Miriam Lord: Leo marks a year in the job with a fruitful day with Simon
The pair, tied together since the referendum, present food for thought in the Phoenix Park
Minister of State for Health Promotion Catherine Byrne, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris at the Phoenix Park. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds
This time last year Leo Varadkar was in the middle of his interregnum.
He was Taoiseach-elect but, like a half-finished fitted kitchen, not fully installed.
It took a run to the Phoenix Park and the collection of his warrant of appointment to seal the deal, but another run to the Park the day before rather took the gloss off young Leo’s coronation.
Remember when Enda Kenny decided his last act as taoiseach would be to assist his outgoing attorney general into a nice job in the Court of Criminal Appeal, via a last-minute dash to Áras an Uachtaráin? It walked the new Taoiseach straight into a monumental row about judicial appointments and him barely a day in office.
A year on from those exciting, promise-filled interregnum days, before real life immediately intruded, Leo was back in the Phoenix Park again. The sun was shining, the flowers blooming and the only thing on the Taoiseach’s mind was making sure we all eat enough roughage and go for regular walks with our best pals.
“It’s called the buddy concept,” he declared, as Simon Harris simpered gamely beside him. Since the abortion referendum, the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach have been running an awkward three-legged race together – neither, one suspects, that delighted to be shackled to the other.
The pair were together again on Thursday morning for the launch of the Healthy Ireland summer campaign, which aims to get people thinking and acting positively about their health. Healthy Ireland – or “Hi” according to the logo – wants us to “walk with friends” and “feel good together” and encourage each other to take the first steps towards a better lifestyle.
The launch was in the very lovely Phoenix Cafe in the park’s visitor centre near Ashtown Gate. Or “in my constituency”, as Leo put it.
There was a very nice breakfast spread laid on in the courtyard, with not a rasher or sausage in sight and pomegranate seeds sparkling like little rubies on all manner of nutritious treats. We got stuck in to the apricot and coconut energy balls and didn’t feel in the least bit embarrassed when mistaking the gussied-up oats for a bowl of hummus.
Little steps, after all, as Minister of State in charge of health promotion, Catherine Byrne, pointed out.
“Hi” also wants us to “Share Some Fruit”.
So buddies Leo and Simon, along with Catherine, strolled into the Victorian walled garden, where the herbaceous borders are a joy to behold, and prepared for the sharing of the fruit and the taking of the snaps.
They were joined by a party of schoolchildren.
“Give some fruit to the children!” roared the photographers as the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health posed in front of a stall heavily laden with the most wonderful selection of fruit and veg.
“Will yis feed the children!”
Simon began handing out cherries. “Here ya go. Have a cherry. Lots of cherries. You can have all the cherries.”
Leo gingerly plucked at an apple and held it at a child. We were glad it wasn’t a sharp sort of fruit. The Taoiseach could have taken a child’s eye out with a conference pear.
Simon held an apple in one hand and a pear in the other.
So Leo held a plum tomato like it was red cricket ball, tossing it the air again and again the way cricketers do.
Politicians in the field
The photographers weren’t happy, but their subjects were. Both men without their suit jackets and their sleeves rolled up – the favourite mode of dress for politicians in the field.
“Can we have yis hold up a piece of fruit?” came the latest demand.
Leo picked up a strawberry.
“Hold up bigger pieces. No. Bigger pieces!” implored the snappers, staring pointedly at a large bunch of bananas.
The Taoiseach eyed it up, muttered something to the Minister for Health along the lines of “no bananas” and the two of them laughed and steered well clear. Probably for the best.
Then they answered some questions about Brexit and Leo’s visit to Belfast on Friday. He will visit the headquarters of the Orange Order and open the annual Féile an Phobail in west Belfast – a decision that has been criticised in some quarters in the North.
“Arlene Foster has spoken at it in the past. I believe the headline act this year is Olly Murs – I don’t think anyone could accuse him of being a diehard republican, so it is very much a community event and I’m very honoured at being asked.”
Meanwhile, back at the launch, he gave the audience a potted history of the Phoenix Park and told them they were in a building “which used to be the home of the papal nuncio”. The nunciature is now located nearby on the Navan Road “but is no longer the centre of affairs in the way the Vatican was in the past”.
Simon Harris then admitted to being “useless at sport” while the Taoiseach – probably raging his handlers wouldn’t let him wear his running shorts and singlet – smirked beside him.
As they left, a number of members of the Dublin Phoenix Nordic Walking Club approached, looking like they were about to attack them with trekking poles. But no, Mary Savage, Patricia Murphy and Freda Kerr were keen to congratulate the two men on the part they played in the recent referendum campaign.
“I just wanted to be able to thank them for what they did for women,” said Mary.
A nice way for Leo to mark the anniversary of his interregnum.