Every Monday, around 7pm, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan enter the Sycamore Room in Government Buildings.
Accompanied by their respective chiefs-of-staff Deirdre Gillane, Brian Murphy and Anna Conlan, along with John Callinan, the State’s top civil servant, the Coalition leaders sit down to the weekly meeting that has become the nerve centre of Government.
The meeting, known informally as “Leaders’”, has become shorthand for power at the centre of Government. It is the cabinet-within-a-cabinet, a vital clearing house for a Coalition that has been defined by the multiple rolling crises which have confronted it.
“It’s critical, absolutely critical,” says a source who attended the meetings. It is where the thorny issues are thrashed out, where discussion is open and content rarely leaks.
In a little over a week Varadkar will chair the meeting for the first time. A century on from a bloody Civil War, the two parties forged out of that conflict will perform a smooth handover of power at the halfway point in this Government’s term. The handover is unprecedented in the history of the State, and a rotation that Varadkar has paved the way for. In a speech to the party’s ardfheis three weeks ago, he paid tribute to Martin as a “voice for decency, kindness and good sense”.
While many in Fine Gael feel a sense of momentum building, there are questions being asked internally as to whether a more politically mature Varadkar is returning as Taoiseach and whether he can deliver – not just for himself, as he has done so successfully in the past – for his party as the Coalition moves towards a general election.
“The jury is still out on Leo as leader of Fine Gael,” said Gary Murphy, a professor of politics at Dublin City University. “He was touted as the great boy wonder of Irish politics when he took over from Enda Kenny, and that hasn’t gone as well for him when it comes to the party.”
In a series of interviews for this article, senior Government figures, Fine Gael insiders, political aides and people who have worked – and continue to work – closely with Varadkar assess whether he can make good on the promise that underscored his political ascent or whether his weaknesses and multiple challenges he faces will overwhelm him.
Most importantly, Varadkar must juggle the dynamic between the three leaders that has ensured this Government has not at any stage come close to collapse. Martin has been seen as a consensus builder. The question is whether Varadkar can repeat the trick.
“The fact that there can be a relatively seamless transition is a sign that politics works and the Government has proved relatively stable. It is a sign of political maturity among both parties that they had to coalesce and stay in power,” says Prof Murphy.
The strength of Varadkar’s relationship with Martin will help him in this elevated role in their partnership. Some close to Varadkar say that their alliance stems not from the past two and more years that he has served as Tánaiste to Martin as Taoiseach, but to a moment of upheaval within Fine Gael and the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald in late 2017.
Fitzgerald, a guiding light in the young Taoiseach’s political development, was forced to resign in a moment of high political drama which threatened the confidence and supply deal with Fianna Fáil that propped up the last Fine Gael-led minority government.
In Varadkar’s first crisis as Taoiseach, Fitzgerald became embroiled in the fallout from the policing scandals stemming from disclosures made by Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. Pressure from Fianna Fáil brought matters to a head. Many in Fine Gael were furious at Fianna Fáil, but sources close to Varadkar at the time say the showdown was important for his relationship with Martin, with the Fianna Fáil leader giving his counterpart “time and space” to avoid collapsing the Government.
“When he came into office they [FF] didn’t understand him and they didn’t like him so the Frances thing would have been an important watershed for both men in their relationship,” a well-placed source says.
As with all things when it comes to Varadkar there is another narrative: namely that he and his team were totally overwhelmed by events, and failed to protect Fitzgerald, sacrificing her to protect his leadership. In this telling an inexperienced Taoiseach lost control of the situation, ultimately protecting himself by avoiding an election.
Varadkar’s track record of managing his party has been mixed. As a reshuffle beckons some feel his approach has impeded a necessary process of political renewal. With the exception of Helen McEntee, all the current Fine Gael Ministers were elevated to Cabinet by Varadkar’s predecessor Enda Kenny.
Some put the lack of new faces in ministerial positions down to Varadkar’s aversion to interpersonal conflict. He finds delivering bad news around a politician’s future difficult. “Purely from the engagement with him, his body language, I could tell he found it quite uncomfortable [and] will try to avoid it,” says one source who Varadkar had to relieve of their office.
Tales of Varadkar’s awkwardness in everyday social interactions are legion. The National Ploughing Championships in September 2017, his major test of interaction with the public, saw him dressed in smart urban casual clothes and shiny wellies, hands often dug deeply in his pockets, in contrast to his fist-pumping predecessor Kenny, who loved to circulate through the crowd of rural voters, backslapping and talking tractor horsepower.
It extends to relationships in the corridors of power. One source recalls how Varadkar “would regularly walk past people… eyeball them and not say hello”.
“He might grunt” as a brief acknowledgment, this person says.
Aides talk of painstaking efforts at wrangling Varadkar, having at times to cajole him into photo ops with the public that are regarded as the bread-and-butter of retail politics.
Varadkar’s idiosyncratic manner was on show during a visit to a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia in January 2019. He walked around the camp, slightly aloof, wearing sunglasses and engaged little with those around him, like “an indifferent teenager”, said one observer. In engagements with dignitaries, Varadkar was happy to say what he needed to say, and no more, and then sit in a kind of Beckettian silence.
Yet when it came to conveying the impact the visit had on him, his communication skills shone through, describing what the visit meant to him personally and setting out well-formed views on migration.
“If you could get Enda Kenny to meet every single person in Ireland he would get an overall majority,” said a source. “If you confined Leo to the telly he does really well, but if he met everyone in Ireland nobody would vote for him.”
This awkwardness is not new. A source involved in his leadership campaign recalls how his tight-knit team had to school him as he sought support within the parliamentary party (PP). “Everyone we got over the line to support Leo from the PP, we had done an analysis on them for him,” says the source – an analysis which then had to be drilled into Varadkar, who was told to ask about their granny, their father, their children.
Allies maintain this does not belie an uncaring nature. “He is actually a very sensitive and compassionate person and he really does give a sh*t about his colleagues,” says one associate. This can become a political fault, this person argues, pointing to his prevarication over removing the party whip from Maria Bailey during the “swing gate” controversy, when he “kept coming back to think about what she must be feeling and what she is going through”.
At key moments in his career, whether by accident or design, Varadkar’s willingness to lay down a marker with cutting soundbites has been an integral part of his political make-up. But it is also a wild card that can backfire.
One such occasion was in October 2020 when Varadkar heavily criticised the State’s then medical officer Dr Tony Holohan in an appearance on the Claire Byrne television programme. Varadkar raged that the Government had been told to shut down for a second time during the Covid-19 pandemic “without prior consultation”. Holohan’s advice caused uproar, but Varadkar’s remarks led to bitter recriminations. “It was a mistake. It pitted Leo versus Tony as some kind of UFC-type fight,” says an ally in Government.
It stood in sharp contrast to Varadkar’s leadership during the first lockdown, when one source says within Fine Gael the feeling was “this is why we picked Leo”.
In truth Varadkar was giving vent to legitimate concerns, but the impulsive and aggressive way he did it showed how his character, and aspects of how he does politics can destabilise. His Coalition partners are wary of the potential for this to become a feature.
“Anybody making any forecast about Government, you have to calculate that in,” says one Minister from another Coalition party.
“The beauty and risk of Leo is Leo,” says a Government colleague. “He probably has an ability to be better than any other politician but equally that can swing the other way.”
Many observers believe Varadkar has moderated and that Martin will pass “the Taoiseach’s mantle to keep the Government together”, says one former minister. “The old Leo, by necessity and circumstance, has been replaced by a new Leo,” says a ministerial colleague.
The prolonged Garda investigation around his leaking of the Government’s pay deal for GPs and the DPP’s ultimate decision not to prosecute was a humbling experience that, people close say, has changed him. It has made him “completely contrite” and gave him “a taste” of how things can “blow up”. It has also left him with a new appreciation for the people in his circle of trust. While he survived it was a terrifyingly close brush with a deeply ignominious end to his career. “If the DPP decision had gone the other way, obviously it was curtains,” confides one Fine Gaeler. “Privately we all agreed on that.”
Varadkar may feel exonerated by the decision not to prosecute over the leak and by the Standards in Public Office Commission’s refusal to hold a preliminary inquiry under ethics law, but the criticisms of the evidence he gave to the commission by two dissenters on the ethics watchdog, the Comptroller & Auditor General Seamus McCarthy and the Ombudsman Ger Deering - as disclosed by The Irish Times this week - may blemish his record.
One Fine Gael source said they did not think the criticisms would be a problem for Varadkar but said that it was “not the clean bill of health he or anyone in Fine Gael wanted.” “There is just some concern around his judgment creeping back in,” said the source.
There is also a new appreciation for the people in his circle of trust, his core team of Brian Murphy, press aide Nick Miller and other advisers like Philip O’Callaghan. Although some complain he is too insulated. “They cut him off from the party, the members, the PP and the voters,” one source complains. Critics say he surrounds himself with people who think like him.
At 43, Varadkar will still be one of the youngest leaders the country has had when he becomes Taoiseach again. “He has definitely matured and settled down a bit. The Love Actually references and all that sh*te has faded away,” said one source.
Varadkar’s “thrill” on his first overseas trip as Taoiseach to 10 Downing Street, being the location for the Christmas rom-com movie, has given way to more serious acts of statesmanship. His meeting with British leader Boris Johnson in October 2019 and their walk-about in a garden at a popular English wedding venue in the Wirral broke the impasse around Brexit and the backstop arrangement for Northern Ireland, earning him an “Anglo-Irish moment”.
“It is the difference between a one-star Taoiseach and a four-star Taoiseach…it shows you can be trusted with the Anglo-Irish relationship,” said a source.
During this stint as Taoiseach, Varadkar’s longevity would surpass that of Garret FitzGerald, another Fine Gael leader with an Anglo-Irish achievement. But unlike FitzGerald, Varadkar has not shown he can lead Fine Gael to a successful general election.
His challenge is to prove he is the political heavyweight he claimed to be when campaigning to become leader: a transcendent brand that would attract new voters. Failure could expose him as what one critic described as “ultimately a very smart but quite superficial tactician rather than a strategist…that’s why he hasn’t become the political force people thought he would”.
Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at University College Cork, said that a bid for an unprecedented fourth term in government sets a major challenge for Varadkar personally, particularly given how the party misfired in the 2020 election. “He needs to be able to demonstrate achievements by the party going into the next election and how he delivers for the middle classes because that is the stamp that he put on his own leadership of Fine Gael when he set out his leadership stall.”
Doubters within the party question whether Varadkar can transfer personal political success to Fine Gael and whether he can carve out a clear identity. Attempting to address long-term problems such as housing, health and climate change for a party that has been in government for 11 years will make this more of an uphill battle.
Prof Murphy says Varadkar does not have it in his gift to change the narrative around Fine Gael’s capacity to fix these deep-seated problems. “He only has two years, and I don’t think it is enough time to make radical changes. The nature of the Government itself – they are in a three-headed Coalition and the two [main] parties have the same Cabinet seat number – means things cannot be changed dramatically.”
Cabinet colleagues say Varadkar has a deep understanding of policy, often impressing with a perceptive take on an issue. But critics say that while sophisticated, his policies lack punch and risk drifting away from the party’s base. His time in the Department of Enterprise is pointed to by some critics as focusing too much on workers’ rights. “The challenge is to reconnect with their likely voting base,” says a source.
Some former ministerial colleagues are more scathing. One says Varadkar has become “deluded”.
“He’s lost his way politically,” says this person. “Fine Gael is completely forgetting who its base is. It’s not necessarily lefty liberals or people concerned about culture war issues, it’s people who are running businesses, people who believe in the enterprise economy, people Fine Gael are supposed to stand for.”
This, the theory goes, is a symptom of a deeper vulnerability: “He’s afraid to advance any good idea that will provoke a backlash and he can’t deal with it. He’s desperate to be loved, desperate to be liked and he can’t deal with criticism.”
Another person who worked with Varadkar in government says he has an “obsession” with triangulating policies and explaining at length why they work. “People don’t want that, they want competence and a broad sense of direction,” this person says. “It’s not the way the punters consume it, internalise it, or see politics. They see it much more in the way Sinn Féin talk about it – three or four big things and hammer it.”
Far from being a Tory-boy ideologue, critics believe that aside from a long-standing goal of cutting taxes, Varadkar has few central animating ideas to his politics. “The real test for him is: can he emerge…keeping Fine Gael as strong as it is today and maybe making it stronger,” an ally says. “His fight is to keep Fine Gael intact as a political identity, brand and political organisation through this changing time.”
There are also concerns that some within the party are too eager to pick “culture war issues on the right rather than the issues people care about”, one critic says. “Maybe it goes down well with the IFA [Irish Farmers’ Association]…but not with anyone who is urbane and forward thinking or looking for something new, fresh or exciting in politics.”
Senior sources worry about climate crashing headlong into resistance from conservative Fine Gaelers. “The scale and speed of change in the next two years, particularly on housing and climate, is going to have to be all the greater and that undoubtedly will be politically challenging,” one Minister says.
On housing, Fine Gael has not been shy about volunteering ideas for a ministry it does not control, which has been noted. “How credible was that when they have been in government since 2011, and who was it convincing?” asks one Fianna Fáil source.
There is a long-standing theory that Varadkar may ultimately jump ship, especially if a big European job comes up, but others believe he is keen to stay and prove himself.
One source says Varadkar is very conscious that he did not deliver on “the Leo factor” – a selling point in the 2017 leadership content – in the 2020 election. “That’s a wrong he’s determined to right.”
“He’s chomping at the bit,” says another source familiar with Varadkar’s eagerness to make a mark in his second stint as Taoiseach, buoyed by the budget, a recent plateau in polling for Sinn Féin and a pick-up in support for Fine Gael.
Varadkar will be keen to protect the tight relationship of trust between the three leaders. The two main leaders have much in common. Those working around them describe Martin and Varadkar as “nerds…conscientious”, both often eating at their desks and working late. There is not much of a social dimension to their relationship: they have shared a drink while travelling for work, but pints between them and Eamon Ryan, suggested by Varadkar as a good idea during Covid, have not materialised. Neither has a Cabinet dinner, viewed by the Tánaiste as a good way of allowing personalities to gel.
At the inception of the Coalition the conventional wisdom was that Varadkar would get the easier half of the rotation: Covid-19 would be vanquished, the economy would bounce back and Varadkar could take the credit. It has not turned out this way.
At the halfway point the Government faces entrenched challenges and Varadkar will chair a Cabinet comprising three parties with separate identities, warring factions and battles for identity and relevance. There is also potential for a destabilising leadership contest in Fianna Fáil and a rise in tensions running up to 2024 local and European elections.
A loss at the next general election would tarnish the hype that once surrounded Varadkar, casting him as a what-might-have-been figure who over-promised and under-delivered.
“He will be viewed as someone who didn’t live up to their potential he showed before he became Taoiseach,” says Prof Gary Murphy of the scenario where Varadkar loses that election. “If he can’t turn it around I don’t think history will be too kind to him.”
From this moment on those in Government know every day in office is a day closer to the general election and another day less to fine-tune policies and positions that will distinguish them not only from the Opposition but from each other.