IN ANY accession there is always that brief shining moment where we are all engulfed by optimism and friends and gainsayers alike gather to provide best wishes and high hopes as the heir apparent takes on the trappings of power.
This is not to say that yesterday’s assumption of office by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, the 14th of his line, will lead to a distinctly Irish version of Camelot; rather that he begins his stewardship with a considerable fund of goodwill on which to draw.
In its choice of the new leader, Ireland, like France with Emmanuel Macron, appears to have found a fresher guiding spirit to reinvigorate the political process and increase engagement. Both are the youngest ever to occupy their high offices; Leo Varadkar is a doctor by training while Emmanuel Macron is the son of a physician and a professor of neurology.
Both men run countries which are the nearest neighbours to Europe’s current problem child, the United Kingdom. Both nations have indelible historic and economic links across the Irish Sea and the Channel and their countries have considerable levels of self-interest in ensuring a smooth transition in the future. They are in a good position to offer wise counsel to a fellow leader who badly needs support and encouragement from someone. The suggestion to implement a beefed-up Brexit portfolio under the overall guidance of Simon Coveney is to be welcomed.
While Monsieur Macron has attracted attention to his private life because of his marriage to his school drama teacher, 24 years his senior, Mr Varadkar has achieved a notable success by becoming the first openly gay Irish leader, reinforcing this country’s increasing reputation as a progressive, tolerant and liberal-minded democracy.
They are in short, not only of public interest, but also interesting to the public which can be a formidable force which brings with it a potent cocktail of challenges.
For Mr Varadkar there will be some significant tests of his pragmatism and political acumen. Will he be able to carry his Dublin street smarts into the wider country? While his hustings pledge that he would be the candidate for people who “get up early in the morning” rolled off the tongue and was an attractive sound bite it will be his responsibility to create a jobs and reward economy and a “republic of opportunity” that is worth getting up for.
The most formidable social issue between the concept of the “old” Ireland and the “new” may yet fall on Mr Varadkar’s watch and it will be the potentially highly divisive issue of what to do, if anything, about the Eighth Amendment and abortion. It seems impossible to avoid a referendum, at some stage and much will depend on the precise wording of the question. There is also the timing of a putative Papal visit to Ireland in 2018.
But this is for the future. For now Mr Varadkar must be welcomed with the good wishes of all. Any man who is willing and happy to share a pilates class with an opponent of the calibre of Gerry Adams already possesses one of the prerequisites for political survival — flexibility.
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