Leo Varadkar must be wondering if his future is behind him as he surveys his parliamentary party and calculates how many more Fine Gael Dáil stalwarts might bow out of national politics at the next general election.
Five have already announced they are heading for the hills: Carlow-Kilkenny’s John Paul Phelan, Joe McHugh in Donegal, Kerry’s Brendan Griffin and long-standing Cork deputies David Stanton and Michael Creed.
Nobody in Leinster House believes that will be the final tally.
There are the veterans who have enjoyed a very long innings while their heroically patient understudies await their chance. And there are the TDs who will make a decision when details of redrawn constituencies are released later this summer. Nothing concentrates the political mind like the desire to dodge an electoral hanging.
One name keeps cropping up around the corridors: the party’s deputy leader and former tánaiste, Simon Coveney. Sources close to the Cork blueblood tell us he will be running, and his constituency office and organisation show all the signs of gearing up for an election next year.
Yet one of them concedes, “I wouldn’t bet the house on it either.”
The speculation in Cork city is that Simon is planning his exit, and for a number of reasons.
“He hasn’t looked so relaxed in years,” says one colleague. “He’s behaving like Micheal Creed and sure he announced a while back that he won’t be running again.”
Another explains that the prematurely patrician deputy for Cork South Central enjoyed, and was deeply engaged in, his job as minister for foreign affairs, which he had to surrender for the greater good of the Coalition when his constituency colleague, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, rotated from taoiseach to Tánaiste in December and required a prestige ministry.
“He’s in enterprise and trade now and I don’t think his heart is in it. ‘Passion’ is the word I would use,” the source said.
And it has not gone unnoticed in Leeside circles that Coveney moved home last September from his long-time constituency base in Carrigaline to a house in Cobh in Cork East. It seems a big deal to some that he’ll have to go through the Jack Lynch tunnel, or take the ferry across from Cobh, to get to his Cork South Central heartland, although it’s hardly an epic trek.
It’s hard to believe that Coveney – who lost out to Leo Varadkar for the Fine Gael leadership and taoiseach’s job, and has held a clutch of senior cabinet posts and been a TD for 28 years – is only 50.
Were he to move on to some handsomely recompensed position in the private sector, his loss would be a major blow to the party, particularly in Munster, and a further blow to Varadkar.
But there’s more.
The speculation about Paschal Donohoe’s impending departure from politics has not abated, despite protestations to the contrary from the Minister for Public Expenditure, who successfully held on to his job as head of the prestigious Eurogroup of finance ministers in December after trading portfolios with Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath, who also attends the meetings after some compromise.
If the whisperers in Leinster House are to be believed, Paschal has the “Next Big Job” all but nailed down.
His recent Dáil travails over omitting the cost of some postering expenses from his general election returns will have left a sour taste.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael watchers in Dublin Central are reporting that Donohoe’s constituency office has been closed for more than six months, with no sign of life on the premises, as a general election hurtles down the tracks. His website gives the address and contact details for the office as being on the North Circular Road, near St Peter’s Church in Phibsborough.
But there is no sign of occupancy at the premises, no sign on the door indicating the presence of Team Paschal and no leaflets or posters in the upstairs windows. The phone number supplied is a Leinster House number.
Curiouser and curiouser.
The lemming theme keeps on going. Now questions are being asked about Varadkar’s zest for the taoiseach’s job the second time round as party colleagues bail out and some close supporters peel away. The ceaseless, debilitating abuse on social media can’t help either – and that’s not going to improve any time soon.
A two-term Taoiseach and only 44 years old, Leo has a big future ahead of him. But is it with Fine Gael?
There is a sense that the field for his succession race is already gathering behind him. We hear that a group of FG TDs and Senators had late drinks in the Ginger Man pub – a favourite haunt of Enda Kenny when he was taoiseach – on Tuesday night, and that they weren’t happy campers.
The Taoiseach was a big admirer of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who unexpectedly announced her resignation in January.
“I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer had enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said at the time.
Could Leo do a Jacinda and walk away?
Leaders’ trivia questions
The annual media/Leinster House table quiz took place in the Anantara The Marker Hotel on Tuesday and, after a night of fiendishly difficult questions (we didn’t win) and remarkably little dissent, the team from the Business Post, led by political editor Michael Brennan, took the honours. Some €25,000 was raised for Unicef, the international children’s charity.
Peter Power, executive director of Unicef Ireland, talked about the organisation’s work across the globe before the contest began, very much at home among the politicians and hacks. In a former life, Peter was a Fianna Fáil TD for Limerick East and a junior minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The Taoiseach, who has been a member of a few winning teams in the past, dropped in to wish everyone the best of luck (possibly not the Shinners) before leaving for another engagement.
MC for evening was Marty Whelan, who was accosted all night for selfies by star-struck politicos and hard-bitten media types. Introducing the Taoiseach, the incorrigible Whelan mentioned Leo’s partner Matt, who “unfortunately can’t be here. We’ll miss his tweets.”
Naughty, naughty Marty.
Attorney General Rossa Fanning stepped up as adjudicator and raffle ticket puller. He delivered one of the best lines of the night before firing the starting gun.
“I understand that the essence of my role this evening is to cover up for the inadequacies of the people who’ve actually organised the quiz and to be the fall guy for the inevitable disputes which emerge.”
Which sounds vaguely familiar.
The general manager of the Marker, Michael Davern, hosted the event. Michael, of the well-known Fianna Fáil Daverns of Tipperary, laid on the room, a nibble and even persuaded Diageo to provide a bit of free drink for the evening.
The beer ran out at one stage. “It’s like throwing water into a barrel of sand,” gurgled a lowly-paid Oireachtas staffer in the queue while the kegs were changed.
There was a silent auction. Marty forgot to remind Fine Gael participants that they had to write their bids on the form provided and not across the front page of the Indo.
In perhaps a sign of its further move to the mainstream ahead of the next election, Sinn Féin fielded the most tables, with the biggest turnout of politicians. Mayo TD Rose Conway-Walsh was the answer to one question: “Which female Sinn Féin TD had a job pulling pints in the bar in the House of Lords?”
Never play cards with Rose. She kept a poker face while everyone tried to figure out the answer.
Fine Gael’s top team was called The Paternity Ward in honour of team captain Senator Barry Ward, who is overjoyed at becoming a dad. The other members were Senators Tim Lombard, Garret Ahearn and John Cummins. All four are hoping to make the jump across to the Dáil to make up for departing colleagues.
Fianna Fáil’s top-performing team was called The Hedge and the members were TD Niamh Smyth and Senators Shane Cassells and Malcolm Byrne. Their fourth member, Minister of State Dara Calleary, was snaffled by another team.
And Sinn Féin’s top quizzers were TDs Tommy Gould, Sorca Clarke, Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Pádraic Mac Lochlainn.
It was the first of two good nights this week for Donegal deputy Pádraic.
His Oireachtas colleagues threw a surprise 50th birthday party for him in Kennedy’s Pub in Westland Row on Wednesday night. Senator Fintan Warfield on the guitar provided the music. There was cake and Pádraic led the sing-song afterwards.
“David Cullinane took him for a pint in the Lincoln Inn while we decorated the bar with balloons. We blew them all up ourselves,” joked one Dublin-based TD. “It was a total surprise for Pádraic. He was in total shock when he walked in.”
High anxiety around Dublin’s Dawson Street on Wednesday night due to the presence of a large number of farmers and window box gardeners in the Mansion House, many of whom are openly organic.
There were fears that some might venture innocently around the corner towards Kildare Street, thus triggering certain TDs who may have wandered outside of their safe space in Leinster House while unaware of their pernicious presence.
It is so easy to become ensnared by their insidious cult of sustainability.
Indeed, Dáil Éireann heard that very day how an Independent TD for Cork South West used to be one of them until very recently. An overwrought Michael Collins relived his trauma in the chamber when Minister of State Pippa Hackett reminded him of a past he seemed very desperate to forget.
Despite declaring “I am proud to be organic” on the Dáil record as late as last year, and also discussing their mutual interest in it with Pippa on a number of occasions, Michael now wishes to be known as a FOF – former organic farmer.
Because judging by his bizarre reaction on Wednesday, there is no worse insult in the world than calling somebody an organic farmer. Complaints have gone flying into the Ceann Comhairle from both sides.
Happily, Green Foundation Ireland’s fully booked event passed without incident. They had a full house for their seminar called “Greening the Narrative: Effective Communication of the Green Message”.
It was organised by former Green Party leader John Gormley and chaired by journalist Alison O’Connor. Two panels discussed the topic – the media panel included our own Political Editor Pat Leahy, while the political panellists included Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne and Green Ministers of State Ossian Smyth and Pippa (straight from re-traumatising the TD formerly known as an organic farmer).
The campaigners and communications experts looked at how green policy successes in Ireland and Europe are often dismissed or ignored in the media, and discussed what can be done to change this.
Gormley admitted that sometimes it can be hard to escape the green stereotype. He recalled when he was in the 2007 coalition government with Fianna Fáil, and chatting to a couple of ministerial colleagues before a cabinet meeting about his upcoming trip to Indonesia for a UN climate conference.
Micheál Martin, then a Fianna Fáil minister, overheard him saying, “I’ll talk to you when I get back from Bali,” and did a double take.
“I thought you said ‘when I get back from ballet’,” gasped Micheál.
Senator Byrne, meanwhile, commended the former Green Party leader on his colourful Hawaiian shirt.
“I didn’t even know it was a Hawaiian shirt,” replied John. “I bought it in a second-hand shop in Ringsend for a fiver.”