Noel Whelan: Varadkar-Lemass comparisons wide of the mark
Fine Gael reportly considering co-opting 1965 slogan ‘Let Lemass Lead On’
Seán Lemass and the president Eamon de Valera in 1969. When he became taoiseach, Lemass immediately hit the ground running having the effect, as de Valera’s described it, of sending “a breath of fresh air throughout the country” Photograph: Paddy Whelan/The Irish Times
As an exercise in political spin, last weekend’s front-page Sunday Independent story was brilliantly executed by Fine Gael strategists. The story was based on a leak of “a top secret questionnaire” which Fine Gael is about to use in polling to test slogans and other propositions for the next election.
The fact that Fine Gael is currently intensifying its polling and focus group research is not surprising or newsworthy. However, the type of slogans the party is tossing around is of interest, if only because it reveals something of how Fine Gael sees its position in the next election, or at least how they want us to think they see it.
Among the slogans they are testing apparently is “Let Leo Lead On” which, of course, is designed to deliberately echo the 1965 Fianna Fáil slogan “Let Lemass Lead On”. The Sunday Independent story went on to remind readers that our current Taoiseach has a particular admiration for Seán Lemass and has a portrait of him hanging in his office.
On one level of course, the echo of Lemass suits Varadkar. The Varadkar profile seeks to be one of a can-do politician driving economic growth and social reform at a time of modernisation. In addition, using such a slogan and speaking of his admiration for Lemass seeks to portray Varadkar as a non-partisan politician capable of recognising the achievements of a former Fianna Fáil leader, albeit one generally regarded by historians as a brilliant and benign taoiseach.
However, using such a slogan would also come with real risks for Varadkar. Any effort to imply that the position of Leo Varadkar in 2018 or 2019 is comparable with the position Seán Lemass was in 1965 exposes Varadkar to accusations of overreach or self- delusion.
Asking voters to let Leo “lead on” hinges on a presumption that voters, or at least most voters, see Leo as having led to date. That, of itself, would be an ambitious claim for any taoiseach who, at the time of the next election, will be at most two years in office. It is particularly risky for Varadkar, who the Opposition will no doubt seek to portray as lucky to have come to the top job in good economic times, and who before getting the top job had left little personal political imprint.
Lemass came to be taoiseach belatedly. Varadkar’s opponents will no doubt argue he came to it prematurely. Varadkar will be about a dozen years in the Dáil when the next election comes. When he asked to be let “lead on” in 1965, Lemass had been a TD for more than four decades. Lemass had served in cabinet for most of that time, always in the crucial department of industry and commerce, apart from an iconic stint in the even more crucial minister for supplies during for the Emergency.
Lemass’s request to be let “lead on” was made in his second election as taoiseach and in circumstances where he had already been tested and proven after eight years in office.
When he became taoiseach, Lemass immediately hit the ground running, having the effect, as de Valera’s described it, of sending “a breath of fresh air throughout the country”. It created a sense of windows being opened in politics and public administration and in his own party. Lemass secured his own electoral mandate as taoiseach in 1961, albeit a slim one.
He had begun a transformation of economic and industrial policy. He oversaw the implementation of the first programe for economic expansion and then launched a second such programme in 1963. Lemass had begun the reorientation of the Irish economy towards free trade and tried to get Ireland admitted to the European Economic Community. He had also transformed policy towards Northern Ireland and had just had his historic summit with then Northern Ireland premier Terence O’Neill.
Even allowing for the current economic boom, and even if Leo Varadkar manages further diplomatic achievements surrounding Brexit before the next election comes – which is a big if, it will be difficult for him to reach the high bar Lemass had set, even by 1965.
I suspect Fianna Fáil strategists are hoping Fine Gael actually runs with the “Let Leo Lead On” slogan. One imagines them already drafting ripostes for Micheál Martin to deliver in the leaders’ debates along the following lines: “Seán Lemass was a great founding patriot, he was the most impressive holder of ministerial office, he was a brave and transformative taoiseach, Seán Lemass is a hero of mine: Mr Varadkar you are no Seán Lemass.” No doubt they would work up a more witty and telling version of Lloyd Bentsen’s iconic 1988 put-down of US vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle when the latter compared himself to John F Kennedy.
Fine Gael strategists need to tread with caution. Leo Varadkar is no Dan Quayle but he is no Seán Lemass either.