The chamber had cleared. The public gallery was empty too. The last of many TDs to shake Leo Varadkar’s hand was walking out the door. Suddenly, the new Taoiseach found himself alone on the floor of a silent, deserted chamber.
He stood still, looking ahead, until the Captain of the Guard arrived to escort him up the steps to the top corner, where his partner and mother and father were waiting.
Miriam Varadkar held out her arms. “Well done, Taoiseach!” she smiled, bursting with pride.
The little group stayed back and talked in the empty chamber. “Am I the only mother here who teared up?” asked an usher.
“I’ve already done that,” replied Miriam. The two women agreed it was a bit like watching their boys’ First Holy Communion.
Leo intervened: “At least I didn’t fall this time.”
And as the crowd regrouped outside Leinster House and officials prepared the area around the plinth for the Taoiseach’s departure to Áras an Uachtaráin, his mother told the story yet again of Leo’s Communion day, when he fell over and dirtied the knees of his lovely white “John Travolta” trousers. “He was very upset and I washed them and dried them for him and put them back on him.”
The sort of things you talk about when your 38-year-old has just become Taoiseach.
Somebody signalled and the timetable kicked in again. “See you later!” said Leo, before he was swallowed up again in the embrace of officialdom and the duties of high office.
Fast-forward to nearly six hours later and it seemed like Taoiseach Varadkar had already assimilated one of his predecessor’s bad habits: bad timekeeping.
He had been due to announce his ministerial line-up at 6.30pm but didn’t make it back into the chamber until 8pm. It was rumoured that some of his nominees were battling for better portfolios, while others reckoned Mary Mitchell O’Connor had chained herself to the leg of his table in an attempt to have her demotion from a full ministry to a “super junior” position reversed.
Fianna Fáilers joked that it was all down to Micheál Martin, who hadn’t approved all of Leo’s choices and ordered him back to the drawing board.
It was already known that Michael Ring would finally reach his El Dorado and bag that elusive seat at cabinet after many years trying. At teatime, he bustled along the main corridor and up the stairs leading to the walkway to Government Buildings, passing a group of Leinster House lifers on the way. They erupted into a chorus of raucous cheers. “Up, ya boya! Winner all right! Winner all right!”
Ringo was wearing a new suit. He affected not to hear, but his discipline gave out halfway up the stairs. He pivoted and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd, nearly falling down the stairs in the process. He looked like he was going to explode with joy. There won’t be a hanging basket weeded in Westport tonight, we imagined. But for all that, he wasn’t the happiest Minister in the House.
Neither was Paschal “double-barrel” Donohoe, who was handed two plum economic departments in one. Neither was Sandymount’s Eoghan Murphy, who was too cool to look ecstatic with his elevation to Cabinet.
No, it was the undefeated and still-reigning Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, who was smiling at the beginning of the day and was still smiling at the end of it. In accordance with convention, it was (just about) taoiseach Enda Kenny who kicked off proceedings at midday when he rose to nominate Leo for the office.
“He speaks for a new generation of Irish men and Irish women.”
Varadkar was seconded by backbencher Josepha Madigan, who didn’t appear to get the memo instructing the FG women to wear shades of blue and navy. “For this beloved country of ours, you are the right person or the right time,” she declared, in shocking pink.
This kicked off two hours of speechifying. It got a bit tedious after the first hour, but Leo’s partner Matthew looked interested enough and his parents Miriam and Ashok were enthralled.
Micheál Martin said the new Taoiseach had a good start by deciding to get someone other than deputy Noel Rock to nominate him. Noel, delighted with the mention, gave him a happy thumbs-up. The Fianna Fáil leader noted Leo’s colleagues were impressed by his “open approach to the media” and how “for many years he has been renowned as the most accessible source in Government”.
Minister for Health Simon Harris shot a wan glance up towards the press gallery. Surely some mistake on the media accessibility front?
“Today the time for excuses ends. The Fine Gael Party has the dominant control of Government” and must start getting things done, concluded Micheál, omitting to mention that Fianna Fáil has its foot on Fine Gael’s throat with a minority support deal.
As the talking continued, Leo looked a little overawed by his new situation. He sat with his hands in his lap, twisting his fingers about and wringing his hands. Now and then, he turned to Enda and whispered a question. With each query, Enda got more talkative, using lots of hand gestures.
Gerry Adams feared Leo will drag the Government “even further to the right”. But he has nothing against him personally. “I think he is a decent man. I wish him well. I do not know him well, though he and I once attended the same pilates class.”
Wave of nausea
A wave of nausea washed over the chamber. Gerry smiled sweetly. Leo nodded. Guilty as charged. “We couldn’t get the former taoiseach to stretch as far as that,” continued Gerry. Enda looked a bit mystified. Michael Ring stepped in. “It wouldn’t be big in Mayo, the pilates,” he boomed.
Brendan Howlin revisited the whole gay, son-of-an-Indian-immigrant part of Taoiseach Varadkar’s story. “As you said yourself, it speaks well of this Republic.” (Actually, it doesn’t. It was the small, closed shop of the Fine Gael parliamentary party which selected Leo, before people start losing the run of themselves.)
Howlin, noting the contributions about Varadkar's reported right-wing tendencies, remarked that Leo, "the young chap in a hurry who enjoyed writing letters to The Irish Times", had moderated his views over the years.
Joan Burton urged Leo to hit the ground running and get on his bike. Which sounds like an invite to a triathlon competition.
In the chamber, Leo looked so young. In the gallery, his surgeon partner, Matthew, looked so young. And around Leinster House, grizzled old politicians and journalists sorrowfully mused that you know you’re getting old when the guards, the cardiologists and the taoisigh begin looking younger.
Richard Boyd Barrett didn’t think it makes any difference whether a Varadkar, a Kenny or a Coveney becomes taoiseach. They’re all the one. He might have a point there. Mick Wallace was making furious notes with a pink pen. He got in the mentions of Nama and the Garda Commissioner before wishing Leo the best of good luck and, with a glance to Enda, “good luck to the last fella”.
Packets of sweets
At this point, the Fine Gael TDs in the back row were passing around packets of sweets. Leo, meanwhile, kept looking up to family and friends in the public gallery for reassurance. At this stage, Enda Kenny’s hands were getting more animated with his asides. We didn’t know whether he was giving Leo tips about government or explaining the size of a fish he caught.
News came through that the Varadkar and FG gang were planning a big party in the VIP area of Coppers. How very next-generational. Mattie McGrath was value for money, for the bits we could understand. He included some lyrics from a song by The Who called Won't Get Fooled Again.
Leo looked slightly miserable, but that’s probably because he hadn’t toyed with his mobile phone since the proceedings began. The low hum of conversation buzzed around the chamber. But there was instant and utter silence for Michael Lowry when he told Labour’s Brendan Howlin that comments he made about him earlier were “nasty and offensive”.
It was, of course, spat Lowry, all Alan Kelly’s fault. “Thanks,” chortled his hated constituency rival, Kelly. Don’t forget the broadband and internet in Kerry, shouted Michael Healy-Rae, while Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrat described the Taoiseach as “a man many would consider to have multiple diversities”.
Multiple diversities. That’s something. When Leo spoke in Irish, the Ceann Comhairle, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, smiled at him like a happy Buddha. After the vote, a walk-though vote, nobody noticed the slick switch of seats between Kenny and Varadkar. This was due to an unmerciful scrum of politicians shouldering each other out of the way to meet Leo’s mammy.
He made his first speech. Brief, but well received. Then it was out to the car park to work the crowd. Which Leo did, with surprising enthusiasm. After the delayed second appearance in the chamber, the new Taoiseach finally finished his day. He isn’t back until next week. We wish him well.