Pat Leahy: Leo Varadkar’s wind farm storm will blow over

Taoiseach has lost any domestic benefit of US trip and revealed weakness yet again

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says he contacted Clare County Council when he was minister for tourism over a wind farm Donald Trump was opposed to when he bought Doonbeg golf course. Video: Reuters

 

The controversy over the Taoiseach’s remarks in Washington is a temporary political storm that will pass after a few days of jumping up and down, but it tells us important things about Leo Varadkar and about how our politics works.

First, the substantial issue: this is how our politics works. We expect our politicians to make representations and interventions. And politicians who interpose themselves between citizen and bureaucracy weave a net for themselves that drags in votes at election time. It is a feature of our political system.

Councillors do it themselves. TDs do it and have a few staff to help. Ministers have entire offices to do it, staffed at the taxpayer’s expense.

For a minister to make such a call – or cause it to be made – may be unwise. But it is certainly not unusual. If Donald Trump had turned up at his clinic (or anyone else’s clinic) he’d have done much the same. Of all the mad things that ministers and TDs have made representations on in recent years, this is reasonably far down the scale. Most politicians will basically do anything legal they are asked.

Within hours of the story breaking, a source had sent to me details of representations about wind farms made by Brian Cowen and Mary Coughlan when they were taoiseach and tánaiste.

Is it the best way to run a country? No. Is it what politicians should spend their time doing? No. Is the potential for improper influence high? Yes. But is this what people expect their politicians to do, and are politicians happy to do it? I am afraid so.

Mild vulgarity

Second, the politics: this is a dreadful howler by Leo Varadkar. The use of even mildly vulgar language (“pisstake”) is frowned upon in Washington, where the prevailing attitudes to these things are rather proper. But relating his involvement in a planning issue on behalf of Donald Trump was just bonkers. What on earth was he at?

It is the range of skills required of a political leader that is simultaneously the most demanding and most unregarded part of the job.

Email sent by Leo Varadkar, then minister for tourism and sport, to Fáilte Ireland chief executive Shaun Quinn on February 24th 2014
Email sent by Leo Varadkar, then minister for tourism and sport, to Fáilte Ireland chief executive Shaun Quinn on February 24th 2014

In the course of a day, a taoiseach might have to answer questions blind in the the Dáil on any aspect of government activity, meet a foreign leader and host a press conference (more questions), steer policy and political decisions at Cabinet or Cabinet committee, deal with party matters, dine with investors, make a speech, meet the audience and be accessible to everyone who wants a word, a handshake or a selfie. He or she must do this under intense and constant media scrutiny. There is no hiding place for a taoiseach.

Many politicians can do some or most of these things capably. Very few can master them all. Successful politicians can manage the ones at which they’re naturally weak.

Most politicians tend to be good at the gladhanding and backslapping of politics. Stephen Hawking explained the anthropic theory with the question: why is the universe 15 billion years old? Answer: because it took 15 billion years for sentient beings to evolve and ask the question. Why are politicians so good at chumminess with strangers? Because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be politicians in the first place.

Not Varadkar, though. He is naturally reserved, a bit shy, and sometimes awkward, especially in unfamiliar situations. As his Twitter bio reveals (a private acknowledgment, perhaps) he sometimes talks too much. The Taoiseach, like the rest of us, has his shortcomings, though I do not think a lack of self-knowledge is among them.

Nerves and chemistry

Varadkar was nervous about meeting Donald Trump – he was asking people in the US how he should approach him – and his officials were afraid something could go wrong. The chemistry between the two was unpredictable, to put it mildly. And there was the possibility that Varadkar would be asked an awkward question, and answer it, as is his wont. The scope for the whole thing going wrong was not insignificant.

Intimates tell me that Varadkar has often told the same story. The subtext appears to be this: “Trump thinks I did him a favour. I didn’t, but sure let him think that.” If this is so, it is even more reckless.

It is the third, mid-sized political mistake by the Taoiseach in recent months. He failed to understand the inevitability of Frances Fitzgerald’s resignation early enough. Having created the Strategic Communications Unit, he failed to understand that it needed political oversight to avoid the “spin over substance” trap. And now he has torpedoed any domestic benefit of swanking around the White House. “And all self-inflicted,” grimaces one ally. Power challenges, and it also reveals.

The joy of Fianna Fáil – all po-faced tut-tutting about planning interventions – is unconfined. That is perhaps to be expected (so much for politics stopping at the water’s edge). There is growing excitement in Fianna Fáil about the Taoiseach’s lack of coolness under fire during an election campaign. Many Fianna Fáil TDs are apprehensive that the Fine Gael leader is establishing a rapport with the electorate – something’s happening out there, they say. The party leadership is a good deal more bullish about their ability to disrupt it. On recent evidence, both views are valid.

Next week, the Taoiseach travels to an EU summit in Brussels (which he loves) and before that to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel, lately elected chancellor of Germany for the fourth time. It is unlikely the Taoiseach was planning any rib-ticklers for German audiences. But if he wants to look forward to a second term – never mind four – he will need be more careful in what he says, and what he does.

“His strengths are clear to us,” says one ally. “But his weaknesses are becoming clearer.”

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