New Year, New Taoiseach?

2017 proved an eventful year for the young Taoiseach. Owen Cuskelly takes a look behind the curtain to see what 2018 might have in store. Throughout 2017, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar demonstrated his ability to exert an image of control, modernity, and stability, particularly regarding Brexit on the European front. However, it will be his ability to resolve pressing national issues and to balance a shaky minority government that will truly mark his 2018 and his legacy as Taoiseach.In June 2017, Varadkar bested his challenger Simon Coveney in a race to assume the Fine Gael leadership, instantaneously garnering international press coverage. Across the globe, he was lauded for his Indian heritage, his sexual orientation, and his status as Ireland’s youngest leader. Yet, at a national level, media coverage cautiously questioned the youthful leader’s vision for his seemingly divided party. Varadkar made a cunning move by appointing Coveney as Deputy Leader of Fine Gael, thereby unifying the factions represented by both men.
The imminent referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment presents itself as another challenge for the young taoiseach
After overcoming this first obstacle in solidifying the party base, Varadkar breezed through his first couple of months unscathed by controversy or political turmoil. Unfortunately, this would not last forever.Much like Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, modern-day Fine Gael governments are plagued by the digitised curse of email controversies. In late November, then-Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald came under intense scrutiny relating to emails received when she was Minister for Justice. These exposed her knowledge of an internal campaign to defame Garda whistleblower, Sgt. Maurice McCabe, although she denied such claims. Varadkar, attempting to demonstrate authoritative and decisive leadership, chose to defend the Tánaiste despite increasing pressure for her to resign and nearly pushed the country to the brink of a general election. This governmental crisis culminated in the resignation of the Tánaiste, yet Varadkar emerged unharmed while remaining loyal to his party colleague: “It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full or fair hearing,” he told the Dáil. Unlike his predecessor, Enda Kenny, the McCabe scandal did not inflict fatal damage on the Taoiseach though it did test his political nerve.One thing for which the Taoiseach can be commended is his artful and invigorating handling of Brexit affairs. Previous Taoisigh would recoil at the thought of provoking tensions with Northern Irish unionists like the DUP, but Varadkar appears unencumbered by such niceties. Since taking office, the Taoiseach has made his views explicit on Northern Ireland’s place in the Brexit negotiations. This has stoked backlash with figures like DUP leader Arlene Foster labelling him “reckless” and MP Sammy Wilson criticising his Brexit approach saying: “since this nutcase Varadkar has taken over … things have all changed.”Despite these remarks, however, Fine Gael and Varadkar enjoyed a surge in popularity in early December following the government’s tough stance against unionist objections to a Brexit agreement reached between UK Prime Minister Theresa May and the Taoiseach. Varadkar succeeded in acquiring assurances from the UK Government of a frictionless Irish border post-Brexit while securing support from EU member states: “We have achieved all we set out to achieve in Phase One of these negotiations,” Varadkar told reporters.
Varadkar’s domestic policies lack substance
Yet while the Taoiseach treks smugly across Europe to Brexit talks and EU summits, his domestic policies lack substance. The housing crisis remains the single most pertinent issue facing the government at present with a shortage in housing supply, a lack of rental security, and sky-rocketing prices all resulting in dire homelessness. Although the Taoiseach remains adamant that all is as it should be, he retorts that Ireland has “one of the lowest homelessness [rates]” compared to international standards and suggested recently that homebuyers look to their parents’ coffers for attaining a mortgage deposit.On healthcare, the Taoiseach’s former ministry, the Department of Health, received a rude awakening following the festive season. The nation’s hospitals were, and still are, inundated with patients subjected to substandard care and lengthy waiting times. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) recorded that over 2,400 patients were forced to wait on trolleys in Irish hospitals in the first five days of January. All the Taoiseach had to offer on the subject was that he is “frustrated” with the slow pace of progress on health matters.Furthermore, the imminent referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment presents itself as another challenge for the young Taoiseach who is oft-portrayed as a social justice warrior veiled by a haggard right-wing exterior. With an Oireachtas committee recently recommending abortion access up to 12 weeks, and the announcement of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s support for these recommendations, pressure mounts for Varadkar to outline his own position, which remains vague, perhaps to his detriment. He argues, however, that as leader he must remain neutral and consider all positions on the issue. This argument may not hold up well for much longer.Leo Varadkar is an elusive figure, one that Ireland has never seen the likes of before. He simultaneously blends modernity and progressiveness with his social media savviness and diverse background, which intermingle with the regressive reality of his right-wing conservatism. If he can maintain this fragile balance, his legacy awaits its place in history.