Can Leo Varadkar actually seize his opportunity?

It remains to be seen if the Taoiseach has the ability or temperament to achieve his goals

It was not until he was formally elected Taoiseach yesterday that the full implications of Leo Varadkar’s extraordinary rise to the most powerful office in the land really sank in.

Not only is he the youngest head of government in the history of the State but, as the son of an immigrant from India and an openly gay man, his elevation 10 years to the day he first entered the Dáil marked the coming of age of a modern, diverse Ireland.

He clearly has ambitions to emulate Emmanuel Macron in France and win back voters from the fatal attractions of populism with workable policies that demonstrate a clear commitment to the common good.

Addressing the Dáil immediately after his election he pledged that his Government would not be one of left or right but of the European centre, a republic of opportunity, hope and progress.


There is a clear yearning across the western world, particularly among young people, for a fresh approach to politics. That has manifested itself in very different ways from the election of Macron to the surge of support for a very different kind of figure, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

How that mood will manifest itself in this country in the years ahead is an open question. Sinn Féin and the Trotskyists in the Dáil have high hopes of making further gains among the disillusioned young but Fine Gael TDs believe that Vardakar has the capacity to ride the wave and re-energise the centre ground.

The big question is whether he has the political ability and the temperament to take advantage of the opportunity but the way he went about winning the Fine Gael leadership indicates that he just might.

Salutary warning

The example of Theresa May provides a salutary warning of how quickly it can all go wrong. Less than 12 months ago she was being hailed as the new visionary of British politics as she openly repositioned the Conservative Party to win over working class anti-EU voters.

In her ill-fated election adventure she did manage to partially achieve that objective but in the process lost a substantial chunk of her party’s traditional base and wrecked her premiership.

The lesson for Varadkar is that he will need to bring the Fine Gael base with him as he attempts to widen the party's appeal. His relatively cautious Cabinet reshuffle was a sensible first move in the circumstances as were his references to Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and Seán Lemass in his Dáil speech.

He has also shown sound political judgment by immediately grasping that the pivotal role for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the new House of Commons could be very good for Ireland.

While much of the commentary here and in the UK on the DUP’s unexpected role in holding the balance of power in British politics has been fuelled by a lazy caricature of the Northern party, the new Taoiseach quickly spotted the positive political implications for Brexit.

The bottom line is that the DUP will now have an influence over the type of Brexit being sought by the British government. When added to the voice of the 13 Scottish Tories and the Remain Conservative MPs who have been emboldened by May’s humiliation it means that a much softer Brexit than anticipated is now a real possibility.

While the DUP campaigned unambiguously for Brexit a year ago the party has made it clear since then that it would like the UK to remain in the EU customs union in order to avoid the reintroduction of a hard Border for trade between the two parts of Ireland.

That seemed like a forlorn hope until Theresa May made her catastrophic political decision to call an unnecessary general election and throw away her existing majority with a dreadful election campaign.

There are still powerful forces in the UK in favour of a hard Brexit but it is no longer inevitable. A number of leading Conservatives, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, are reported to be in favour of remaining in the customs union and that attitude is shared by many Labour MPs.

Crucial role

If the clear majority of MPs in the House of Commons who oppose a hard Brexit can find a way of co-operating, the worst impact of Britain’s exit on Ireland can be mitigated and the DUP can play a crucial role in that.

It should help that Varadkar and DUP leader Arlene Foster are already on good terms and the DUP leader was one of the first to congratulate the new Fine Gael leader on his elevation.

"I had a very constructive relationship with Leo when I was Northern Ireland's tourism minister and he was the Republic of Ireland's minister with responsibility for tourism," she told the Belfast Telegraph last weekend, adding that she looked forward to working with Varadkar on matters of mutual concern such as Brexit.

Foster is visiting Dublin tomorrow to meet the new Taoiseach. Given that this is expected to follow on the heels of an agreement between the DUP and the incoming British government, it could be one of the most significant meetings the new Taoiseach has in his first term in office.