A Political Obituary for Ireland’s Prime Minister

Politics - April 15, 2024

When it came it came as a surprise, closer to a bang than a whimper. In an age where across the western world our politicians have the capacity to annoy enrage dismay and baffle but rarely surprise that is something in itself. On that kudos to Leo Varadkar, now late leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland.

Three days after his return from the grand annual St Patrick’s day ritual, where the Taoiseach of the hour presents the President of the United States with a bowl of shamrock, a cabinet meeting was called where he informed his colleagues of his decision to go. As one back bench TD said it came like a bolt from a blue sky.

In a party and a government that leaks like an old sieve the fact that it didn’t get about until minutes before the official announcement tells us that most likely this was not decision long considered discussed and strategised.

His stated reasons for going “personal and political” reasons and his belief the he was “not the best person for the job any more” naturally did not satisfy many keyboard warriors who immediately began to fervidly speculate on what the real reason might be. Absent further information let us however take the man at his word.

But we can still ask why now ? The proximity of the defeat in the referendums held on March 8th to his departure is hard to ignore. Two amendments to the constitution proposed by the government and advocated for by all but one of the parties in the Dail and most of the media and many prominent NGOs facing very little organised opposition went down to crushing defeats. When the votes were counted they now have the peculiar honour of being recorded as the most and third most heavily defeated referendums in the history of the state.

This represented the first serious set back to the progressive wave of policy making in a generation. Though the amendments in and of themselves were nothing like as consequential as those to remove the constitutional protections on the unborn or recognise same sex marriage there was a perception within elements of the parliamentary that Leo had doubled down on a faltering campaign and tied the party to a crushing loss months out from an election.

Worse the margin of the defeat amplified the sense already in the air that both he and party were increasingly disconnected from the needs and concerns of ordinary people. When Leo arrived in the count centre the day after the vote to concede, party colleagues admitted privately that he seemed genuinely shocked by the result. Even in the face of positive opinion polls there had been a sense in the last week that defeat was possible but this kind of defeat had been inconceivable and seemed to have had real impact on the Taoiseach. When Leo Varadkar arrived in Dail Eireann in 2007 he was seen as something of an avis rara in Irish politics. A son of an Irish nurse and an Indian born doctor, himself a doctor, from the leafy north side suburbs of Castleknock was one of a small group of ideological conservatives to win seats for Fine Gael that election.

Bone dry on the economics, Leo was a small government low tax kind of guy. He promised the of judgement would come for the tax payer funder NGO sector, a bonfire of the vanities. A social conservative, he defended the traditional family, the right of a child to a father and mother and was a committed pro lifer. He talked tough on crime was strong on national sovereignty.

Fast forward seventeen years. In the interim Leo evolved, went on a journey or perhaps got knocked off his horse taking a short cut through the Park in the manner of Saint Paul. In his resignation speech he checked off those milestones or achievements he had been associated with as a Fine Gael T.D., minister or Taoiseach. Front and centre were his roles in the legal recognition of same sex marriage and the repeal of the eighth amendment allowing for the introduction of abortion into Ireland.

Oddly less referenced then and in the days to follow was the third element of the contemporary progressive triptych, the passage of Ireland’s Gender Recognition Act. One of the most radical pieces of legislation of its kind it went through quietly and on the nod in the shadow of the successful marriage referendum. It is no longer clear which side of History that particular bit of legislation falls so maybe discretion was considered the better part of valour.

Whatever Leo may see his successes to have been the words of Enoch Powell in his biography of Joseph Chamberlin still ring true; “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs” His party has been in power for thirteen years and there is always a life span to a regime. Even the best and brightest cannot maintain the energy and conviction that a party excluded from power for years can bring. Even the most principled have to deal with the reality of politics which is comprise where what should be done is met with what can be done. The Overton Window of Irish politics is rather small and it is much safer to what is respectable in the eyes of the commentariat than what you think is right.

Leo has never seemed to be on of those politicians for whom the possession of office and power were the final end of life. When he says he is no longer the man to lead that may simply be the truth. When Fine Gael won the 2011 election they garnered thirty six per cent of the vote and won seventy six seats. Today they are polling at around twenty per cent and hold thirty four seats. There are local and European elections in June and there will be a general election within the year. The party’s coalition partner is polling at sixteen percent, a point below independents making the prospect of re-election trickier that one might like.

The single most pressing issue with the electorate is immigration, something that would not have been imagined even five years ago. Next and connected to it is the housing crisis which has been ongoing for some years now. It is had to see in practice what this government can do in the time available to it to materially address either of these issues and turn around their electoral chances. Maybe some strong words and big promises, some decent theatre, will be enough to get the voters back on board but with trust in politicians at a very low ebb concrete action and real world results may be what is required and also very hard to achieve.

Even the economy which to many many seem to be in rude health is sending up warning flares. Corporate tax receipts on which revenue is actively dependent fell in the first quarter “for technical reasons”. The narrowness and mobility of that tax base is frightening. Housing shortages always create downstream problems for the wider economy and there is no end in sight to the shortage. Wage growth is awful but there labour bottlenecks at the same time. The cost of doing business is too high .All things considered it may not be a bad time to say good bye and good luck.