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The messiah complex: Neither Leo Varadkar, nor anyone else, could be a ‘saviour’ of Fine Gael

His faith in ‘simple market dynamics’ provided no real answers to Ireland’s long-term questions


In May 2002, just after Fine Gael under Michael Noonan had suffered its worst defeat in a general election since 1948, a young party activist gave his analysis of the rout to The Irish Times.

Noonan and his predecessors, Alan Dukes and John Bruton, were, he wrote, “all statesmen who made valuable contributions to the success of this State”. But, he added, “none of them was the messiah for Fine Gael that their supporters claim . . . Fine Gael should not seek a messiah to lead it out of its difficulties. There is none and never will be.”

Though he was then not yet even a county councillor, Leo Varadkar was pretty much writing his own political epitaph: valuable contributions but no messiah.

He was able, articulate and – in the twin crises of Brexit and the Covid pandemic – reassuringly adept. But his great talent was for riding out contradictions, not for resolving them. He managed to walk the line between politician and anti-politician, conservative instincts and an increasingly progressive society.


That high-wire act was impressive, but he was right to realise that he could not walk the tightrope for much longer. Ireland is at a point where big choices about its direction can no longer be avoided. Varadkar seems to have understood that his avoidance techniques are not the skill set its condition demands.

In that autopsy on his party’s disastrous performance in 2002, Varadkar suggested not simply that Fine Gael was torn between two ideological positions but that it had abandoned both of them. He highlighted the party’s “internal conflict between its conservative Christian democrat base (which it is set on deserting) and its liberal, social-democratic base from the [Garret] FitzGerald era (which deserted it some time ago)”. He demanded that the party “forge a distinct identity in its own right”. But he was notably shy about saying what it should be – and over the next 22 years he never quite managed to do so either.

In 2010, he described his own ideology as that of “somebody who has broadly liberal-conservative/Christian-democrat ideals”. The nearest his later career as party leader and Taoiseach would come to untying this tangled knot was to lop the “conservative” and indeed the “Christian” off “Christian democrat” without ever embracing the social democratic alternative towards which Ireland was drifting.

His own life did not incline him towards wanting to change Ireland, because for him Ireland was already a land of opportunity. He had, from the beginning, the chance to make the most of his relatively privileged family background, his good education, his hard work and his talents.

He followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor (he has described medicine as “the family business”), rose rapidly through the political ranks (he was placed on the party front bench on his first day in the Dáil and became a member of cabinet at 32) and had the good fortune to become Taoiseach at a time when the Irish economy had recovered from the great banking and property crash.

So his is an Irish success story. But it is also a narrative made interesting only by the parts of it that were not so easy. Varadkar had to deal with the racism (by his own account relatively mild) that came with his Indian name. (“Why,” asked that joshing racist Boris Johnson, “isn’t he called Murphy like the rest of them?”)

He also had to deal with being gay. It should not be forgotten that he had been in cabinet for more than three years before he felt he could come out. Anyone who thinks it was psychologically easy to do so, even in the run-up to the referendum on equal marriage in 2015, should listen again to the interview with RTÉ's Miriam O’Callaghan in which he first disclosed his sexuality, and tune in to the note of deep anxiety in his voice.

If Varadkar, even as Taoiseach, sometimes came across as being emotionally immature (the teenage fanboy side of him), it was surely because his emotional life had to be suppressed for too long. He told O’Callaghan that: “It’s only now in the last two years I have really given time to my personal life. I always thought I’d be alone.”

He would be alone because, for most of his previous time in public life, it would have been extremely difficult for a gay man living openly with a male partner to be accepted as the leader of a party like Fine Gael. That he had resigned himself to having to sacrifice personal happiness to political ambition reminds us both how powerful that ambition was, and how high was the price it might have demanded.

He was fortunate that people rather braver than himself had taken the risks necessary to change Irish identity so thoroughly that the idea of a taoiseach who was both half-Indian and gay was, in the end, no big deal. In that sense, he may be said to have embodied a new Ireland he did not do very much to create.

Yet those unusual aspects of his persona also helped him avoid the perception that he was just another privileged boy on the rise. They kept blandness at bay – at least for long enough to give him an extraordinary political career. It made him that most contradictory of figures: transformative in who he was but not in what he did.

Contradictions can be political assets – they allow politicians to appeal simultaneously to those with opposed feelings. Varadkar rose so rapidly because he was very good at being the outsider-insider, a professional politician who, at least for many years, did not seem quite like one.

Though they are in many ways utterly different, it is useful to think of him as a much milder version of Johnson: “Leo” was in its own way a creation akin to “Boris” – fierce ambition disguised as a devil-may-care spirit, calculated utterances characterised as “plain-speaking”.

Before he was an elected politician, Varadkar was Mr Angry of Dublin 15, writing letters to The Irish Times with lines like “Shame on you all!” and pronouncing himself “appalled” and “astounded” at various public statements or actions. How much of this was genuine?

As Varadkar confessed to Olaf Tyaransen in a Hot Press interview in 2010: “A lot of times in politics you have to sort of put on anger sometimes, or feign emotions, in order to show that you connect with people.”

It is striking that when asked early in his career which Irish person he admired most, he nominated the Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, whose “style” of populist provocation appealed to him. It was one he would seek to emulate by feeding middle-class resentments, talking of how Ireland threatened to become “a country of those who pay for everything and receive nothing and those who pay for nothing and receive everything”. Or by suggesting, ludicrously, that Ireland should pay immigrants to return to their home countries.

His infamous claim in the 2017 general election campaign to speak for “people who get up early in the morning” was dog-whistling an old tune about poverty being caused by laziness.

It was not for nothing that O’Leary, recognising an imitator, publicly backed him in the Fine Gael leadership contest in 2017 while simultaneously threatening to shoot all cyclists and declaring climate change “f ***king rubbish”.

Varadkar would never go so far in this language of performative provocation, but he did adopt a more muted version of the populist mode.

And yet he was a populist who never seemed entirely comfortable with actual people. Varadkar was brave in the way he shunned clientelist practices like going to the funerals of people he had never met and holding “clinics” for the dispensing of imaginary patronage.

But he was also temperamentally unsuited to the arts of retail politics, uncomfortable with small talk and backslapping. He was more at ease in a TV studio or in the Dáil chamber than out on the street – his open contempt for the consummate street politician Bertie Ahern reflected, not just tribal differences, but the vast gulf between their respective political personae.

Balancing populism with a degree of haughty disdain was easier, though, than figuring out exactly how to marry his own essentially neoliberal instincts with the needs of a society on which neoliberalism had very limited purchase.

Asked by Tyaransen in 2010 if he would describe himself as a right-winger, he said “yeah” before correcting to “centre-right”. The first answer was more revealing of his basic instincts, the second of his political calculation that being a simple right-winger had a niche appeal in Irish politics.

Early on, for example, Varadkar, then still a practising non-consultant hospital doctor, expressed his belief in the operation of “simple market dynamics” in healthcare and his opposition to the expansion of free services: “Put simply, free services are abused freely.”

Yet, when he became minister for health in 2014, his main contribution was to abandon his predecessor James Reilly’s big idea of shifting to an insurance-based funding system and, essentially, to reinforce the status quo. His desire to cut a “centre-right” revolutionary path through Irish governance always yielded to the more pliable pragmatism of Ireland’s soggy centre ground.

The irony is that the achievements for which he will be remembered came when he was forced – or permitted – to adopt a very different and more emollient persona to the one that had propelled him to power in the first place. He was at his most effective and impressive in two crises that required him to be a unifying, rather than a provocative, presence.

One was the fallout from the Brexit A-bomb of 2016. While Varadkar became a hate figure for the Brexit ultras in the UK, this actually helped him to function as a national leader in Ireland. He could speak for virtually the entire political spectrum in the Republic as well as the nationalist community in Northern Ireland in his clearly articulated opposition to the recreation of a hard border. He turned out to be very good at it, and it is probably the moment for which he will feature in the history books.

The other crisis was the pandemic. His handling of it was by no means beyond reproach. But his bedside manner – calm, clear and authoritative – hit the right notes of both comfort and challenge.

He was, during those crises, genuinely popular. They gave him a focus and a sense of purpose that brought out his best qualities. But once they were behind him, he was left with the persistent long-term questions of underdevelopment in housing, healthcare and so many other areas of public provision, for which his faith in “simple market dynamics” provided no convincing answers.

In that sense, it is not just Varadkar himself who has run out of road. It is the whole idea of trying to govern a rapidly expanding State while sticking to a market ideology. There is no Saviour who can make that contradiction go away.

His party, even as it moves quickly towards the coronation of his successor, might remember its once rising star who said that “Fine Gael should not seek a messiah to lead it out of its difficulties. There is none and never will be.”