Friday, 9 June 2017

Tread carefully, Mr Varadkar

                                                           Leo Varadkar (Photo: BBC)

A little over seven years ago, a young Fine Gael TD made some uncharitable comments on the party's former leader, Garret Fitzgerald. In an exchange in the Dail, Leo Varadkar - now the Fine Gael party leader - compared the then taoiseach to Dr Fitzgerald. 'You are no Jack Lynch, no John Bruton, no Sean Lemass', he yelled at Brian Cowen. Mr Varadkar did not mention the Haughey years that brought so much division to the country. No, instead the name of Dr Fitzgerald was uttered by the Fine Gael deputy. 'You are not like those other leaders, but more like Garret Fitzgerald, who tripled the national debt and effectively destroyed the country', he told Mr Cowen. After the gasps had died down there was incredulity among Fine Gael people. Imagine a fellow TD saying such things about 'Garret the good'! Understandably many felt it was sacrilege and Mr Varadkar was roundly criticised for his remarks. Later he admitted that some of what he'd said was 'over the top', but his utterances caused great hurt and will continue to resonate to this day in some quarters.

Those widely publicised comments were very uncharitable towards Dr Fitzgerald, as well as being somewhat unfair. However the flaws lie with Mr Varadkar rather than with the venerable former taoiseach, I would argue. Back in the early 1980's the political scene was very fractious. There were three elections in the space of two years (one in 1981 and two in 1982). The outcome of these polls was a Fine Gael-Labour coalition headed  by Dr Fitzgerald. In the months previously the last taoiseach, Charles Haughey, had made a major error of judgement by going live on national television and telling the people of Ireland that we had been 'living way beyond our means' and that cuts would have to be made in order to manage the national finances. However in the following budget Mr Haughey did a complete u-turn and failed to implement the policies he originally said he would. 

When Dr Fitzgerald came to office in November 1982 the public finances were in a terrible state but with the situation in Northern Ireland getting more dangerous by the day, political stability had to be maintained. What was more important: an upsurge in violence in Ulster or short term economic difficulties in the Republic? The choice was not appetising. Dr Fitzgerald decided that he wanted to prioritise the national situation and that meant creating political stability in the Republic. Therefore he had no choice but to follow the Labour Party's economic agenda in government. To do anything else would have risked the survival of his government during a time of grave concern at the growing violence in the north. For Dr Fitzgerald (more of a natural intellectual than a pragmatist) - in this case - pragmatism was more important than ideology. 

This is  part of the historical context of how the Irish economy failed to grow in the 1980's. It was not simply because Dr Fitgerald didn't want to bring in economic measures, similar to those being implemented by Mrs Thatcher in the UK at the time. The simple reality was that he couldn't do it. Mrs Thatcher had a large parliamentary majority and was not dependent on any other political party to keep her in power. That was not the situation Dr Fitzgerald found himself in. The comments by Mr Varadkar are partly true.  He is factually correct about the economic consequences, but in making his remarks he fails to show an understanding of how politics works. One must be pragmatic - knowing how far you can go on any issue. That is the lesson that he needs to learn as he assumes the role of taoiseach. 

Mr Varadkar was the popular choice of the Fine Gael membership over the more centrist approach of Simon Coveney. The former said he wants to bring "definition" to Fine Gael as opposed to the latter who described the reasoning of the Dublin TD as "fundamentally" flawed. Definition, of course, brings greater clarity and direction. But it also narrows the focus and appeal of a political party. If Fine Gael are to improve their position in the Dail - perhaps gain a majority - this kind of approach has to be abandoned. 

Mr Coveney is right. With the departure of Enda Kenny comes the reminder that being too strident can cost a political leader. In 2011 Mr Kenny led a government - albeit a coalition -  with a big majority. Five years later he could consider himself immensely fortunate to still be in office. Mr Varadkar must learn that lesson if he is to have a lengthy period at the top of Irish politics. 

It has been said that Mr Varadkar is only interested in being taoiseach and that if Fine Gael lose power at the next general election - whenever that comes - he'll step down as Party leader. As of now all of this is uncertain. But one thing I feel sure about is that we have not heard the last from Mr Coveney. Should the new Fine Gael leader fail to make the grade you can expect that the Cork TD will be fast out of the traps to mount a challenge and I don't suspect he will lose next time. At this point the advice to Mr Varadkar must be: Tread carefully, very carefully.