What I learned about Leo Varadkar and the nature of disappointment from four excruciating nights on the Fine Gael hustings 5 years ago

What I learned about Leo Varadkar and the nature of disappointment from four excruciating nights on the Fine Gael hustings

Arsenal had just won the Cup and the men from Fine Gael were drinking Baileys at the bar. There was a sense of purpose about everything they did. If this was the start of something big, they weren’t going to miss out.

But every journey must begin with a single step.

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“How much is a Baileys?”

“A straight fiver.”

“Isn’t it lucky for you I have a fiver here.”

The man with the fiver moved to the bar and ordered a Baileys for his friend. The barman asked him what part of Dublin he was from.

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“Christ…I’m from west Limerick.”

They were Simon Coveney men, Fine Gael stalwarts who felt the underdog understood them in a way Leo Varadkar didn’t. 

They were from the places that had been forgotten when people told them to keep the recovery going. They weren’t from Dublin, even if there were plenty of places in Dublin forgotten when the recovery got going. 

Coveney tapped into this in a way Varadkar didn’t, and one of the curious things about Varadkar was that he seemed prepared to accept that he didn’t get it. When he rolled out his record of achievements outside Dublin, he spoke with that hesitant style -“I’m conscious I’m not in Dublin,” he said in Ballinasloe - which suggests he would be prepared to think the opposite if somebody made too much of his point of view.

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Over four evenings at the leadership debates, it was hard to spot the x-factor Varadkar is widely said to possess and which appeared when he accepted the Fine Gael leadership on Friday. But that didn't stop him being interesting. In Carlow, a journalist from India Today wanted to interview him, and spoke of how much curiosity there is in the country of his father that the son of a doctor from Mumbai may be about to become the leader of Ireland.

There will be a fascination in what he represents. People will opine on what it says about Ireland for the country to have a gay Taoiseach who is the son of an immigrant, while there will be those who feel it says nothing at all when Varadkar says so many other things besides that.

He will, some say, allow Fine Gael to tap into that worldwide demand for politicians who don’t sound like politicians.

Reality will be different and Varadkar may disappoint those who expect him not to behave like a politician, as well as those who have supported him and expect him to do what winning politicians always do in these situations.

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For a couple of nights on the road, it didn’t feel like Varadkar was the candidate tapping into this desire for change.

If it was passion you wanted, Coveney was the man, even if by Sunday night, Varadkar had done a good job of contextualising his opponent’s passion, of making it seem as if this intensity was a ruse masking a lack of substance.

By then, I'd had enough of both of them. Their stump speeches weren’t written to be heard four nights in a row. Sometimes it was hard to believe they had been written to be heard at all. If there is a war on cliché, it was being lost on the battlefields of the Red Cow, the Carlow Institute of Technology, the Shearwater Hotel in Ballinasloe and the Silver Springs in Cork.

By Sunday afternoon when I left for the final debate in Cork, I felt like I’d been drinking whiskey for three days and there was no option but to keep drinking in the hope that something could make me feel better than I did. But this was whiskey without the upsides of whiskey-drinking: conviviality, fun and oblivion.

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Those who showed up each night thought differently. They would hear the candidates discuss Ireland, their points of difference and all that connected them. They would tease out who was part of the group that got up early in the morning to a point where it was rendered meaningless and included everyone from a three-year-old awake at 5am to watch Paw Patrol to a man rising at dawn to head to the early house. They were all welcome, they were all part of this party that believes in its power as a force for change.         

“I haven’t completely lost my fucking mind.”                       

On a Thursday night at the Red Cow Inn, nobody seemed irritated at the thought of spending a sunny evening in a sweltering function room off the M50. In fact, it added to the sense that this was a summer fete.

For most people turning up, Fine Gael is recreation that bleeds into obsession that sees itself as a national movement. Fine Gael and its workings is how some people get their kicks. This was going to take a bit of getting used to.

At the end of all four debates, I knew a little more about Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, a bit more about Fine Gael and a greater awareness of worlds where people can lose all perspective.

The great New Yorker profile of Tom Stoppard by Kenneth Tynan included an anecdote the playwright used to illustrate to students the subjective nature of absurdity. It was a story about a man he knew who bought a peacock on impulse. While shaving in his pyjamas one day, the man saw the bird escaping from his country garden. He dropped his razor and set off in pursuit and managed to catch the peacock as it reached the main road. Just then, a car drove by and for a few seconds they watched this bewildering sight before the woman said, “What was that, dear?” Her husband replied, “Fellow in his pyjamas, with shaving cream all over his face and a peacock under his arm.” Stoppard once told the story to students at Eton and it was met with silence. Stoppard realised why afterwards. “They all had peacocks.”

Within Fine Gael, the distinguishing feature of Leo and Simon isn’t noticed. For nearly everyone at these events this feature is not something remarkable. The thing that makes Leo and Simon different from the rest of us is not their sexuality, their background, their membership of a political dynasty or their philosophy about who is or who isn’t getting up early in the morning. The thing that separates them from the people they want to lead is obvious to all but the people who share it with them. Their distinguishing feature is that they belong to Fine Gael.

Leo Varadkar joined Fine Gael at 17. Simon Coveney was born into the party and became a TD at 25 following the tragic death of his father.

“The people in the party love him,” a senior Fine Gael man said to me about Varadkar on Thursday in the Red Cow and he gestured over his shoulder towards another building away from the hotel where there must have been a bunch of Fine Gaelers getting ready for the first night.

“And they love him out there as well,” he said, waving his arm in the general direction of the M50 where the faceless commuters, the people who Varadkar referred to as middle Ireland, the coping class and, taking a phrase from Theresa May, the “just about managing” were presumably out there waiting to be wooed.

I asked him if he would be going to all four debates as well. He looked at me and moved cheerfully away. “Good God, no. I haven’t completely lost my fucking mind.”

The first sign that I might be losing mine came when I started finding Simon Coveney quite compelling.

Having been assured that Varadkar was the charismatic candidate, this came as a surprise.

Fine Gael believe Varadkar will allow them to connect with voters they wouldn’t otherwise connect with. In Carlow on Friday, one of Vardakar’s people talked to me about how the young had been energised by the same-sex marriage referendum and they wanted to tap into that feeling again.

But there are different kinds of energy. As I arrived at the Red Cow, a man who may have been engaged by marriage equality was being told to leave.

“You can’t stand there. You can’t be on the premises. Take your sign and stand outside.”

Without a word, the man did as he was told and took his picket outside. He was, it turned out, only objecting to one of the candidates with a sign that quoted from 1 Corinthians 6:9 -  “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.”

He had abridged it to focus mainly on the bit about sodomites and when I asked him why he was doing this, he told me there “was no hate, just morals. This is the word of God.” I would have loved to have stuck around chatting, but I had to get inside and observe power at work.

Inside, there was a world of people who believe they are close to power. A TD, who was a prominent supporter of one candidate, walked into the hotel as another politician was giving an interview and signalled surreptitiously to an aide to listen in.

In those moments, the stump speeches about a new Ireland don’t matter, all that counts is the game. When they talked about Fine Gael being energised, they may well have been talking about this, a new toy to play with as voting for a leader was extended to the members. It allowed them to talk about popular votes, the electoral college and compare the race for the leadership of Fine Gael to the US presidential election.

And it was hot. Many members retreated outside and watched on the big TVs. One Leo supporter told me Coveney’s support in the room was down to a large contingent of people from Cork.

“Not this again, we’re sick of it,” one woman said when a question was asked about the National Maternity Hospital.

Varadkar went on to talk about his passion for health, how he would take a personal interest in it if he became Taoiseach. When Coveney joked that he would remember that Leo had unfinished business if he became Taoiseach, the room rocked with laughter.

“He walked into that one, he walked into that,” a man outside said, chuckling.

They had their zinger, but the heat drained the energy from the room. Afterwards the crowds milled about, not really wanting to go home, but I knew it was time to go when I bumped into Gavin Duffy in a pair of shorts outside the media room. The heat was too much.

              “He’s a typical blueshirt, lying about being a blueshirt.”

The man had driven the bus of Coveney supporters up from Cork. There was room for 33 he said, but only ten had made the journey. 

Everybody said the hustings were a learning experience for Fine Gael. In future, hustings might commence on the first day of the campaign before one candidate can wrap it up among the TDs, and in future maybe they wouldn’t include a Friday night in a place of learning like the Carlow Institute of Technology, especially a place of learning that didn’t have a bar.

Outside the Institute of Technology in Carlow, protesters were waiting. They were angrier than the man outside the Red Cow, but their anger had more purpose. On one side, they had banner highlighting the housing crisis for Coveney and on the other they accused Leo of selling out the poor for the corporate class.

When I went out to talk to them, someone asked me if I was a blueshirt. I said no.

“Of course he's a blueshirt, look at his tag,” one of them said, pointing at my media accreditation.

“Typical blueshirt, lying about being a blueshirt.”

I hung around for a bit and when Varadkar drove in a few protesters ran in with him before the two guards on duty called for back up and a couple more came along to bring some order.

Later in the hall, one member would ask the candidates now that they were on the brink of becoming a leader of the free world, how would they deal with Donald Trump.

I thought of the protestors, the anger in the country and the fact that the men who were fighting to be Taoiseach were doing so in a world removed from the one so close to us. Nobody checked a bag during the debates, nobody cared who approached the candidates and nobody seemed bothered by anything as alien as security. Clearly that would change when one of them became Taoiseach but not to the degree that it does for other, eh, leaders of the free world.

It also underlines why Irish politics struggles for relevance. There are thrilling and appalling things happening in politics around the world. Irish politics might matter sometimes, but it is not entertainment.

For that reason, this generation may seem less interesting than those who came before who were, often, the only show in town. Jack Lynch showing up in a provincial town might have been a big deal once, but now people have Netflix. As Kingsley Amis said when explaining why he couldn’t be bothered with novels like Jude the Obscure. “What do I care if they liked it that way then because there was no television?”

Varadkar’s victory might lead to overreach in this regard, a giddiness that is already out there with talk of how he can be Ireland’s Macron.

He had an appeal beyond the party, but what was becoming clear was that his appeal within the party had its limits.

“We were always Fine Gael,” the woman at Carlow I.T said on Friday night. “My father-in-law asked me who we were before I married my husband. I said, ‘Fine Gael’ and he said, "Welcome to the family." They were supporting Coveney. Somebody then quoted Coveney’s zinger from the Red Cow and said this was senior hurling. I got a burger in the drive-in Supermac’s and headed home

                  “There he is, the man of the moment.”

The bar in the Shearwater Hotel was packed with people watching the Cup final on Saturday evening. The Fine Gael movement seemed to favour Arsenal and by now I was beginning to understand these nights.

They had a warmth and ease in each other’s company as Frances Fitzgerald asked after a family member, James Reilly greeted them affectionally or Simon Harris listened attentively to their problems. (I have never seen anyone so good at listening attentively or at least giving the appearance of listening attentively as Simon Harris).

Harris is a fascinating politician. He is young but all the traditional identifiers of youth have been removed.

It is hard to imagine a future for Harris which doesn’t involve some sort of pronounced midlife crisis (St Tropez, Maserati) as he comes to terms with the fact that he spent his twenties at Fine Gael fundraiser meetings while his peers were having meaningful experiences on drugs.

Whenever I saw him, I thought of Fernando Partridge, Alan Partridge’s son, when his father talks to him on a Saturday afternoon and discovers his son is with a girl.

“Fernando, you’re 22-years-old and you’re spending your Saturday afternoon in bed with a girl, you’re wasting your life. It’s a beautiful day. Take her out to a local fort or a Victorian folly.”

Whenever I saw Harris, I wanted to tell him, “Minister, you’re 30-years-old and you’re spending your Saturday night at another Fine Gael event, you’re wasting your life.”

He would see it differently. He got into politics to make a difference for those like his brother who were suffering with Asperger's syndrome. 

It was easy to get bored being around them, but cynicism was a little harder, even if I couldn't share the sense of wonder

“There he is," the man with the Baileys said in Ballinasloe, "the man of the moment.”

“Who?”

“Simon Harris.”

His friend said nothing. Sometimes no answer is an answer.

The president of Fine Gael's national executive, Gerry O’Connell got the crowd going and ended by quoting “General Michael Collins” as he hailed Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan. “Give us the future, we’ve had enough of your past, he said and the crowd was ready to go. “Gerry Connolly, well done, sir,” Gavin Duffy said.

When the debate began on Saturday night, Coveney spoke with feeling about the Marine, how he had always wanted that ministry and how he would love for Ireland to lead the way in marine technology.

He spoke of the sea the way Varadkar had spoken about health. I noticed and Varadkar noticed too. He started to say something - he couldn’t just use Coveney’s joke from Thursday night, could he? The one he’d walked into? He could. He took it, Coveney made some reply about giving him health and everyone moved on. Varadkar also used Theresa May’s line about the people who are “just about managing”, making it obvious who he was trying to appeal to.

“It’s good for the party and it’s good for the country,” were the words I kept hearing during the four nights of leadership debates. Of course, these were people who believed that what was good for Fine Gael was good for the country but the desire is to plug into parts of the electorate that hasn’t been plugged into before. Young people aren’t interested in party politics and Leo, people felt, could change that.

Varadkar may not be the man those who are excited about his election from afar believe him to be, but he will have to be the man the people who supported him want him to be.       

                 “Prejudice has no hold in this republic”

As a young reporter, I interviewed Tony Blair at an awards ceremony in London where Veronica Guerin was being posthumously honoured. Blair spoke highly of her work, as you would expect, and then went on to say that he and Cherie had often read Veronica Guerin's articles at home on a Sunday morning. Whether this was true or not, it was certainly what I wanted to hear.

Outside the hall in Cork, I chatted briefly to Varadkar. I told him I’d been at all four events. He asked me how I found them. I blathered on about how people were enjoying them and there was a great energy in the party. He listened and I expected him to say something similar, to talk about the party and how great this was for all of them. Instead he said they were a strange experience, you say the same things every night and have to remind yourself that people are hearing it for the first time. I walked away impressed that a man was prepared to cut through the bullshit, to acknowledge the truth of these things and to tell someone what they wanted to hear.

For Varadkar, there will soon be the usual tussles between expectation and disappointment, but they may be magnified. There are so many ways for him to disappoint, so many ways for him to let down those who support him for what he believes in and those who believe in him because of what they feel he represents. Right now, so many people are hearing what they want to hear.

The things he represents are far from inconsequential: to have a gay Taoiseach who is the son of an immigrant as Ireland slowly transforms into a multicultural, pluralist country is quite a thing.

But there are pressing issues which will make all the difference, “Between the pretension and the fact,” Philip Roth wrote, “what’s invented and what’s given, stands one’s own tortured soul.”

Varadkar has considerable political gifts, it was hard not to spot them by the end of the debates, but now he will have to deliver for people.

He starts off with the knowledge that the party membership, for whatever reason, decided they wanted Coveney.

Some of the things people say divide Dublin from the rest of the country are patronising cliches, cleaved to by those who delight still in presenting “that menu in full” as part of a story. So when they talk about avocado mash as some sort of dividing line they are underestimating everyone. The divide in Ireland is the same as the divide everywhere else: between those who have prospered in a system that appears to be rigged and those who feel as if they have been left behind.

There is a sense with Varadkar that he is always observing. Detachment might be a good quality in a politician, but his critics say this extended to his period as Minister for Health when he could be critical of what was being done without ever sounding like he had power over what was being done.

After four days, it was hard to be cynical, because there are easier ways to game the system for men like Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, easier ways to get what you want, unless what you want is power.

In Cork, Varadkar did more than observe. He ruthlessly took on Coveney, making the passion seem empty and pointless. The crowd jeered when Varadkar refused to answer a question which excited half the hall about which opposition member he would like to appoint as minister.

At no point on the hustings did Vardakar sound as eloquent and inspiring as he did in the Mansion House on Friday when he made his victory speech.

Then he was speaking to an electorate beyond the membership of Fine Gael. He was wooing people who will make a difference.

But the knowledge that Fine Gael members think differently may hang around for a while. As one woman left the Silver Springs, I asked her what she thought. It was very good she said and she paused. ‘But what, I asked.

“I preferred the one in the Capitol last Saturday.”

Who was at that?

“That was just Simon,” she said and walked off, smiling.

Coveney was an engaging politician over the four nights, a man who sounded as if he wanted to change things, but maybe they all sound like that if you don’t go to these things too often.

For those who do, the weekend had been a triumph.

The former minister who walked out from the conference centre last Sunday was enthused by the event. There were a thousand people in there tonight, he said, when I suggested it had been about 500.

“I came down from Dublin tonight and, you’ll be glad to hear, I’m going back to Dublin tonight,” he told the Fine Gael members who were walking down the stairs from the conference towards the bar .

The party had been energised, they had found a voice and they had found an alternative voice, if things go wrong. The question remains what voice Leo Varadkar will speak with and if he will reach the people so many in Fine Gael believe he will. The glow of this triumph won’t last, but those who paid attention around the world are not insignificant.

Varadkar is a multi-faceted politician and a complex, fascinating man. This may mean he simply has many routes to the same destination, the place where all political careers end up. He is an introverted, shy man who will carry the weight of expectation. The hustings may be where he came face to face with the reasons for his own eventual downfall, with a membership supporting someone else whose vision they considered more in keeping with one Fine Gael tradition.

Or he may go on to be a leader of some significance, a man who emerged from the leadership campaign triumphant, even if others could also claim victory.

As it ended last weekend, as this self-styled national movement prepared to vote, a former Fine Gael minister walked across the lobby of the Silver Springs. He shuddered to a halt in an exaggerated fashion for comic effect when somebody called his name, and then a friend called his name and he walked purposefully towards him.

The hustings had been a success. Fine Gael had started a process which ended with a new Taoiseach who would briefly capture the imagination of the world. Inside the Silver Springs Hotel last Sunday the chatter and gossip could easily be mistaken for the sound of a nation awakening to the charms of their party.

The former minister headed for the bar where his friend and a pint were waiting. 

“I need a drink,” he said.