GERARD HOWLIN: Leo Varadkar’s opening gambit left Fianna Fáil with two moves — neutral or nuclear

Máire Whelan. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Gerard Howlin believes Leo Varadkar was right to know Fianna Fáil would not pull the house down over her appointment to the Court of Appeal.

WHEREVER between cool and cavalier the Taoiseach’s dismissal of Fianna Fáil’s concern’s over the appointment of Máire Whelan lie, it will have consequences.

The contrast between nonchalance towards an issue with potential to undermine the government, and the schmaltz of prime ministering to Downing St as Hugh Grant in Love Actually is telling, as all first impressions are.

My first impression of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach is that he shouldn’t be underestimated.

My second is that his greatest danger is from himself. Imitating Grant’s prime minister in No 10 he may dance down the stairs once too often.

As a veteran of disco I know too well the impulse to shimmy to the music, but it is best controlled. It looked too much like disregard towards someone you are dependent on, regarding Fianna Fáil. I don’t know how it will end, but I do feel when that end unfurls, we will have reason to think back to the beginning, last weekend.

Varadkar made Micheál Martin and Jim O’Callaghan look weak. I understand the attraction of the move, and note the aplomb it was delivered with. But I am less sure of its utility.

There is a reason some politicians end up dancing on Strictly. They failed in politics. Edginess was always going to be the premise of the relationship between the new Taoiseach and the leader of the opposition.

Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin were hardly buddies. But Varadkar is younger, supposedly has the X-factor and is going to lead Fine Gael into the head-to-head battle of the next election.

For Martin that is likely to mean the Taoiseach’s office or the scrap heap. I don’t see him dancing into the sunset. But I suppose you never really know how someone sees themselves in the mirror, while on their own. The Taoiseach let us look over his shoulder in Downing St on Monday and we saw Hugh Grant.

What Varadkar has delivered as his opening move is to put it up to Fianna Fáil. He fairly told them publicly they really only have two moves to make, neutral or nuclear.

He judged correctly they wouldn’t press the nuclear button. But he has upped the stakes. He has accentuated a dynamic that would have been present in any event.

The accentuation he added specifically, is pressure within Fianna Fáil to push back, and the willingness of its leadership to do so.

On his first full day in the Dáil as Taoiseach yesterday he met a main opposition party which feels they had their noses rubbed in muck that came off the slippers of the attorney general just as she stepped up out of the political arena onto the judicial bench.

The irony, given their origins, is that it is even before anyone imagined Shane Ross in cabinet, that Fine Gael and Labour made hay about procedures and process on state appointments. Cronyism was a theme of their attack over 14 years in opposition.

It was also, as it transpired, a pattern of activity for them, when they arrived in government. It was always thus. So why make a fuss? Well, they insisted again and again, this is not who or what we are. We are fundamentally different.

In being fundamentally different, they do have some claim on the truth. What is cronyism for Fianna Fáil, is for Fine Gael and Labour simply appointing the right people, who by definition must be among their number.

Where with Fianna Fáil it would be tawdry grasping, for others it is generously giving. Unless you have sufficient self-regard, you can never grasp the distinction. Varadkar was right to know Fianna Fáil wouldn’t pull the house down.

He sensed, there was no public outrage either. I think people saw clearly what was afoot in relation to Máire Whelan and decided it was simply horse-trading. It is not a transaction that can be properly wrapped in pious platitudes, but she is run of the mill when it comes to judicial appointments. The problem is the overall standard of those appointments is conspicuously lower.

She is not singlehandedly responsible for that. But as attorney general for six years it has to be assumed she contributed. The underlying problem here is assuming that de-politising appointments makes for better outcomes.

Nonsense. In fairness the Judicial Appointments Board (JAB), which was an outcome of the debacle of Harry Whelehan’s appointment as president of the High Court, served a purpose.

It ensured applicants were tax compliant and weeded out known incompetents, usually. Thereafter longish lists were sent for political consideration. It worked reasonably well, and no change is required.

Change, in the offing at the request of Shane Ross, will diminish the number of suitable applicants and put power in a place where it is utterly unaccountable, namely among the unelected.

This is retrograde. Of course the government should politically appoint judges and state boards. Good that they might be a first cut to establish a baseline. Sub contraction to a professional class of vetters, who are invariably middle class functionaries of some hue, deepens the democratic deficit.

Scrutiny should be at the end of the pipe line. Political appointees should have to present themselves and their credentials to the legislature for ratification in an open forum. You double down on democratic accountability, not close it down. The Whelan problem is that at the end, she turned out to be emblematic of what the Labour project swore it wasn’t. Far more honourable to say as attorney general she wished to go on the bench. There is long precedent that she should. But instead, palaver about process. And the process was about supposed correctness. Hugh Grant can do comedy, but it takes true talent. Mostly politicians are poor at it. Máire Whelan became the joke.

And the Taoiseach, like Albert Reynolds before, kicked the dog on the porch. There will hardly be direct repercussions, unless something else emerges. But it was hardly worth it. Because there will be consequences. There is now an undercurrent and there is always a next issue and another day.

V

ARADKAR will be vulnerable, and whether or not Martin has the patience, he may no longer have the permission for restraint. I hardly knew Albert Reynolds. But I saw him in action, on the dancefloor. There is nothing since in Strictly that could compare to Kathleen and himself in full flight across the floor.

It was vintage showband. In retirement he could have coached Hugh Grant as the prime minister dancing down those stairs in Downing Street. He had climbed every step of them so often. If I were Leo Varadkar I’d restrict my Hugh Grant impersonations to a very select private audience.

As a Taoiseach in the middle of “temporary little arrangement” I’d think twice before impersonating Albert Reynolds again.

What Varadkar has delivered as his opening move is to put it up to Fianna Fáil


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