Noel Whelan: Clue to future as Varadkar looks to de Valera’s past

Taoiseach notes thin line between politicians’ great strengths and biggest weaknesses

RTÉ’s David McCullagh is getting annoying in the best of ways. Thirty years ago I used to sit in a politics tutorial group with him in University College Dublin. At that stage all any of us ever wanted to be was the next Brian Farrell or John Bowman or, alternatively, to be able to write great political biographies of the quality since produced by the likes of Roy Jenkins or Robert Caro. The annoying thing about McCullagh is that he has gone on to do them both and to do them well.

McCullagh has previously written the definitive biography of former taoiseach John A Costello, as well as a book on the 1948-1951 interparty government. This week he published the first volume of what is set to be the definitive biography of Éamonn de Valera.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar did the honours at the launch of the de Valera book at the National Library on Wednesday evening. As he stood up to speak about a former taoiseach one was struck by how different Varadkar is to de Valera. The only thing they have in common is the office.

The political differences, of course, are obvious. McCullagh remarked that de Valera would be rotating in his resting place in Glasnevin Cemetery at the thought of a Fine Gael Taoiseach launching a book on the founder of Fianna Fáil, not to mention a Fine Gael Taoiseach kept in power by a confidence-and-supply agreement with Fianna Fáil.


Contrasting experience

Both Varadkar and de Valera came to national leadership at relatively young ages, but their formation and early life experiences were very different. Varadkar, in contrast, is a self-confident young son, adored by his parents and siblings and who has had every opportunity in life. De Valera, as McCullough recounts, always struggled with youthful insecurity, not least because he never knew his father, and when he was three his mother sent him from the United States back to be reared by her not-well-off parents in Co Limerick. Later he was fortunate to get a scholarship to complete higher education.

Varadkar pointed out, however, that some aspects of de Valera’s life resonated with him. He instanced de Valera’s love of the Irish language and then went off script to remind the audience that de Valera was not, as many assume, a native Irish speaker or reared in a Gaeltacht but had gone out of his way to learn and enhance his proficiency in the language in young adulthood. Varadkar, perhaps conscious of impending high office, did the same himself.

The Taoiseach identified the book launch as an opportunity, removed from the point-scoring of daily policies, to put aside partisan differences and focus on the things which unite those who have served in the highest office, a spirit of public service which transcends policy differences and a patriotic desire to do what is best.

Varadkar noted the generous tribute made by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to the late Liam Cosgrave in the Dáil recently, and Brian Lenihan’s address at the Michael Collins memorial at Béal na Bláth in 2010 as examples of other occasions where politicians had reached over the enduring partisan divide to recognise the contributions made by leaders from the other side.

The Taoiseach then recounted some of the entertaining stories about de Valera, which McCullagh’s research had unearthed. De Valera was a more playful and fun-loving personality than is often assumed and McCullagh has captured this well, often adding his own typically laconic observations.

Thin line

One of the more insightful observations made by Varadkar in his considered remarks were that sometimes there can be a very thin line between a politician’s great strength and his or her greatest weakness.

Varadkar identified de Valera’s greatest strength as being his single-minded determination. This stubborn refusal to back down, even when his position seemed hopeless, was a trait which Varadkar said had benefited Ireland during the second World War when de Valera had affirmed Ireland’s independence and had pursued neutrality. Varadkar identified wartime neutrality, the smooth transition of power in 1932 and the decision to lead Fianna Fáil deputies into the Dáil despite the oath of allegiance in 1927 as de Valera’s finest hours.

Varadkar speculated that it was perhaps the same stubbornness, however, which was to blame for de Valera’s decisions in 1921 and 1922 in opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty and contributing to the circumstances that gave rise to Civil War.

Varadkar observed that “what can be a virtue at certain times in their career can at other times be the very thing which undermines them”. It is a truism known to political biographers.

One wonders, when a future historian come to assess Varadkar or perhaps a future taoiseach comes to launch a biography about him which virtue of our current Taoiseach they will see as ultimately having undermined him.