Pat Leahy: There is method to Varadkar’s rudeness

Fianna Fáil is primary target of Fine Gael attacks on Sinn Féin

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein's Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald clashed in the Dail over the NI Executive. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Leo Varadkar is by nature a deliberate person; he tends not to do things on a whim. The Taoiseach’s comments about Mary Lou McDonald in the Dáil during the week do not reflect momentary irritation with the Sinn Féin deputy leader or exasperation with her interruptions. Rather they suggest a political strategy that will see Fine Gael seek to pit itself against Sinn Féin as the primary choice facing voters, as the two poles of Irish politics.

Varadkar is quick on his feet and substantially superior as a debater to his predecessor. But he still prepares carefully. Senior officials and advisers gather in his office in Government Buildings before Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil, the twice-weekly session where Opposition leaders get to demand answers, without notice, on any subject they choose.

His chief of staff, Brian Murphy, is there, along with senior political aides Philip O’Callaghan and John Carroll. Feargal Purcell, Enda Kenny’s press secretary who stayed on to help with the transition but will shortly leave Government Buildings, is also there, as is Nick Miller, his successor. They try to anticipate questions and suggest answers.

On Tuesday, Varadkar decided to have a go at McDonald, who was standing in on Leaders Question for the absent Gerry Adams. He teased her for being like Marine Le Pen. To those of us in the chamber, this had all the appearance of a pre-cooked line, and a rather contrived one at that. But fair enough, really. Politics often demands a certain theatricality, and McDonald is no mean practitioner of the carefully prepared soundbite, to put it mildly.

Offended

She seemed rather offended, nonetheless. Which may have encouraged Varadkar to return to the attack the following day, when he mocked McDonald for her scripted performance, and then complained, rather more seriously, about her constant heckling in the chamber. On this occasion, she was even less impressed, and later marched over the Taoiseach’s seat to upbraid him.

The strategy is also designed to marginalise Fianna Fáil. If the debate is primarily between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, what space is there for Fianna Fáil?

Okay, it’s hardly Bernadette Devlin crossing the floor of the House of Commons to clobber the home secretary. But still.

The Varadkar-McDonald exchanges are part of the sharper edge that the new Taoiseach has brought to the practice of politics. There are three reasons, I think, behind them.

The first is that Varadkar really believes Sinn Féin is a threat to democracy as we know it in Ireland. He repeatedly said so during the Fine Gael leadership campaign, and he will say so again.

The second reason is that you can hardly overestimate the extent to which the Fine Gael grassroots lap this stuff up. It’s meat and drink to them. For many, this is exactly what they hoped Varadkar would do and say as Taoiseach. The more he does it, the more they like it, and the more they like him. And what politician doesn’t like to be liked?

The third reason is that Varadkar is trying to strategically shape the landscape of political debate and competition to his advantage. He is trying to frame the primary political choice as between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

This makes sense. For the pool of broadly centrist voters in which Fine Gael competes, nervousness about Sinn Fein’s paramilitary past, its current culture and its left-wing economic policies is an important political dynamic. In many of those places where Fine Gael is electorally strongest, fear and dislike of Sinn Féin is strongest. So indentifying Fine Gael as the anti-Sinn Fein party is smart politics.

But the strategy is not just about Sinn Féin. It may not even be primarily about Sinn Féin. It is also designed to marginalise Fianna Fáil. If the political debate is primarily between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, then what space is there for Fianna Fáil?

So Fine Gael doesn’t just attack Sinn Féin; it warns that Fianna Fáil will do a deal with them.

Warning

Micheál Martin can see all this too. He warned his TDs whose loose tongues over the summer contemplated publicly (and still do privately) a future alliance with Sinn Féin that they would scare off those middle-ground voters in the arms of Fine Gael.

In fact, Martin maybe saw the possibility before Varadkar did. He has been publicly picking rows with Sinn Féin for years. Even on Wednesday, when everyone was focused on the Varadkar-McDonald rumble, Martin was ridiculing the Sinn Féin deputy leader’s claims to have negotiated agreements in the North. I was the minister for foreign affairs, he said acidly. You turned up for the photos. She was even less impressed with that, I’d imagine.

Varadkar’s strategy is clever and sharp. But it is also one that Fine Gael tried before the last election, and it didn’t work. Martin elbowed his way into the electoral debate, and Kenny and Adams were unable to talk around him.

That doesn’t mean a similar strategy won’t or can’t work for Fine Gael in the future. But it does mean it will have to be applied more effectively than it was in the past to stand any chance of success.

Maybe here is a microcosm of Varadkar’s premiership, compared with his predecessor: trying to do similar things, only doing them better.

The underlying reality of this is that many centre-ground voters have de-aligned from their traditional homes; their votes are up for grabs. Political competition is more fierce than ever. Where traditionally votes would never have transferred between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, that’s now a feature of political life and electoral competition. As the two big parties have inched closer together in policy, their rivalry remains as intense as ever.

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