When Harry met Leo: Fine Gael frontrunner awaits crowning moment

Varadkar is relaxed, confident and combative, especially when it comes to Sinn Féin

Harry McGee meets the hot favourite to become next Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and asks him about the pressures of the job, building bridges with Simon Coveney and his plans for the first 100 days. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

The location is a provincial hotel in Navan Co Meath but the style could be Cleveland. A group of enthusiastic supporters crowd at the entrance of the Ardboyne Hotel wielding multicoloured placards, bearing only one word: “Leo.” With a bit of ticker-tape, a sprinkling of glitz (and, okay, a lot of imagination), this might be a staged stop on a Democratic (or should that be Republican) primary.

Almost on the eve of near-certain victory, Leo Varadkar arrives at the hotel very late (a Dáil debate) but very unflustered indeed. He gets out of the car early and walks up along the driveway to the entrance, moving his tall and slim frame in the relaxed unhurried manner of a farmer walking his fields.

This is a strange period. The campaign is still on but everybody knows that it’s over. After Varadkar stole a huge march in the early stages, his rival Simon Coveney mounted a hurried counter-reformation by focusing on the grassroots. It had an impact on the campaign, especially when Coveney edged the first-three hustings. The turning point (if there was one) for Varadkar came in the last hustings before a slightly hostile audience in Cork when he directly and abrasively challenged Coveney’s charge that he was right-wing, was poor on delivery, and would not broaden the appeal of the party.

Varadkar has arrived in Navan to canvass the members from the two Meath constituencies who are voting on Thursday night. He tells you that Meath is like a microcosm of the country, with a traditional rural aspect and a newer cosmopolitan population, who live in satellite towns for Dublin such as Ashbourne, Dunshaughlin, Dunboyne, and Ratoath.

It’s also a microcosm for the contest. The Meath West TD Damien English and councillors have sided with Coveney, while Meath East Deputies Regina Doherty and Helen McEntee have sided with Varadkar.

Varadkar tells his supporters that if he won all three electoral colleges, especially the membership, it would give him an incredible mandate. He’ll win the other two (and ergo the contest) but Coveney could win the third. Even here in Meath, it seems more of the members patiently waiting to vote back the Cork politician.

Confident

As we sit down, Varadkar is relaxed, confident, reflective and combative, especially when it comes to Sinn Féin. He does have a reputation for being a straight talker. You sometimes cynically think that that demonstrates a mastery of the dark arts, that he is so slick at spinning that he appears unspun. But his short clipped responses - especially his hard prose on Sinn Féin and left-wing groups - point to a politician who largely says it as he sees it.

So on the threshold of a huge change in his life, is he nervous or burdened, or is he relaxed.

“This represents a real opportunity. We are one of the youngest countries in Europe. What we will have in Ireland is a generational change for the first time in a very long time.

“It represents a new chapter in Ireland’s development We have gone through a very difficult ten years, the worst recession in a generation. But by moving on to a new Taoiseach and a new generation of leaders, we can explore and imagine where the country can go from here on. That is very exciting.”

But it’s a big step-up. Later this month, he will represent Ireland at a crucial European Union Summit in Brussels. Does he not sense the pressure or the burden of office? If he does, he does not show it.

“I am very conscious there is a big leap going from being Minister to being head of a Government, just as it was going from Opposition to government.

“It’s something I’m prepared for. It’s something I’m really up for. And also I think when it comes to foreign relations, Enda Kenny has left us in a very good position.

“What was negotiated on Brexit puts us in a very good position. And also we are very fortunate to have very good diplomatic staff in Brussels and Dublin.

“I’m starting in a very good place. There’s a lot to be done as well.”

The conventional yardstick to judge any new administration is the first 100 days in office, something that was first pioneered by Roosevelt in the 1930s. Will it be any different for him?

“It’s not going to be a traditional first 100 days. The first 100 days usually happens after you win an election or there is a change in government, not a change of Taoiseach mid-term.

“Whether it’s me or Simon we are inheriting a confidence-and-supply agreement with Fianna Fáil, a Programme for Government agreed with the Independent Alliance which we will stand over both.

“What I would like to do over the first couple of weeks is hit the ground running and build on some of the the things that are in the programme already but also build on the some of the ideas I put across during the campaign.

“It will be important that a refreshed cabinet and a new leadership team demonstrates very early on in the first couple of weeks that we are different in substance and not in style.”

Left and right

So to the substance. Coveney repeatedly accused him during the hustings of taking the party to the right? He rejects this characterisation.

“Concepts of left and right don’t work in modern politics and probably never really worked in Ireland because of our history.

“I find it strange when people in this contest wanted to frame today’s debate about the future the context of ideologies from the 1980s and even from the 1960s, which if you look at them.

“Half are no-brainers, part of mainstream politics now.

The other half, nobody would take seriously any more.”

So where will he bring Fine Gael then?

"What I am looking to is philosophies for the future. Where I would place Fine Gael is at the centre, broadly a socially liberal part but one that is economically liberal and globalist and open to the world, and very much part of Europe and a world that is free trade and free enterprise.

But one of course, and it’s the role of any government to look after all citizens. A political party has to have a distinctive position on issues and has to have priorities.”

John Lennon once lambasted his erstwhile creative partner Paul McCartney for having only one great achievement, Yesterday. Varadkar’s opponents say the same about him, that he has the Gathering and the Wild Atlantic Way but precious little else to show from is ministries.

He rejects this: “One of the things said about me that while I might be very good at media performance that I was not necessarily that good on policy or detail.

‘A lot of people remarked to me on the hustings is that I was doing very well on the Q and A, new policy, new detail,” he replies.

Opposition

After the election last year, Fianna Fáil negotiators found Varadkar the most obdurate and partisan of the Fine Gael team. He was also very flinty in his prose about Sinn Féin during this campaign. Does this signal the beginning of a cold war between Fine Gael and the two other large parties?

“We have a working relationship with Fianna Fáil, there has to be a confidence and supply agreement. We require their acquiescence or support for a lot of things in parliament,” he says.

He goes on to say:

“But I do think both parties need to be distinctive and don’t want people to think incorrectly we are both in government together, we are not.”

And then follows his most combative sentiments: “When it comes to Sinn Féin and the left wing groups, I really want to take them on.

“I think a lot of the narrative they put across doesn’t stand up and has been a disaster in every country where it has been tried, from Greece to Venezuela, and needs to be challenged. “It is almost treated like mainstream politics in Ireland and it shouldn’t be. I’m looking forward to taking it on and you know also as well.”

We have had over a year of Danish-style consensus politics. The early signal is that a Varadkar government will reset Irish politics back to factory settings: more partisan and confrontational.