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Breda O’Brien: Why Leo Varadkar’s tactics may be pointless

Taoiseach’s calculated attacks have no guarantee of success in an era of political volatility

When the Taoiseach accused Mary Lou McDonald of resembling Marine Le Pen because she always returns to a script, it may not have been the finest hour in our parliamentary democracy, but it certainly rattled Mary Lou.

Which was probably exactly the effect that the Taoiseach was aiming for when he planned the moment. I am not saying that he scripted it, but Sinn Féin represents an electoral threat to Fine Gael. They have had the luxury of attacking from the comfort of the Opposition benches for a very long time.

Varadkar has decided that the time has come to take them on. In that regard, he looked as if he were returning to an earlier combative style that garnered him a great deal of attention but was often uncomfortable to witness.

But this incident is more calculated, as everything about Leo seems to be today. Everyone acknowledges how smart he is. He is smart enough to know that Fine Gael needs to be distinctive to survive.


He is constantly looking towards the next election and he knows it won’t hurt him with Fine Gael’s core vote to highlight Sinn Féin’s propaganda-like reiteration of key messages.

He was careful to say that Mary Lou’s politics are very different from those of Marine Le Pen, perhaps because he also knows that he is positioning Fine Gael slightly more to the right of the mushy middle that characterises Irish politics.

He is courting the so-called squeezed middle-classes, partly out of conviction because it is where his sympathies lie, but partly because he sees that there are votes there.

But if the past few years have taught us anything about politics, it is that the only certainty is volatility.

This time five years ago, Mitt Romney was campaigning for president and spawning a thousand memes about firing Big Bird.

Enda Kenny was kissing and making up with Pope Benedict in Castel Gandolfo.

The Pirate Party, with its demands for internet privacy and transparent government, was on the rise in Germany.

The far-right Golden Dawn had made electoral gains in austerity-ridden Greece. However, the kind of politics of protest that swept Trump to power, made Brexit a reality in Britain, and gave Alternative for Germany (AfD) its recent German electoral success were not yet fully apparent.

Rise of the AfD

The AfD was formed only a few years ago as a response to Germany bailing out Greece. Its founder was a Hamburg economics professor in favour of free markets. He was rapidly pushed out by Frauke Petry, who resigned this week and may set up another party.

Today, one of the AfD leaders, Alice Weidel, is a former Goldman Sachs banker who has a residence in Switzerland, where she spends a lot of time. She is raising two children with her Swiss female partner, who is of Sri Lankan origin.

She claims that the same kind of people – code for young male Muslims – who perpetrated attacks in Cologne in 2015 now have people who are gay or lesbian as favourite targets. She says that the AfD is therefore the only real protection for gays and lesbians in Germany.

Bizarrely, another leader, Alexander Gauland, is a right-wing nationalist who declares that marriage between a man and a woman is the "cultural core of western Christian society" and that the "arbitrary values" of mainstream politics are "dissolving our societal structures".

All that seems to unite Weidel and Gauland is distrust of Muslims, who comprise less than 6 per cent of the German population and 1.5 per cent of the voters. Oh, and Euroscepticism.

Is this strange mixture of distrust, disaffection and disunity a vision of future Irish politics?

The AfD picked up many disaffected voters from both left and right who did not vote in the previous election. Recent polling indicates that these voters are not convinced, core supporters of the AfD, but just signalling their disgust with mainstream politics.

The AfD may well go the way of the Pirate Party, which collapsed in a shambolic mess. Or worse, it may not.

Is this strange mixture of distrust, disaffection and disunity a vision of future Irish politics? Ireland does not have a real left-right divide, possibly because our more left-wing groupings are closer to anarchists than mainstream politicians.

But in a way, that does not matter, because the politics of protest is no respecter of traditional conservative-liberal divides, as the AfD demonstrates.

Irish society has always wanted the best of both worlds – low taxes and high levels of services.

It is an impossible combination to deliver. When he was minister for health, Varadkar found reform impossible to deliver.

But whether a calculated policy of attacking Sinn Féin and favouring economic policies that do not benefit the poorest as much as the middle-classes is a winning formula is anybody’s guess. The only certainty in politics is now uncertainty.

Yet why is it that in an era of unprecedented electoral volatility, no mainstream party is brave enough to embrace social justice for the poor, a more generous policy on immigration, but also protection of human rights from conception to natural death?

No matter what weird and wonderful combination the next election throws up, that group of voters seems destined to remain disenfranchised.