A minister with a refreshing frankness – his strength and Achilles heel

Apart from frankness, Varadkar has other assets. He is young, competent and telegenic

 Leo Varadkar:  refreshing directness. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Leo Varadkar: refreshing directness. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

Leo Varadkar needs to be careful. Such is his press and public acclaim these days that some of Enda Kenny’s apparatchiks might decide become to do a Mo Mowlam on the Minister for Health.

Mowlam was at the height of her popularity as a straight-talking secretary for Northern Ireland when British prime minister Tony Blair addressed the Labour Party conference in Blackpool in 1998. Blair’s speech included a passage expressing gratitude to each of his cabinet members, which ended with the line “and of course I want to thank our very own Mo”.

As he said this, the large hall of delegates rose instantly to deliver a sustained standing ovation for Mowlam. News channel commentators whispered over the applause in awe about the extraordinary response of conference to the mere mention of her name. After the delegates had resumed their seats Blair commented: “I think I can say without fear of contradiction that that is the first time there has been a standing ovation in the middle of a speech – and the person getting the ovation is not even the person making the speech.”

Cabinet enforcer

A narrative developed from that moment – Blair grew increasingly insecure about Mowlam’s popularity and suspicious of her leadership ambitions. He demoted her from Northern Ireland secretary to a vague role as “cabinet enforcer” a year later.

Whatever about the reliability of that narrative it is clear that in the months after the conference both Blairites and those close to Gordon Brown systematically briefed against Mowlam. Among those spinning strongest against her was Peter Mandelson, who became Northern Ireland secretary when Mowlam was pushed aside.

There were no standing ovations for Varadkar at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, this week but there were at least two occasions when the mere mention of his name by others gave rise to spontaneous and sustained applause.

The first such was on Monday morning during a presentation by management consultant Eddie Molloy that focused on the lack of accountability in Irish government and administration. Molloy name-checked Varadkar as a rare example of a politician prepared to speak frankly about failings.

Garda whistle

blowers He instanced how last March, when it seemed the Government might have been able to shuffle on from the controversy surrounding Garda whistle

blowers, Varadkar had gone out of his way to praise them publicly.

The then minister for transport, tourism and sport had just returned from St Patrick’s Day duties in the southern United States when he reignited the controversy in scripted remarks at a road safety conference, saying he would describe Sgt Maurice McCabe and retired Garda John Wilson as “distinguished” rather than disgusting. It was a speech that put Varadkar, as minister responsible for road safety, on a collision course with the then minister for justice, Alan Shatter.