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Leo Varadkar did not fulfil his promise for ‘people who get up early’

Throughout his career, Varadkar used the media to fly kites or issue provocative statements, but if there was a negative reaction he qualified them almost to the point of meaninglessness

Speaking as taoiseach in June 2018 at the annual commemoration of one his predecessors, John A Costello, Leo Varadkar looked back and forward. Suggesting the declaration of the Republic in April 1949 when Costello was taoiseach was “a deliberate statement about who we were as a country”, Varadkar expressed a desire for a significant event “to mark the 75th anniversary in 2024″.

He will be marking it in a different way now. Always in a hurry on the way up, he has now bolted towards the exit door at the age of just 45. The man who generated much international coverage on becoming taoiseach in 2017 on account of his youth, homosexuality and Indian heritage, suggested he represented a new phase of the Republic, or in his words, “the Republic of Opportunity” where its citizens “would be equal and where prejudice would have no hold”.

As Taoiseach he oversaw a formal end to Civil War politics, the Brexit fallout, the beginning of the Covid pandemic, economic and population expansion, a poor 2020 general election result, and the sharing of the top job. Varadkar suggested Brexit was “the challenge in our generation.” In Anglo-Irish terms it was, and he stuck determinedly and effectively to the insistence there would be no return to a hard border, managing to fashion a compromise with Boris Johnson. But the real generational challenge is climate change and Varadkar’s assertion of Ireland as a climate-change “laggard” when addressing the European Parliament in 2018 will be remembered as a frank acknowledgment of failure about an issue that is still not taken seriously enough.

Rhetorically, Varadkar surfed various ideological waves. In 2020, he declared Fine Gael “the party of enterprise and reward ... of equality of opportunity. That has to be our identity”. He had previously labelled himself a “Christian Democrat” and once flirted with the idea of joining the Progressive Democrats. He also relied on a dated answer to the perennial question about the differences between FG and FF: “ethics and integrity in public office.”


Many of Varadkar’s generation are likely to regard his promise of a new republic as hollow when they apply it to their own circumstances

Varadkar spoke of a “compassionate” conservatism, and while the party’s 1960s “Just Society” phase was invoked by some colleagues, it was at odds with the neoliberal policies the party embraced. Its ministers were simultaneously prepared to preside over enhanced public spending to try to mitigate opposition inroads, while insisting it was the party of tax cuts and full employment.

Throughout his political career, Varadkar used the media to fly political kites or issue provocative statements, but if there was a negative reaction to them, he qualified them almost to the point of meaninglessness. He was prepared to declare the housing crisis a “national emergency” in 2018. It is now looking like a permanent emergency.

Varadkar tended sometimes to kick sensitive matters such as abortion to touch while also asserting he was unhappy with the status quo. Whatever about such caution, his time in office will be remembered for diluting, in his words, “the politics of the moral Civil War”. He rose to the challenge of providing solemn and mostly mature leadership during the Covid pandemic and will be positively remembered for his words on St Patrick’s Day 2020: “In years to come let them say of us ... when things were at their worst, we were at our best.” A future review might temper self-congratulation, but compared to what was witnessed elsewhere, the leadership shown was impressive and important.

Varadkar announced his resignation after numerous colleagues indicated they are stepping away from politics and a week after new reports – from the Association of Irish Local Government and a taskforce led by former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan – underlined the scale of threats and abuse permeating Irish politics. Varadkar and his peers have often been unhealthily preoccupied with media spinning and soundbites, sometimes indulging in grandstanding and trivialising the business of politics. But those who have understandably deemed social media as intrinsic to political communication have also felt its bilious, toxic heat. In a week such as this, it is fair to remember politics is an unforgiving, insecure profession. It is no bad thing not to view it as a lifelong career, but its increasing unattractiveness is indicative of worrying trends.

Of Fine Gael, Varadkar suggested in 2020: “what we need to do in the party over the next couple of years is talk to each other and define what our identity is”. After his reign and the wider context of 13 years in power, it is a question they are still struggling with, but the failure of too many aspects of the social contract might mean the electorate will answer it for them. Many of Varadkar’s generation are likely to regard his promise of a new republic as hollow when they apply it to their own circumstances, including those who “get up early in the morning” whom he claimed to champion.