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Leo Varadkar: A Taoiseach not so much resigning as throwing in the towel

Heather and Helen appeared teary-eyed, a grey-faced Simon Harris looked positively stricken and Paschal’s bottom lip quivered with emotion

They packed the Dáil benches for his starry debut.

On his last working day as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar walked from the chamber alone.

Five TDs watched him go in silence.

The noise was elsewhere.


In a frenzied day of wild speculation and genuine shock, it was in every corner of Leinster House – in the corridors and in the canteen, the restaurant and the bars right out to the pillars and plinth outside.

Late on Wednesday morning, word began to circulate that a major Government announcement was imminent. Something big was about to go down. Rumour gripped Kildare Street.

Phones went into meltdown. Phones went unanswered. Government advisers went into conclave.

It had to be a Cabinet resignation. Or was it a heave? A breaking scandal? A general election? What the hell was going on?

Political correspondents were summoned to a midday press conference in the courtyard of Government Buildings. The reason why broke half an hour beforehand and spread like wildfire across the political landscape.

Leo Varadkar was resigning.

A Taoiseach, not so much resigning as throwing in the towel. For Leo, it was a case of much done, nothing left in the tank to do any more.

He was walking away. Just like that.

The shock was writ large across the faces of the six Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues who accompanied him to those same steps from where he made career-defining speeches in more unshakeable times. Confident and resolute then.

Despondent and uncertain now.

Leo Varadkar, who became Ireland’s youngest taoiseach at the age of 37, was stepping down at the still tender age of 45 – a stage in life when many upwardly mobile politicians would only be contemplating a tilt at the top job.

His decision caused total consternation across the board.

The Opposition, back after a week-long break from the Dáil and ready for battle in the wake of the Government’s referendum drubbing, was astonished. Like everyone else, blindsided by this turn of events.

Nobody saw it coming. In an environment where people routinely pretend to be on the inside track because knowledge is everything, nobody even attempted to say they knew this was heading down the tracks. Although in hindsight, now that you say it, he appeared very disconnected and distant during the St Patrick’s week visit to Washington last week, mused some of those who were on the trip.

The Taoiseach arrived 13 minutes late for his appointment with destiny, with his senior party colleagues in tow. Compared to them, he looked almost happy. But then, Heather Humphreys, Helen McEntee, Hildegarde Naughton, Simon Harris, Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe looked completely distraught.

A study in ministerial misery.

Heather and Helen looked like they were going to burst into tears at any minute, a grey-faced Simon Harris looked positively stricken and if Paschal’s bottom lip quivered any more there was every chance he might start to levitate.

Why did Leo Varadkar choose this moment to go?

Listen | 35:26

Paschal has previous when it comes to leadership trauma. In a younger incarnation, he was one of the tellers during the vote in the unsuccessful heave against Enda Kenny in 2010. He was reportedly in tears as he watched his party colleagues cast their ballots.

And then, of course, he famously backed Varadkar during his leadership campaign, welcoming him to his Dublin Central constituency with tea and muffins on the corner of Leo Street in Phibsborough.

The departing leader’s resignation speech lasted less than ten minutes. As he spoke, politicians, advisers and civil servants leaned out the windows to watch the drama.

From the outset, the Taoiseach sounded nervous. After he went through the highlights of his time in office and the script changed to his reasons for leaving, his tone changed too. His voice thickened and he became emotional, struggling to maintain his composure.

It was hard to watch, remembering those days of joyful promise when Leo was elected party leader at an exuberant coronation in Dublin’s Mansion House. Youthful and energetic and a different type of leader.

And now he is bowing out “after careful consideration and some soul searching”. Leaving for private and political reasons which he never really explained. Running out of steam doesn’t really cut it.

Somebody new is needed at the helm of Fine Gael to drive on the party and reinvigorate the troops.

“And after seven years in office, I don’t feel I’m the best person for that job any more,” he said.

He wants his loyal colleagues to have the best shot possible in the forthcoming elections.

“And I think they have a better chance under a new leader.”

Leo smiled when he remembered the good times, voice cracking as he spoke. Afterwards, long time observers said it was the first time they ever saw him so emotional. Perhaps this was one of the reasons he never really connected with the electorate.

Paschal looked close to re-enacting his ballot-box scene from Enda’s election. Heather looked shattered and Helen blinked back the tears.

Hildegarde and Simon Coveney stared straight ahead while Simon Harris jutted out his jaw, narrowed his eyes and had more knots in his brow than a fisherman’s net.

Has his time come? The bookies think so. He was saying nothing on Thursday night.

Speaking of bookies, speculation over the runners and riders consumed political observers.

“If I was thinking of throwing my hat in the ring I’d ring up Willie Mullins and ask him to be my campaign manager” said one Opposition TD, still in Cheltenham mode.

After his colleagues recovered sufficiently from the bombshell, talk turned to the new leader.

“There are three types of deputies in the parliamentary party” explained a Government veteran. “Ministers, aspiring backbenchers and retirees. Some of those people who said they are going after the election are thinking they may have been a bit premature. A new boss might consider them for the jobs Leo denied them.”

It was also noted that the selection of the next leader will be decided upon by almost a dozen politicians who won’t even be in the Dáil next time around, if they stick to their promises to retire.

Of course, the opposition is having none of it.

“Unthinkable” shuddered Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, contemplating the prospect of a Government with its third Taoiseach in one administration.

Indeed, like St Patrick’s shamrock we would have a blessed Trinity of national leaders – three Taoisigh in the one Government.

Despite the upheaval, it was business as usual for Tánaiste Micheál Martin, the great fighter and survivor of Irish politics. He delivered a statement from the steps, then he followed up by taking questions from the media.

How did he feel when the Taoiseach broke the news to him and Eamon Ryan the night before.

“I was shoo . . . very surprised” he said. “It’s not something that I anticipated.”

But he is “absolutely steadfast and consistent” in his belief that the Coalition should run its full course.

The Opposition spokespeople were already out calling for a general election. Those calls will only grow louder over the Easter break.

There was a strained and strange atmosphere in the Dáil for Leaders’ Questions. Opposition leaders were stranded in an unfamiliar place between courtesy and cutting loose on a weakened Coalition.

The main contenders for the Taoiseach’s job were on the front bench with him. They busied themselves on their mobile phones, Harris’s thumbs a mere blur as they raced across the letters.

Simon Coveney was first to declare himself a non-runner later in the evening.

Meanwhile, the best leak from the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting came from the Taoiseach who said that because nobody would stab him in the back so he had to fall on his sword.

A moment of levity from Leo in a day when he looked less than comfortable with his decision.

“He looked shook” said a senior civil servant in Leinster House. “He did very little to stop the rumours about why he left by leaving with little in the way of a decent explanation.”

Even Mary Lou McDonald had to check if he was, in fact, actually leaving. She didn’t realise it was his last Leaders’ Questions as Taoiseach.

Is it true?

Leo looked taken aback. He struggled to say something, eventually emitting a shrugging, uncertain affirmation.

If taking this courageous decision was meant to lift a weight from his shoulders, it certainly didn’t look that way.

Leo Varadkar ended his penultimate day in the Dáil as Taoiseach with a humdrum session of questions and a short statement on Europe. Was anyone listening?

He will be back in 20 days time to resign.

“Politicians are human beings, we have our limitations. We give it everything until we can’t any more” he said earlier in the day.

It was a sad occasion, in many ways.

Leinster House is reeling. The cut and thrust carries on.