Monday, November 02, 2020

How Do You Solve a Problem like Varadkar?

Carefully parsing the media over the weekend – or such media as were arsed working the weekend – one gets the feeling that An Tánaiste and the government are safe. An Tánaiste will have to say sorry to all the boys and girls in the class, but that will be the end of it.

Your correspondent is not so sure. Besides; if the media had their way the story would never have broken in the first place. This story came from the clear blue sky – Village magazine is by no means mainstream – and it was not mentioned on RTÉ at all until different TDs started asking questions on Saturday afternoon. Once these genies escape their bottles it’s not easy know just how to get them back. So let’s examine the battlefield and do a little war-gaming, to pass the long winter’s day away.

The Substantive Issue

Did Leo Varadkar behave unethically in leaking confidential information to his buddy while Leo Varadkar was Taoiseach? Well, dur. Of course he did. If there were such things as ethics in Irish public life, he’d be gone already, and anybody who says any different is either too innocent for the world or else on the payroll.

Consider recent resignations from public office. Why did Alan Shatter have to resign as Minister for Justice? Why did Enda Kenny have to resign as Taoiseach? Why did Frances Fitzgerald have to resign? What did they do wrong that went so far beyond the bounds that they had to go?

The answer is: nothing. Each went because it was politically expedient to throw him or her under the bus. Shatter went to save the guards from being exposed as being up to some very funny business indeed (and the fact that nobody likes him). Enda went because Leo decided that his time had come, and he had enough people in Fine Gael to agree with him. Frances went for the same reason as Shatter. Nothing else.

Therefore, the realpolitik of An Tánaiste’s position isn’t whether or not he behaved badly, because he certainly did, but is it politically expedient to make him pay? That is a matter of political judgement and political gamesmanship, and entirely in the hands of certain of the parties in the Dáil. Let’s look at them one-by-one.

Fianna Fáil

It is surely Micheál Martin’s dearest wish that An Tánaiste had managed to hit a higher bar than that achieved by former Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen in attempting to weasel his way out of the mess. Sadly, he did not. The response from An Tánaiste on Saturday was watery in the extreme, and is worth nothing. There is no solace for Martin there. Therefore, he is hopeful for someone, somewhere, in the other parties to save him from having to make a potentially painful decision.

The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party want Varadkar gone, not least because they hate his guts. There was some quite bullish tweeting from Deputies O’Callaghan and MacSharry on Saturday, and from Senator Dooley. However, every time the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has been asked to stand up and be counted, they have run for the hills like spring lambs. It is difficult to believe this situation will be any different.

The Green Party

There exists a perpetual battle between the Green Party and the Labour Party to see who is the most virtuous of them all. This gets especially nasty when one or the other has taken the shilling and accepted a place in government. Each goes into government swearing that things will be different this time and each comes out battered and bruised, things having been exactly the same this time, actually.

Does Deputy Ryan have the stones to do a Ruairí Quinn and demand a head? If he does and gets the head, Deputy Ryan doesn’t get any gyp from the bolshy wing of his party from now until Christmas. If Deputy Ryan asked for a head and doesn’t get it, he can go to the country on the Ethics ticket. If he behaves as Deputy Hourigan seems to suspect he will, then his own head will soon be in a basket, beyond all shadow of a doubt. There’s only so much tree huggers can live with before they reach for their hatchets.

Fine Gael

The most delicious dilemma of them all. The fundamental question is this: do Fine Gael want to fight an election on whether or not their leader was right to leak a confidential document to his buddy when that document was considerably to his buddy’s material benefit? If they are, then Leo is going nowhere and he will dare either Deputy Martin or Deputy Ryan to oppose him. If they so dare, Deputy Varadkar then pulls the plug, the government collapses and either the President asks the parties to see if they can form another government without an election, or we all head for the polls.

Where this gets spicy is if there’s a majority of the Fine Gael party who do not want to fight an election on those terms. Pascal Donohue was on This Week on RTÉ Radio 1 defending An Tánaiste to the hilt, but of course Deputy Donohue was one of the first to back Leo for leader in the first place. There has been so statement at time of writing (Sunday night, about ten o’clock) from either Simon Coveney, Simon Harris or Helen McEntee, the contenders for the leadership should a vacancy arise. The longer there is no word from them, the more nervous Deputy Varadkar should get.

If Fine Gael turn against Varadkar, Micheál Martin’s problem is solved. Deputy Varadkar is duly defenestrated, a new leader of Fine Gael is elected and the government survives until Christmas, probably. If they don’t, then there are decisions to make. And the decisions will of course be influenced by Sinn Féin and the Labour Party.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party has the doubtful gift of sounding wonderful while in opposition. One imagines them parading through City Hall in their togas, such is the height of their rhetoric. They have been strangely silent so far on this issue, but Deputy Kelly has a combative personality. It’s hard to imagine him resisting going for a jugular.

But it’s going to take more than the Labour Party rattling their sabres to get the government’s attention should they decide to dig foxholes and wait out the shelling, because the Labour Party is not what you’d call numerous. Neither is it likely to be a substantial player in the formation of the next government. Unlike Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin

Is this Leo Varadkar affair a Rubicon for Sinn Féin? The argument for them sitting dumb on this is their own tremendous need to show themselves as an acceptable party of government, a responsible party of government. Responsible parties don’t collapse governments in the middle of pandemics just because someone was a bit indiscrete with confidential secrets while Taoiseach, do they? One sees the bigger picture.

However. Sinn Féin incredible result in the last election was because of a perception that Sinn Féin were not like the other parties. If they give Varadkar a pass on this, they are exactly like other parties – something that will be loudly noted by the entities further on Sinn Féin’s left, such as Deputies Murphy, Smyth and the rest. This is a nightmare for Sinn Féin. Deputies Murphy, Smyth and rest will never challenge Sinn Féin for a place in government but they can, and have, cost Sinn Féin seats that they can’t do without.

It is interesting also to note that, ever since Dr Holohan returned to head up NPHET and his letter advocating a Level-5 lockdown was leaked, Sinn Féin have been notably less strident in their criticism of the government. Could it be that the party has echoed St Augustine and prayed “Lord, let us govern, but not yet?” 

The War Game

As it is now, if I were Mary-Lou McDonald, I would table a motion of no confidence in the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Leo Varadkar and see who salutes. I can’t risk being outmanoeuvred on my left, and my luck will be out should this manoeuvring precipitate an election. But I cannot allow myself to be outmanoeuvred on my left, and this is a risk I must take if I am to win all.

Most of the rest of the Opposition would support  a motion of No Confidence in Leo, as they’re not likely to be all that fond of him either, and know a sacrifice will help keep the public calm. A Deputy McGrath or a Healy-Rae may go rogue, for divilment, but otherwise it’s the canny thing to do.

This then passes the hand grenade back to Fine Gael. If Fine Gael decide they don’t want to face the country defending Leo, then out the window he goes and the crisis is over. Alternatively, if Fine Gael decide Leo is the boy for good or for ill, then the hand grenade becomes two hand grenades, one of which falls into Deputy Ryan’s lap, and the other into An Taoiseach’s.

In the best case scenario, Both Deputies Martin and Ryan agree that Leo has got to go. It will make the election look more worthwhile, and may cause Fine Gael to recalibrate exactly how up for battle Fine Gael really are, realising the strength of Fianna Fáil and the Greens together is greater than the sum of their parts.

In the worst case scenario, Deputies Martin and Ryan defend Varadkar because they are scared, and this will surely seal their doom. Ryan’s certainly, because the Greens have proved more restive since this most peculiar of governments was formed.

If Martin could have Varadkar defenestrated it would be the best news he’s had in nine years, but again that is not in his control. That is entirely in the gift of Fine Gael, which paints a very vivid picture of just how far Fianna Fáil have fallen in ten years.


Somebody is losing a head over this. It’s just a question of who, and how many.