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Varadkar’s decision to step down represented a refreshing burst of humility

Simon Harris can invigorate Fine Gael and attract new candidates

Leo Varadkar did the right and brave thing for himself and the country by stepping down when he came to the conclusion that he had nothing left to give. His frank admission to the Irish public that after seven years in the Taoiseach’s office he was no longer the best person for the job was astonishing in its honesty.

It is one of the truisms of politics that leaders never know when it is time to go. Outside of elections they usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming from office long after they have become a liability.

Acknowledging that somebody else would do a better job is not in a leader’s DNA so Varadkar’s decision to step down, and the reasons he gave for it, represented a refreshing burst of humility which can only be good for Irish politics in the longer term.

The downside of politics was on display in much of the response to Varadkar’s decision, with the focus of the Opposition and much of the media on the failures and mistakes of his time at the top with little or no reference to his undoubted achievements.


It should be acknowledged that those achievements were considerable. Varadkar’s handling of the Brexit negotiations was a master class in hard-nosed diplomacy. It delivered the outcome the country needed but which few people thought possible: the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

His leadership during the Covid pandemic was critical to the way in which the country responded so well to that threat. Just look at the mess his counterparts in London and some other parts of the world made of the same challenge.

And underpinning it all was the careful management of the economy by Paschal Donohoe, which provided the Exchequer with the resources to cushion the population against the impact of the pandemic and the subsequent cost-of-living crisis which followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Of course there were failures too, with housing being the most obvious one, but unless we give our political leaders the credit for their successes, as well as the brickbats for their failures, the door for populist demagogues will become ever wider.

One of the reasons so many TDs are stepping down at the next election is the increasingly toxic nature of political debate. This was on display in the Dáil immediately after Varadkar’s announcement when Social Democrat leader Holly Cairns twisted his parting words to mean the exact opposite of what he had actually said.

One of Varadkar’s strengths was being able to deal effectively with that kind of misrepresentation, either in the Dáil or in media interviews. Unfortunately for him his calmness under pressure in political debate did not translate into the public support that his TDs expected when they rushed to his side to make him leader seven years ago.

One of the things that frustrated them was the direction the party has taken in recent years at the behest of non-governmental organisations. “Leo is all the time trying to please the people who hate him and ignoring the concerns of party members who support him,” bemoaned one TD after the referendums.

Another weakness was his clear discomfort with the glad-handling side of politics which is one of the essentials for a successful party leader. Since he returned to the Taoiseach’s office at the end of 2022 Varadkar had also become increasingly distant from colleagues, and in recent months they began to have serious doubts about his judgment. The referendums debacle was just one instance of that.

That mood encouraged the widespread feeling in the party that it was drifting towards an inevitable defeat at the next election. The decision of so many TDs not to run again was a symptom of that malaise but the timing of Varadkar’s departure has given the party a chance to turn the tide.

A lively and engaging new young leader like Simon Harris will have a better chance of reinvigorating the organisation and attracting viable new candidates to take the place of those TDs who are stepping down. He also needs to take the opportunity to reset the party’s priorities on bread and butter issues and drop annoying and irrelevant initiatives like hate-speech legislation.

The short time frame for the selection of a new leader and the closeness of a general election encouraged Fine Gael TDs to rally quickly around the leading candidate for the vacancy rather than engaging in a complex election process. Paschal Donohoe was the only potential viable challenger to Harris and once he made it clear that he was not a contender it was game over.

One strong principle that Varadkar espoused consistently was his refusal to contemplate a coalition with Sinn Féin under any circumstances. Harris will need to reiterate that approach as a fundamental plank in the party’s platform going into the election.

Given that every other party in the Dáil is refusing to rule out categorically a deal with Sinn Féin it will give Fine Gael a unique selling point that can galvanise party supporters and appeal to the significant segment of the electorate which is adamantly opposed to allowing the republican movement take control of this State.