'I'm trying to be a bit more subtle, but my instinct is to say it as I see it'
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: LEO VARADKAR:His ambition and arrogance have made the Fine Gaeler one of the highest-profile politicians of his generation, but can Leo Varadkar learn the art of restraint?
EARLIER THIS YEAR, when the Fine Gael leadership battle was cranking up, leading members of both Enda Kenny’s camp and Richard Bruton’s began to personalise it and, to use the glorious hurling euphemism, giving it timber. A bit of needle was directed towards the Dublin West TD Leo Varadkar, who was firmly in the Bruton camp.
One of Varadkar’s first acts during the campaign was to delete his account for Twitter, the mini blog that lets you send out short messages to the world from your mobile phone or computer. The reason? “It was just to stop myself sending tweets that I would later regret.” The action illustrates two strong, and sometimes clashing, traits in Varadkar’s political make-up: self-discipline and a tendency to be outspoken.
New TDs arriving in Leinster House, especially the younger ones, look like kids arriving at boarding school for the first time. Most just keep their heads down at the start and slowly begin to assert themselves as they gain more confidence. Not Varadkar.
Within a week of being elected to the Dáil in 2007, the then 28-year-old went straight for Bertie Ahern’s jugular, excoriating the taoiseach of the day for being “both devious and cunning”. He continued the speech despite being heckled by Fianna Fáil’s heavy artillery, in the shape of Willie O’Dea and Dermot Ahern. His contribution prompted Bertie Ahern to express on radio the wish that Varadkar would not last a wet week in the Dáil.
The first list of adjectives colleagues use to describe Varadkar contains many compliments: confident, bright, articulate, hard-working, policy-oriented, clear-thinking, talented and ambitious. But there is a second list of not so well-intended adjectives: arrogant, precocious, outspoken, full of himself, abrasive, insensitive and ambitious.
“He is so arrogant sometimes that it is unbelievable,” says a Dublin-based colleague who is fond of him. “His ambition rules everything he does.” But that combination of traits, at the age of 31, has made Varadkar one of the highest-profile politicians of his generation. Some Fine Gaelers have privately identified him as a potential future leader of the party.
Varadkar is conscious that he can rub people up the wrong way and that it could turn out to be detrimental. “I acknowledge that, and am trying to be a bit more subtle,” he says.
But often he can’t help himself. “My instinct is to say it as I see it, being a little bit edgy and showing leadership on policy issues. I have always stuck my neck out on policy issues.”
In a remarkable outburst in March this year he used a bizarre argument when criticising the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, in the Dáil. He compared him to the former Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald, who, he said, had tripled the national debt and destroyed the county. He told Cowen he should go and start “writing boring articles in The Irish Times”,a reference to FitzGerald’s weekly column. The outburst caused consternation within Fine Gael.
Varadkar later apologised, but his repentance remains qualified. “I was having a go at Cowen. Garret just got caught in the crossfire,” he says matter-of-factly.
“If I was to do a proper critique of Garret, he was a brilliant foreign minister and leader of the opposition. If I had a concern, as we are entering another Fine Gael-Labour coalition, Fine Gael in 1982 were elected to fix the problem. They did not practise fiscal responsibility: that’s why they were voted for, but they gave in to Labour. That’s why we had a recession in the 1980s. You can see the big mistakes they made in the 1980s. They tried to tax their way out of recession. They put taxes up to 62 per cent.”
So what would he do differently?
“Fine Gael needs to be Fine Gael and needs to stand its ground. It should not sacrifice its politics for position in government. We need to stand over our policies when negotiating a programme for government.
“Of course there will be compromise. We want a three-to-one ratio of cuts to tax increases. Labour wants the ratio to be one-to-one. If we agree it would be two-to-one, I would be prepared to live with that. With higher taxes you will never get growth.”
When Varadkar first entered the Dáil, he became friendly with the Cork East senator Paul Bradford, a politician noted for his wry observations. “Paul said to me: Leo, I see you are one of these people who are interested in policy. It will do you no good in this place!” But policy and ideas form the beginning and the end of his involvement in politics, he says.
His family has no party-political background, and he joined Fine Gael at 16 on the basis of what it stood for.
His background is conventional Dublin suburban middle class. His father is a Hindu from near Mumbai, in India, who met his mother, a nurse from Dungarvan, in Slough, in England. Later they lived in Leicester, where the eldest of the three children, his sister Sophie, was born. The family then moved to India, but the experiment was short-lived. “It was just after the India-Pakistan war. It was not a nice time. My mum was too young to live in a new country.”
The family moved to Ireland in the late 1970s, shortly before Varadkar was born. His father worked at the now defunct Harcourt Street Hospital for years before setting up his own GP practice in Roselawn, in northwest Dublin. “It was a very old-fashioned practice. In those days patients came to the front door. The sitting room was the waiting room.”
He was brought up a Catholic and spent his summers at his mother’s family home, near Dungarvan, in Co Waterford. Ever the anorak, Varadkar looked up his family tree when the 1902 census became available online. He discovered that his great-grandfather Thomas Howell was a shoemaker who bought his leather in the Tannery in the town (it’s now a fancy restaurant) and sold his wares in the market square.
He visited India only once during his childhood, when he was 14. He found it overpowering. “Looking back, I was too young. It was too much.”
Much later, as a 21-year-old medical student, he spent a few months there as part of a voluntary medical programme. Spending longer there this time, he began to look beyond the poverty and established a strong connection. He now regrets he did not learn Hindi as a child.
He and his two sisters were to follow in the family’s medical tradition. Sophie is a consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in London, and Sonia is a midwife. Varadkar followed the same path: secondary education at King’s Hospital and medicine at Trinity College. But his growing interest in politics, which was an interest at school, became a near obsession at college.
“Some people arrive into a party through an intellectual process. I had an ideological connection to a party. A big part of it was the values of the party. It told people the truth even when they did not want to hear it.
“Fianna Fáil were never left or right. In their spending they were a left-wing party. They cut taxes like a right-wing party. You would never hear a Fine Gael person say when we have it, we spend it.
“I liked the idea of prudent conservatism. Another thing that was important, too, was Europe. John Proton said a Europe worth building is a Europe worth defending. Fianna Fáil regarded Europe as an ATM.
“There was also a sneaking regard in Fianna Fáil for the IRA, where Fine Gael would not have any time for that.”
If Varadkar lived in Britain he would clearly be Tory, or a Republican if he lived in the US. But he rejects the label of right-wing that is attached to him. He says people are ideologically illiterate in Ireland and, even though they think left is good and right is bad, they tend to vote centre-right.
He quotes Adam Smith more than once: “Smith said before you distribute it you have to create it. People on the left never have a real sense of how you get wealth creation,” he says.
The Fine Gael branch at Trinity was moribund when he started there. But it was completely re-energised by Varadkar and Lucinda Creighton, now the TD for Dublin South East, who arrived the following year. They remain good friends. In terms of assertion, too, both seemed hewn from the same political granite.
Varadkar says they gave the branch “a bit of street cred”, built the base from 30 up to more than 200, hosting social nights and organising trips to Brussels. He says he probably gave the impression then of somebody who knew it all. But he had a lot to learn.
In his second year in university, at the age of 20, he ran in the 1999 local elections and got only 400 votes. To cap it all, he failed his exams. His parents worried that politics was too much of a distraction. Later, they reconciled themselves to the fact their son would not be taking over the general practice that they had spent so long building up.
He graduated from medicine in 2003. But in the same year he was co-opted on to Fingal County Council. In 2004 he ran in his own right in the local elections and got 4,800 votes, the highest in the country. From there he was marked as a potential TD.
He found it hard to match the long hours of being a councillor with the even longer hours of being a junior hospital doctor. “It was extremely difficult. I spent every other waking moment [working in politics].”
It worked. He regained the Fine Gael seat in Dublin West in 2007, wresting it from the popular socialist Joe Higgins. From day one Fine Gael had him on a fast track. Varadkar was handed the enterprise portfolio and took to a responsible brief as if he had been doing it all his life.
Those who follow Varadkar know that, like the Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd, he is also a journalist manqué. He makes dozens of Freedom of Information requests, including some into the expenses bills run up by Fás executives.
“When the Dáil is in recess I make a huge pile of documents in my sitting room near the armchair and work through them. When the Dáil is sitting it’s hard to get through stuff like ESRI papers and reports by Tasc and NESC and the like.”
There’s more: “When I went on my holidays to Italy this summer, I got my secretary to post out old reports and research papers each day. I’d spend two hours reading beside the pool each day.”
His success in the 2007 election – not to mention all that extra reading – probably put paid to his medical career, although he keeps the hand in. He qualified fully as a GP several weeks ago and still does one session on call each month. “I enjoy it when I do it. Only about 25 per cent recognise me. It’s good for your psychology. When you are in the political bubble you think that everybody recognises you, but they do not.”
But the political sphere is where his ambitions lie. Fianna Fáil, he says, needs to be cleansed, and the only place for that to happen is in opposition. He thinks a grand coalition of the centre-right and centre-left would be good, but not now. He believes a Fine Gael-led government will have about a year to take really hard decisions. He has also been upfront that cuts should be almost savagely front-loaded.
“It’s very important that we are prepared to be unpopular, because people will forget that we did not cause the mess.”
He was on the wrong side of the leadership battle but was quickly offered a place in the shadow cabinet, as energy spokesman. Some say his part in the attempted heave has ruined his chance of becoming a full minister, though it is agreed he will get a senior junior at the very least. Others point out that he flip-flopped, supporting Kenny very early on in public before declaring for the other side.
When he’s not challenging his party’s leadership or reading reports by the pool, Varadkar still listens to The Cure, goes to the gym regularly and goes out with friends – he went to see Gorillaz at the O2 last week, he says. He travels a lot on holidays and consumes biographies: Alastair Campbell’s, Peter Mandelson’s and Tony Blair’s, which he considers the best.
He also says he took part in student protests – the last one against the military dictatorship in Burma – but immediately adds: “The difficulty I have with students at the moment is they are demanding fairness but their concept of it is ‘look after me and my interests’.”
And the Twitter account? It’s back up, although it has been on its best behaviour since the summer.
BornDublin, January 18th, 1979.
EducatedKing’s Hospital, Palmerstown; Trinity College Dublin.
Family Single.His father is a GP from India; his mother is a nurse from Dungarvan. He has two sisters: one a hospital consultant, the other a midwife.
CareerQualified as a medical doctor. GP. Fine Gael TD for Dublin West since 2007. Party spokesman on Energy and Communications
ReputationDespite voting against Enda Kenny’s leadership he is seen as a rising star in Fine Gael. Centre-right views, outspoken, seen by some as arrogant at times.