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Leo at 40: the good, the bad and the smug

Leo Varadkar (Photograph: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie)

PJ Cunningham reports on how Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his ministers are trying to recover from a series of own goals.

Have Leo Varadkar and his government become too smug for their own good?

That is the question the being posed after a week in which the Taoiseach celebrated his 40th birthday, got in trouble with farmers for warning people off red meat, went hiding over the 300 per cent jump in the original cost of the National Children’s Hospital for which he once had responsibility as Health Minister, and saw his deputy, Simon Coveney (Tánaiste) prevaricate when asked what would happen our country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

But first to the question of ‘smug’. Shortly after his arrival at the top job, he sported a ‘Mr. Taoiseach’ mug at his desk. And before addressing the media on Brexit last year, Leo’s own account tweeted out an update of him sitting with Mr. Coveney and Helen McEntee, Junior Foreign Affairs Minister, with an upgraded mug in front of him which had the words ‘World’s Best Taoiseach’ written on it.

So, in hindsight, we can see the element of smug was there from the start.

More recently there was also a scent of smugness over his birthday party because a big deal was made about who was being invited and when also they would be told where the bash was being held.

Maybe with such distractions, it was little wonder that Leo didn’t fully digest the consequences of declaring a wish to radically reduce his own red meat consumption for environmental and health reasons.

If he had one eye on the next general election – not to mention the upcoming European and local election in three months’ time – he certainly didn’t show it as his comments left a real sour taste on the palate of the vast agri-food sector and the farming community.

Micheal Martin, leader of Fianna Fail, speaking outside Leinster House in Dublin in 2017 to endorse Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach

Such an own goal though may prove to be only temporary but it seems that one issue which won’t go away so easily is the spiralling cost of the National Children’s Hospital.

Originally, James Reilly thought in 2012 it would cost €650 million but by the time in 2017, the Health portfolio had been handed on to – guess who? – Yes, Leo, it had jumped to almost €1 billion.

Now when it opens in three years’ time, it is estimated that the cost will have escalated to €1.7 billion, a situation leading to accusations that the government is so smug that it has “fallen asleep at the wheel.”

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Even in the never-ending Brexit negotiations, the government seems more intent on hiding rather than sharing with the public what is going on.

This arose when another admonished for publicly admitting that in the event of a no deal, he anticipated border checks.

Later he was heard apologizing off-mic like a guilty schoolboy to the Tánaiste for the gaffe. The paranoia surrounding this issue was picked up on by the leader of the Opposition, Micheál Martin at Leaders Questions, when he attacked the government for not telling the truth “for party political reasons.”

He said the episode of shush-ing up a minister over mention of a hard border had reminded him of a Fawlty Towers episode where Basil encouraged people not to “mention the war.”

Adams unknown potential successor
Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty and Leader Mary Lou McDonald (Photo: RollingNews.ie)

The Taoiseach, and his cohort, keep talking around the issue of Brexit instead of facing up to reality.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “If there is a crash, if there is no backstop, a hardening of the border follows automatically…and what will you do?”

Inevitably, all the questions arising from this episode on Brexit forced the Taoiseach out of hiding to write an article on the issue in the latest issue of a supportive newspaper, the Sunday Independent.

He began by claiming that any major political negotiation is like writing a novel because the most difficult part to write is the end.

“The stakes are too high to do anything except continue to seek a way forward,” he stressed.

On the question of why he could not compromise on the question of the border or the backstop, he continued: “With our European partners we worked hard and in good faith for a solution. That solution has now been firmly rejected by Westminster. We, therefore, need urgently to hear from London on how it wishes to proceed. The ball is in the UK’s court.”

Meanwhile, closer to home, the government that puts such value on spin will have to start getting results on Brexit, health and rural Ireland, if it wants to get back into power after the next election.

Right now, shirking the big decisions, or attempting to spin away from them, is being mistaken for arrogance and smugness that power sometimes brings.

They’ve shown they can talk the talk, but the coming months will tell the electorate if they can walk the walk.

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