‘I care deeply about my country. I probably can’t put it into words as well as my opponent does, but I care deeply...”
Leo Varadkar, victim of his own inarticulacy, pitted against silver/snake-tongued Micheál Martin – does that sound really plausible? Is it really with the cri de coeur of the misunderstood, strong, silent suitor – Mr Darcy versus Mr Wickham – that he intended to woo the electorate? Or at least win the Virgin One debate last Wednesday?
Yes, is the simple answer. Because in a surreal turn of events our Taoiseach’s perceived lack of empathy became the national conversation in a week which should have seen a serious election campaign take off. It was posited as the reason his ratings had fallen from 51 per cent to 35 per cent.
Empathy was the word on the lips of the pundits. Opening the debate, it was clearly the big thing on the Taoiseach’s mind too. And, of course, it sparked its own version of the George Burns aphorism: if you can fake empathy you’ve got it made.
Personally I think the empathy thing is only part of the reason love for Leo is withering on the vine. We don’t ordinarily examine putative taoisigh for the quality of their feelings: coldness cannot be legislated for.
The problem for Leo was he started out with one extraordinary quality which, treated carelessly, contains the seeds of its own destruction. It is a quality he shares with the Sussexes, Meghan and Harry, whose merciless banishment from royal life last week contains a curious cautionary parallel for Varadkar. They also chose victimhood as rationale.
Varadkar came to office around the time Harry introduced Meghan to the British public. Both events began on a wave of public euphoria. And were equally short-lived.
A gay Taoiseach from a bi-racial background made Ireland feel very proud. We fell hard for Leo. As in the narcissism of good love stories we felt good about ourselves: we were a diverse and modern nation.
Britain seemed equally infatuated with Harry’s choice of Meghan – a woman from the real world, feminist and bi-racial. They couldn’t get enough of them.
So what was this ineffable quality that Varadkar and the Sussexes exuded?
On a heartbreakingly beautiful Sunday evening in late September 2017, I made my way to a gig in the Abbey theatre. On Eden Quay stragglers were drifting down from an All-Ireland. Suddenly around the corner onto the quay came Varadkar accompanied by two minders.
The sun, beginning its descent, caught him and gave him an aureole as in some baroque painting. On the crowded quay people seemed hypnotised by his magnetism, and then, as he approached Liberty Hall, a man – exuberant and excited – dashed from a bus stop to embrace him.
As I watched, it dawned: glamour was the quality that Leo possessed. And glamour is the quality he shares with the Sussexes.
So why in each case is its power evaporating?
Obviously the reasons are very different, though the obsession with public image is a glaring commonality.
Harry’s tragic flaw was his anger at, and deliberate alienation of, the British press.
Alienation of the press was never Varadkar’s failing. His department has spent hundreds of thousand every year courting it and us. And that courtship was fully requited. We enjoyed his Kylie moment; indulged the Love Actually gush in Downing Street; were happy that, like the Sussexes, he was fetishised abroad as an emblem of diversity. He was mentioned as a putative president of the European Commission.
We even ignored his attempted spin unit which would blur the lines between communication and propaganda: glamour, like love, presumes forgiveness.
But an unexpected arrogance began to emerge. His continuous lack of grace towards Micheál Martin and the confidence and supply agreement which provided much-needed stability was unpleasant and symptomatic of even more worrying qualities.
Like the unawareness of his own privilege which led to his shocking prescription for young people desperate to get houses: borrow the deposit from your parents.
The only thing to be said about his appalling politicising of the forklifting of the homeless man in the tent is that it undoubtedly led to his spin doctors’ realisation that he lacked emotional intelligence, and that his tone deafness to the suffering of others reflected on the party as a whole. Hence the Big Debate spiel.
But they should have known. Politicising everything is what Varadkar does. It’s what he knows best. And here lies the dilemma. To paraphrase the great CLR James on cricket, “what do they know of politics, who only politics know?”
As in all great endeavours you have to show character as well as personality, understand failings, foibles, love, pain, and the whole damn thing.
Glamour bestowed invincibility, our prince among men. But it wasn’t enough. Which is ironically what Prince Harry is learning too.
Sweetness and light
Harry’s royal job was supposed to be to spread sweetness and light. Instead he turned sour. He constantly complained of victimhood at the hands of the press and the glamour faded in direct ratio.
He may have had a case: the negative comment about Meghan reached a critical mass that suggests underlying racism. Reporting doesn’t have to be about race to be racist. But Harry’s constant whingeing obviated the need to call it out.
He failed to check one of the greatest privileges of all – a free press. It’s not perfect, will always require checks and balances, but the alternative – Saudi Arabia, Russia, China – are too awful to contemplate.
In a shockingly short time Harry has lost “the only life I know”. The same fate could befall Leo.
Glamour in a public figure is a double-edged sword. It affords forgiveness (like smoking cannabis as a student,) mesmerises the mercurial (like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump) But when its currency is devalued, whether by sourness or coldness, retribution is swift. Glamour, like love, does not conquer all. But the vicissitudes of hard times can temper many things. Even the problem of glamour.
Anne Harris is a journalist and commentator