Eoin Neylon was President of Ogra Fianna Fail from 2014-2016, he has taken a look at the week in Irish Politics
“A week is a long time in politics”. This quote is often attributed to former UK Labour PM Harold Wilson. It’s a quote that was likely ringing in the ears of Leo Varadkar this morning as he made an appearance at law firm Arthur Cox.
Just a week ago he was accepting international plaudits as he accented to the role of Taoiseach, the youngest ever to do so. At 38, gay and a son of an immigrant, the headlines basically wrote themselves. You’d be forgiven to think that the honeymoon would last more than a matter of days, however. The problems started ever before his election as Taoiseach was confirmed in the Dáil. A parting gift from Enda Kenny was to appoint Attorney General Máire Whelan to the vacant post as a judge in the court of criminal appeal. Such appointments have not been rare in Irish history but it was what transpired about the manner of the appointment that was to cause the new Taoiseach his first headache.
As has been widely publicised, AG Whelan did not go through the JAAB (Judicial Appointments Advisory Board), nor, it appears, did the cabinet at large know that three high court justices had expressed interest in the position. Fianna Fáil saw an opportunity to get an early dig in at the new Taoiseach and went for it. Crying foul about the appointment as a stroke of old, front bench spokespeople were on the airwaves demanding Varadkar stop the appointment or else the “nuclear option” of an election was a possibility. It was a calculated risk to see how Leo would react; to see what kind of leadership style he would adopt. The Independent Alliance seemed taken off guard by all this and immediately called for a review of the decision. A bizarre call seeing as, by virtue of collective cabinet responsibility, Shane Ross and co would appear to be asking for a review into themselves.
Instead of appearing conciliatory or weak, we saw just how Leo plans to rule. The President was instructed to go ahead with the appointment on Monday morning, a day before the Dáil had a chance to question it. The optics was also clear with the Taoiseach sitting there along side President Higgins in the Áras as he prompted Máire Whelan into the judiciary. Fianna Fáil’s bluff of threatening an election they do not want was called by Leo, much to the anger of many Fianna Fáil supporters. In doing so, Leo had to take ownership of a political stroke and the whiter than white sheen he has tried to portray himself with throughout his carrier is a few shades dirtier as a result. In all, this first battle would appear a draw with all sides left licking their wounds. One thing is for sure, there will be no love loss between Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael and the lead opposition party with the spectre of an election looming.
Perhaps the worst part of the week though was of the Taoiseach’s own doing, however. There was much talk of regime change is the run up to Kenny standing down as Leo went on the leadership hustings. Ultimately, when push came to shove the new Fine Gael looks very much like the old Fine Gael, save three key demotions. The removal of Mary Mitchell-O’Connor from cabinet was widely tipped beforehand. In fairness to her, the portfolio she was handed by Enda Kenny did her no favours originally. It was a brief far removed from her previous experience as an educator and didn’t play to her strengths. The few promotions to cabinet also yielded little surprises. Perhaps the only surprise was the exclusion of John Paul Phelan from the list. A long time servant of FG, he acquitted himself with distinction in the banking inquiry and was a key ally as Leo ascended to the throne. He can rightly feel aggrieved that he had to make do with a junior role. Many FG supporters seem disappointed that more new faces didn’t find their way to the cabinet table.
Leo’s main trouble though is in an area he usually is a master; optics. Styling himself as an Irish Macron or Trudeau, he has fallen well short of their lead in terms of giving women equal footing at the top table. It’s true to say that he had a smaller pool of women to pick from than his French and Canadian counterparts in terms of the number of females in the FG Parliamentary Party. That said, he did have options but chose to be conservative and not promote any of the class of 2016, instead demoting mainly women in his very limited reshuffle. If the Taoiseach is to rely on style in office as much as he brilliantly did during the campaign, simple, obvious errors like these cannot be made. Politics is not a sport in which own goals are easily clawed back. The new Taoiseach had better learn the game is changed now that he’s the captain of his team.
His first European summit this week gives him his first a chance to set out his stall as a statesman. With Brexit negotiations already underway, it’s clear that his time as Taoiseach is set to be defined by his performance on the international stage as much as domestically. For Leo, much like the much celebrated Macron, this is a whole new ball game altogether. He needs to learn fast for the country’s sake, not just his own!