Pat Leahy: Varadkar delivers on his leadership promise

Taoiseach to be pitted against Micheál Martin in election slugfest

Leo Varadkar: the favourable outcome of the first phase of Brexit negotiations was achieved in the face of considerable pressure from Downing Street. Photograph: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Leo Varadkar: the favourable outcome of the first phase of Brexit negotiations was achieved in the face of considerable pressure from Downing Street. Photograph: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

 

The EU summit which concluded in Brussels yesterday evening marked a low-key end to a few weeks of frantic political, government and diplomatic activity, high-wire negotiations, brinkmanship of various types and domestic and international drama. So not a dull December at all. You can be sure that many politicians and political correspondents have a bit of catching up to do this weekend on their Christmas shopping and other preparations for the holidays.

First, the email/Garda whistleblower controversy led to the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald – and brought the Government to the edge of catastrophe.

It was followed swiftly by the off-again, on-again Brexit deal which eventually led to Theresa May’s climbdown in the face of Irish insistence (and EU backing) that she supply credible guarantees on the future of the Border. If the Fitzgerald controversy was a political drama mostly played out and followed within the political bubble, the Brexit negotiations were a few days of true and lasting political consequence for Ireland. The outcome was favourable and achieved in the face of considerable but ultimately unproductive private pressure on the Taoiseach from Downing St.

There was an immediate political payoff for the Taoiseach in the shape of a fortuitously timed (for him anyway) Irish Times poll which showed a jump in support for Fine Gael.

Ten-year capital plan

That was followed this week by a significant Government and Dáil decision on joining Pesco, the process for enhanced defence co-operation in the EU. And then on Wednesday came the votes by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment to propose a repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion and its complementary recommendation that subsequent legislation provide for access to abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks in pregnancy. Preparations are almost complete to launch the Government’s ten-year capital plan early in the new year.

All big things. The decisions on Pesco and abortion will be opposed by many people, but the image of a Government getting on with the business of government is undeniable.

All in all – despite the missteps of the Fitzgerald affair, when the Taoiseach’s own judgment was very definitely suspect – this is what Fine Gael TDs hoped for when they overwhelmingly chose Varadkar to be their leader seven months ago. Leadership. Getting things done. Plain speaking. A bit of polling stardust. And not necessarily in that order.

But Fine Gael TDs would be well advised not to get too smug over the turkey.

The next election will be decided on public services, the economy and the Government’s ability to lead the country to a better future

The next election, whenever it comes – and recent events have made one more likely, not less – won’t be decided on Pesco, or abortion. It won’t even be decided on Brexit. It will be decided on public services, especially housing and health; on the economy; on the Government’s ability to lead the country to a better future and its ability to communicate that at ground level in the constituencies.

Strengthening of the centre

The shape of our politics, and the strengthening of the centre that has been the principal trend since the last election, suggests we are heading for a slugfest between two biggest parties, in which Varadkar will be pitted against Micheál Martin on these issues.

To put it mildly, Martin – who demonstrated at the last election that he is a formidable campaigner – will have some ammunition to criticise the Government’s record on health and housing.

Yesterday, The Irish Times reported that statistics up to October show that just a third of social housing units planned for the year had been completed. Directly built social housing projects, the report said, are running well behind the planned timeline, with only 809 new houses built in the first nine months, out of a target of 2,054 for the year.

Building houses is undoubtedly a slow business, and the housing market – no more than others – does not respond to ministerial fiat. But that doesn’t mean the Government won’t get blamed for this.

January will bring the 2018 version of the winter A&E crisis, as emergency wards fill up and patients languish on trolleys. The Government is making some progress on waiting lists and on bed capacity. But it will get blamed for this too.

Government gets blamed for lots of problems, not all of them of its making and certainly not all of them within its power to solve immediately. Being in Government can be politically dangerous. Ask the Labour Party. Ask the Greens. Ask the Progressive Democrats, if you can find one. It involves compromises and recognising the limits of executive power, and a lot of blame, of which there seems greater and greater amounts to go round.

Wary

That’s why some Independents and parties are so wary of it unless they can do it on terms very favourable to their political interests. Sinn Féin is in the process of overcoming its reluctance to be Government in the South, just as it seems to be cultivating a reluctance to be in Government in the North.

But Government also has advantages. The power of executive action may be constrained in many respects but it still remains a potent – perhaps the ultimate – political tool. The part of any election debate that is about leadership affords an in-built advantage to an incumbent government.

Leo Varadkar is still getting used to, and still learning about, the job of being Taoiseach. But watching him in recent weeks, I think he grasps the power of political leadership and is intent on learning how to use its advantages.

If he continues to do so, and in particular if he can use the power of political leadership to get a handle on the domestic agenda, he will become a truly formidable politician.

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