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Damp-squib dance as Leo doesn’t trip the light fantastic

Taoiseach’s debut address lacks spark but earnestly distributes content to faithful

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: seemed preoccupied with trying to figure out how he might prise his hands from the lectern, to which they seem to have been nailed for his rather robotic performance. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

A stint on Strictly would do Leo Varadkar the power of good.

The new Fine Gael leader needs to loosen up and find some rhythm.

It’s not that his performance on Friday night was wooden, but had his speech gone on much longer than its allotted half-hour there was every danger the Taoiseach might be mistaken for a chair.

Maybe he should have asked predecessor Enda for a loan of his mojo before embarking on his maiden speech at the party conference in Cavan last night. But then again, he couldn’t have done that, because Enda wasn’t there.

But we need to cut this keynote-night ingénue some slack. It was, afterall, Leo’s first attempt at delivering that big annual address to the party faithful. What it lacked in spark it made up in earnest distribution of content.

He had a simple message for the people snoozing, sorry, watching him at home on TV. “This government is on your side.”

Leo wants to bring about a “Republic of Opportunity” and he will take inspiration from anywhere. “A good idea is a good idea and it doesn’t matter if it comes from the left or the right – we believe in putting people first.”

It was top-drawer cliche from the new boss.

He doesn’t want to be divisive either and is willing to listen to the other parties in Dáil Éireann. Or at least the ones he mentioned in his speech: Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Greens. Possible coalition saviours in the future.

In a radical departure, Leo didn’t mention Sinn Féin at all. This probably disappointed the Shinners who would have been expecting at least a couple of insults to come winging their way.

Republic of Opportunity

Sadly, delivering good speeches is not the new Taoiseach’s forte. But then, he was probably going for the substance-over-style approach. If so, that was another welcome first to take home from last night.

Republic of Opportunity.

We’ll be hearing a lot of that in the months to come. Middle-income earners, the people whose burden Leo dearly hopes to ease, will be hearing that phrase in their sleep before the next election rolls around.

ROOP! ROOP! REPOOP! Building that republic is no idle boast. “Much is expected of this government and I promise you tonight, we will prevail.”

In the meantime, Leo seemed more preoccupied with trying to figure out how he might prise his hands from the lectern, to which they seem to have been nailed for the entirety of his rather robotic performance. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the plain-blue background to distract his audience in the form of some moving images or banks of Ministers gurning in raked seating behind.

Placards were handed out for delegates to wave at opportune moments. They did it for the start of the speech and then forgot to use them again until the end. There were three words waved about: “Families” and “Future” and “Opportunity.”

It wasn’t until the end that people remembered to wave them again. They got a bit of a start, because the Taoiseach’s big finish was a little on the damp squib side. The applause didn’t last too long. People began to drift out to the music and the bars.

“He had a go at nobody” said a former TD as he left the hall. “Nobody at all.”

A passing Minister asked how we thought it went.

“A little dull, to be honest.”

He insisted this was all in accordance with the game plan.

“There was no shouting and roaring this time. None at all. It’s a new era now.”

Maybe it will catch on.

And if Leo and his team delivers, nobody will care if the Taoiseach mimes his next address.

Hands up

At the muted ovation, a photographer had to ask Leo to raise his hands in the air. “Okay,” he said, lifting them gingerly aloft.

Subscribers to his weekly email, quivering with anticipation as they waited for it to land on Friday got a special treat. “I won’t deliver my speech until later this evening, but I wanted to share some of it with you now,” he wrote.

Josepha Madigan, TD for Dublin-Rathdown was master of ceremonies. She went down the human interest route, confiding that she was last in the Slieve Russell 16 years ago, when her husband Finbar proposed to her. It was a momentous night, because then Fianna Fáil TD Conor Lenihan was also in the hotel and he bought the happy couple a bottle of champagne. Michael Ring, who’s been quiet of late, was rolled out to do the knockabout before local Minister Heather Humphreys arrived.

Michael roared at them. Then roared some more. Naturally, he got a standing ovation.

Heather was blazing, doing her warm-up while legions of young Fine Gaelers swarmed around the hall hoovering up white envelopes full of money. Josepha Madigan earlier urged delegates to dig deep and buy tickets for the Fine Gael raffle.

“I’m proud to say, Cavan and Monaghan are back!” declared Heather. Lost for years apparently, due to Fianna Fáil carelessness.

“We have a leader who is not afraid to take on the left, the far-left and the leftovers,” she trilled, flatly.

“We have lifted ourselves off the canvas, dusted ourselves off and the FG fighting spirit is back.”

Leo arrived to an old disco number Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.

It wasn’t performance appropriate.

“We’re on the move,” it went. “We’ve got the groove”.

Not quite yet. But that spell on Strictly or Dancing With the Stars would cure that.