varadkarstreet

Irish Independent, 25 May 2017

There is no doubt that both Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are two young, highly capable, energetic politicians, who have been at the helm of a Government that has rescued the Irish economy from the crash of 2010 to full recovery.

We now have an economic growth rate which is the envy of Europe at 4%. This is an extraordinary achievement which tends to be too easily overlooked in the noise about water charges and ‘austerity’.

If there was a gold medal for complacency, the Irish would be in the final shake up. Our perpetual moaners should go to Eastern Europe, where I’ve just been, to see how good we have it with our 12.5% corporate tax, clean government and favourable status for multinational investment.

So the Government (the previous one, not this ‘new politics’ one) deserves full credit for the rescue and stabilisation of the Irish economy. Enda Kenny was at the heart of that as Taoiseach, and deserves special credit.

But, now that he is stepping down, we need to have a hard look at his successor, both as Fine Gael leader and as our Prime Minister. The choice affects us all not least, because, despite the recovery, we are facing major challenges as a country: Brexit, a pensions time bomb, EU threats to our low corporate tax and continuing shortfalls in our health service and gardai.

Although Coveney and Varadkar were at the heart of our recovery, mostly as Agriculture and Transport Minister respectively, it was hard to gauge their full contribution. And it’s even harder afterwards, with Varadkar’s stay in health, and Coveney in agriculture, too short to measure their impact.

However, in the single biggest issue of recent times, the issue that brought thousands on to the streets, there is a revealing difference in their behaviour. It was Leo who fought hard to retain water charges during the talks on formation of a ‘confidence and supply’ government with FF. It was also Leo who last month did a Sunday newspaper interview cautioning FG against a ludicrous FF compromise by which high water users could be fined.

By contrast, it was Simon who dropped the ball on RTE’s Prime Time when he said, after the election, that it may be possible to postpone water charges. It was a jaw dropping concession, and immediately opened the door to dropping charges in way that couldn’t be reversed. It was on national TV and it looked weak.

Granted, Simon was trying to create a Government, and avoid an election. But it confirms why FF prefer dealing with Coveney and not with Varadkar who stands up to them.

Quite simply, Simon is too indistinguishable and even bland to differentiate himself from the FF generalists or resist emasculation at their cunning and busy hands. They would have the run of him, as FG leader.

Leo is different – he speaks to core FG values and grassroots and also looks like he doesn’t care if people don’t like it. It is the same with his attacks on Sinn Fein and the hard left, which are red meat to the FG faithful. We haven’t heard any of us this from Simon.

But there is a bigger and more fundamental reason why Leo could offer an exciting transformation not only for Fine Gael and the Government but for Ireland itself.

At a time when Ireland has made headlines with Catholic abuse and the Tuam babies discovery, how great to have the modernising leap of our government being led by a young, gay man with an Indian name, in tune with popular culture, and tested in office.

Yes, he has been something of an underachiever, but there is no hiding place in the top office. Varadkar, at his full potential, has the capacity to energise and modernise both his party and crucially the country. He is tougher than the others. But he is also smart and has original ideas beyond the usual party manifesto.

Thus, already, Leo has been bringing the party back to its traditional hinterland in terms of (finally!) talking up for working families and taxpayers, tackling welfare traps and abuse, and maybe even lowering high personal taxes. We’ve heard none of this from Simon : just the same old big tent State interventionist philosophy that makes him indistinguishable from FF.

Crucially, the elevation of a modernising Leo would also steal a march on Fianna Fail, making them look like the same old party led by the same old opportunist Michael Martin – apparently unreconstructed and still playing the populist card. Clear blue water would appear.

So, although both have underachieved in some ways, Varadkar, at his full potential, has the capacity to energise and modernise both his party and crucially the country. He could navigate us around the big issues of Brexit, the public finances, liberal issues (like abortion) and Northern Ireland on which he has offered some interesting ideas.

At the end of the day, the question is : who would you want batting on your behalf, at home or abroad? And quite frankly, if I was a FG member – but also as an Irish citizen – I would want that person to be Leo Varadkar and his young and seasoned Ministerial team.