The emergence of Leo Varadakar as Taoiseach is the latest sign of dramatic change of in the Republic. It is a bit unsettling that although we are learning who he is we haven’t a clue what he is in traditional Irish terms. Since starting out as a Fine Gael party nerd in his youth, he has risen without much trace, picking his causes with increasing care but making his mark with signature comments. Thankfully none of them was about our constitutional obsessions. He is a social liberal ( gay rights ) and an economic liberal (neo-Thatcherite) who will tack in both areas. Typically speculation is rife about his economic sense of direction on the basis of a single quote: “ I want to lead a party for people who get up in the morning.”
The recognition factors that still work in the North are disappearing fast in the south. You only had to list Enda Kenny’s antecedents or Liam Cosgrave’s, (now well into his 90s), to feel the influence of the Irish political dynasty. In their own ways Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald played against type. Haughey used to complain that it was he who was tarred with the brush of dynasty (he married the boss’s daughter), when it was FitzGerald the ideologue of a “new Ireland” who was nationalist royalty. Garret was the son of a minster in the first Free State government and a mother who was a Bangor Protestant who nevertheless loathed unionists. Both of them were inside the GPO in Easter 1916 and you can’t do better than that .
Like Macron in France, Varadkar has a virtually clean sheet and is part of trend of choosing fresh faces to boost interest in politics Fine Gael have taken the gamble of picking a leader who can shoot from the hip rather than act like a stereotypical party grass root. He has no known form on the North. His opening remarks were conventional and comforting. “Prejudice has no hold in this Republic “ is a great opening one liner.
A short time later, at his first press conference as party leader, Mr Varadkar said his immediate priorities would be Brexit and the relaunching of the Northern Executive, the public sector pay negotiations and a new capital spending plan.
Arlene and Theresa were quick to congratulate him. Good moves. I wonder what he’ll say to get the Assembly back?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London