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2017 politics: Varadkar’s solid start after roller coaster year

News review: Irish politics avoids election, but new taoiseach and tánaiste bed in

It has been a roller coaster ride over the past year in Irish politics with a change of Taoiseach, the resignation of a tánaiste, a series of political crises and a threatened general election in the days before Christmas.

The year began with Enda Kenny in the Taoiseach's office and looking set to remain there for the foreseeable future. Then, in February, the ongoing controversy about Sgt Maurice McCabe had one of its regular eruptions and Kenny's position was suddenly under threat.

After pressure from the Opposition, the Government agreed to hold a public inquiry into the smear campaign against McCabe, but the episode triggered a bout of soul searching among Fine Gael TDs who were terrified at the prospect of an early election.

For a week or more the party seemed intent on a destructive internal battle that had the capacity to tear it apart, but ultimately good sense prevailed and Kenny’s critics backed off – but only on the understanding that he would step down during the year.


One reason was that a majority of TDs wanted nothing to do with plots and treachery. The other was the sobering impact on the likely contenders of the old adage: he who wields the knife rarely wears the crown.

The upshot was that Kenny was given the time and space to go to Washington for St Patrick's Day and to continue to lead the Irish negotiations on Brexit. Once the EU leaders formalised their negotiating position with the British on April 29th, making Ireland one of its three key issues for settlement in the first phase of the talks, Kenny decided it was time to go.

Intention to step down

On May 17th he announced his intention to step down as party leader and he asked Fine Gael to start the process of selecting a successor so that he could resign as taoiseach in early June.

That triggered a leadership contest in Fine Gael with the expected candidates being Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. What was not expected was that Varadkar had the three-week race wrapped up in the first 48 hours.

Under Fine Gael’s electoral college system, 65 per cent of the votes reside with the parliamentary party, 20 per cent with the ordinary members and 15 per with local councillors.

Immediately after the contest was called, a raft of senior Ministers came out backing Varadkar, followed by the bulk of TDs and Senators, giving him an unassailable lead. Coveney refused to bow to pressure to withdraw and went head to head with his rival in three hustings debates.

Coveney was a clear winner among the membership, but it was not enough to offset Varadkar’s lead among the parliamentarians.

Explaining how a relative political novice like Leo Varadkar had the race wrapped up so quickly, one senior Fine Gael Minister remarked: “This is a cold, calculated political decision. Leo gives us a better chance than Simon of gaining seats at the next election. It’s as simple as that.” Enough Fine Gael TDs and Senators shared that judgment to prompt the unexpected stampede to Varadkar.

Proven ability

One of the strongest arguments in his favour was his proven ability as a performer in the Dáil and, even more importantly, the electronic media.

Varadkar has managed the almost impossible feat of being a politician who comes across to the public, especially younger voters, as if he is not a politician at all. In this anti-politician phase of western democracy, that is a crucial asset.

The timing of the leadership contest was also important. Varadkar was able to present himself as being in tune with the zeitgeist. Fine Gael TDs hope he will be able to ride the wave of the pro-EU, modernising sentiment that swept Emmanuel Macron to power in France.

Varadkar’s election as Taoiseach on June 14th made headlines around the world. The fact that a 38-year-old gay man, the son of an Indian immigrant, had become the head of government confounded the stereotypical view of Ireland.

There was far less fuss made about his background at home, with the main focus being on whether he would be able to keep the fragile arrangements that have kept the minority Government in place for the past year in working order.

He quickly managed to win over the Independent Alliance and to establish that Fianna Fáil would keep the confidence and supply arrangement in place for the promised three budgets.

Varadkar did not undertake a massive Cabinet reshuffle on taking office. The big move was the departure of Michael Noonan from Finance and his replacement by Paschal Donohoe, who took over that Department as well as the Public Expenditure portfolio.

Frances Fitzgerald remained as tánaiste but moved from the Department of Justice to Enterprise and Jobs. The big moves were Coveney's promotion to Foreign Affairs and Charlie Flanagan's move from that Department to Justice. Eoghan Murphy was promoted to Housing to replace Coveney.

While the early Dáil exchanges between Micheál Martin and Varadkar were noticeably more edgy than those between Kenny and Martin, politics quickly adapted to the new reality.

Despite some tetchy Dáil exchanges, politics quickly settled down before the summer recess. Varadkar was unflappable at leader’s questions and in a round of media interviews.

Overriding concern

By the time the Dáil resumed after the summer break, the overriding concern was the budget. Donohoe managed to put together a package that had a little bit for every group in society but which could not be dismissed as too extravagant.

While Fianna Fáil found plenty to criticise in the budget, there was nothing significant enough to undermine the confidence and supply arrangement and the party stood by its deal and allowed it through.

Another important issue that came to a head in the autumn was the question of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which bans abortion. Varadkar promised to proceed with a review of the issue as quickly as possible with the intention of having a referendum by next June.

An Oireachtas committee set up to examine the issue under the chairmanship of Senator Catherine Noone held a series of hearings and it issued its report on December 13th, recommending significant changes to Irish abortion laws and increasing pressure on the Government to hold a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment in May or June of next year.

Before the committee had finished its deliberations, the country was plunged into a political crisis that almost precipitated an unexpected and unwanted general election before Christmas.

It arose from the latest twist in the long-running saga of the allegations made by and against Sgt Maurice McCabe. It emerged that an email outlining the Garda legal strategy against McCabe at the Charleton tribunal had been shown to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald when she was Minister for Justice.

Calls for her resignation

She did not remember seeing the email but as a political storm began to engulf her there were calls for her resignation and Sinn Féin put down a motion of no confidence in her.

Fianna Fáil followed this by announcing that it was also going to put down a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste. There was outrage in Fine Gael at the sudden turn of events which threatened to bring down the Government and which the party TDs regarded as a betrayal of the confidence and supply agreement.

Fitzgerald refused calls from the Opposition to resign and Varadkar backed her. There followed a weekend of intense engagement by Varadkar and Martin in an effort to head off a general election. The Taoiseach travelled to Cork to meet the Fianna Fáil leader who in turn came to Dublin during a series of meetings.

At one stage – with neither side prepared to back down – an election looked inevitable but the disclosure of two further emails that had not been seen or remembered by Fitzgerald prompted her resignation in order to defuse the situation.

The episode was a wake-up call for Varadkar and Martin as it showed that an election could happen at any time.

One of the factors persuading both leaders to hold their fire was the culmination of the first phase of the Brexit talks in early December. The prominence given to the Irish Border problem and the frenetic diplomacy that put Varadkar centre stage in the on, off and on again deal between the British and the EU enhanced the new Taoiseach’s reputation.

An Irish Times opinion poll taken at the height of the controversy showed Varadkar's popularity soaring with support for Fine Gael rising to heights not seen since 2011. All in all it has been a good first innings for the new Taoiseach.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times