Public Leo’s mask slips to reveal Private Leo’s bizarre thoughts

Taoiseach’s unscripted comments to private US gathering reveal a persistent case of tin ear

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that he "profoundly regrets" if anyone thinks he does not respect the media after comments he made at a private lunch in New York. Video: Oireachtas TV

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New York City, here I come! Maybe it occurs over Newfoundland or Nova Scotia or elsewhere on the flight path but something seems to happen to our political leaders flying west across the Atlantic.

The elixir of being love-bombed by overenthusiastic Americans rushing to shake the hand of the ‘tea-shock’ from the old country can be potent for travelling politicians unaccustomed to such displays of affection.

In heavy doses, it can, it appears, lead to an outbreak of political foot-in-mouth.

There are the inevitable scores of multigenerational Irish-Americans at “community events” eager to snap a selfie with the politicians who are energised by ebullient folk, all keen to impart the birthplace of an antecedent in rural Ireland and guaranteed not to ask about the messy business of government back home.

That is left to the travelling press sitting to the rear, cynically sneering at the Oirishness of it all and impatient for the next doorstep to press the taoiseach of the day on hotter topics fed by news desks at home.

Enda Kenny used to appear energised by interactions, each handshake seeming to generate a surge of power that kept the Fine Gael man fist-bumping past the day’s 10th engagement, well into the wee hours.

Walking Washington’s marbled corridors of power and being hosted by some of the most famous political faces in the world along Pennsylvania Avenue can chip away at protective veneers of self-awareness carefully applied at home. Guards can come down. Words can be said, sometimes wrong words.

Albert Reynolds, attempting humour on a mid-1990s visit to Washington, told an audience a story about being in a car crash late at night returning from one of his dancehalls. The boot flew open and the cash flew out; Albert rushed around the car picking up notes. Punchline: not that the taxman ever found out. Silence.

Doonbeg

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar fell equally flat at the St Patrick’s Day congresssional lunch on Capitol Hill when he claimed credit for what Donald Trump wrongly perceived as a stroke by the then minister for tourism, killing off a proposed wind farm a few par-fives away from his Doonbeg golf resort. It was meant to be funny.

Varadkar’s first US trip since then – to launch Ireland’s bid to win a UN Security Council seat – had gone swimmingly until The Irish Times and the Times Ireland edition reported the Taoiseach’s decision to declare sympathy for Trump’s attitude towards the press when he spoke at a private function on Monday.

His criticisms of the media at an invite-only “working lunch” for young Irish professionals in New York were, for the most part, legitimate but appearing to compare his treatment by Irish political reporters with the hyper-partisan nature of the US media – and aligning his views with those of a man who has attacked reporters as the “enemy” of the people – was a dreadful error of judgment and just plain wrong.

Tensions are running high in the US over Trump’s unrelenting war on journalists, particularly in the wake of last week’s murders of five people at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Varadkar’s decision to raise issues around the accuracy and motives of investigative journalism in a lunchtime discussion attended by a number of journalists working in the US shows his recurring tin ear.

He should not be siding with Trump on this and the profound regret he expressed in the Dáil on Wednesday should not have been around the conditional “if anyone in the country thinks that in any way that I don’t support a free press or don’t respect the work of journalists”, as he put it. It should have been unequivocal: more like he regretted saying he sympathised with Trump on the media at all.

All it takes is a transatlantic flight and some loose talk over a halibut lunch for private views to become public

The Taoiseach himself admitted at the lunch that he has benefited from favourable press at home, so sniping at political journalists about being more interested in tittle-tattle in Oireachtas corridors than the serious business of government – or joking about the number of reporters in and around the Dáil – seems bizarre to say the least.

Varadkar and his camp have been at pains to stress that this was a private lunch as if his comments within the Irish consul general’s residence in New York were somehow sacrosanct. He told the Dáil on Wednesday he would “like to be able to respect the privacy of the event” but he couldn’t.

Yet, when on a topic as contentious as press freedom, an uninhibited head of government shooting the breeze and making shocking comparisons to a foreign audience – some of whom reportedly appeared horrified at his remarks – shows the risks of the protective divide between Private Leo and Public Leo falling.

Visible surprise

It is important for the public, like an audience watching Friel’s two Gars in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, that they are aware of the public and private views of the Taoiseach, particularly when it comes to such sympathetic and consequential opinions. There was reportedly visible surprise on the faces of some the guests about Varadkar’s comments on how to address the gender pay gap commensurate.

Other Private Leo insights revealed during the lunch were his view that an ongoing tribunal at home, presumably the disclosures tribunal, was showing up certain investigative journalism as inaccurate and that he would be in favour of bringing car-hailing app Uber to Ireland, though current regulations would not allow it – two topics that Varadkar has not touched on publicly. This went further than the Taoiseach sounding out the views of young Irish expats on a foreign trip, as his aides would have us believe.

Varadkar’s Cabinet colleague, Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, came under fire two months ago for sharing a “personal view” on a proposed takeover during a private telephone call with a lobbyist acting for Independent News & Media, two months before he shared the same view publicly as minister.

Both incidents prove that, in politics, private views can spill out into the open. And, on some subjects, so they should. All it takes is a transatlantic flight and some loose talk over a halibut lunch.

Simon Carswell is Public Affairs Editor of The Irish Times and was previously the newspaper’s Washington Correspondent

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