rather than later, and later not long away, is a different matter.

To face the country, Leo Varadkar must do three things before returning to Áras an Uachtaráin and seek a dissolution of the 32nd Dáil.

Firstly he must persuasively tell a story of change and progress to the Irish people and begin to act it out. Secondly, he must avoid mistakes. Thirdly, he must enlist sitting Fine Gael TDs, or enough of them, to assist in the election or re-election of constituency colleagues.

The endless calibration of overlapping ambitions and needs in a complex political system heightens the consequences of appointments and disappointments. Among the un-chosen, most especially friends, there is an essential requirement for a Taoiseach to keep hope alive.

It must be implied, preferably with a heavy heart, that the wish to promote them has regrettably had to be deferred, but just for a little time. To make that time come sooner, it is essential Fine Gael returns two seats in the constituency if possible.

Where that is not viable, the shuffling on of older, or less talented, people has to be done with some decorum. The slot is almost vacant but not just yet. Stick with me, and I will see you right.

For all its grandeur the Taoiseach’s office is just another constituency clinic. An effective incumbent persuades, flatters and mollifies as many of his political colleagues, for a long as possible. But eventually, there is always a day of reckoning.

Needs must — and once stalwart friends — must be disappointed again. Others, once behind them in the queue, pass them out. Most of all, at a critical juncture, in order to move on, there must be a willingness to leave friends and policies behind. That requires indifference.


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