Leo Varadkar's long, lonely count centre wait summed up Fine Gael's disastrous election 1 month ago

Leo Varadkar's long, lonely count centre wait summed up Fine Gael's disastrous election

By the time Leo Varadkar arrived, the Phibblestown Community Centre's very reasonably priced tuck shop (€1 for a can of Coke) had sold out of its best chocolate bars.

Throughout the day, it had been serving media, politicians and supporters alike. Paul Donnelly, who got in on the first count, and Roderic O'Gorman, who got in on the final count, had been getting their tea and coffee there since the early hours.

Obviously uninterested in being photographed in the background of a Sinn Féin victory party, Varadkar didn't turn up until the evening, less than half an hour before the second count, which would surely see him re-elected. He needed just 200 transfers from Donnelly's mighty surplus.

The outgoing Taoiseach is still the Taoiseach, and Leo Varadkar is still a busy man. He did not expect to be waiting in the almost-empty Phibblestown community centre for upwards of three hours.

When he finally arrived, his aides all left the count centre proper to greet him at the doorway to the community centre. From inside, a small chant of "Leo! Leo! Leo!" could be heard. It was perfunctory, and it seemed like Varadkar expected to be out of Phibblestown within an hour for an 8pm res with the fam, who were all present.

His sisters, parents and little nephews were gathered around him as the results were read out. He stood, strong jaw high in the air, waiting for the cheer that would cut away the impressively neutral drone of the returning officer. They might sing a song or hoist him on their shoulders and that would be it. Simple.

"Varadkar, Leo. Total transfers... 118."

An uncomfortable shift in stance. The entourage realising that it wasn't enough. The deafening shutter sound from the old media cameras. Varadkar's hands went from crossed on his lap to sunken in his pockets.

"No candidate has reached the quota on this count."

It was the Ralph Wiggum moment that his enemies had waited for, and exactly what he'd hoped to avoid by showing up late. You can pinpoint the exact moment when his heart rips in half.

Some criticised the media for filming the moment. What were we to do? We all thought we'd be filming a celebration. Nobody present thought he wouldn't make it in by the second count. Or the third count... Or the fourth count.

In the end, it took five goes around before the Taoiseach knew beyond any doubt that he'd been returned to Dáil Éireann. An unprecedented eventuality in modern Irish politics.

Across the water, the news was seized upon by pro-Brexit forces who hate Varadkar for his strong stance against a hard Brexit. They falsely believed, assuming first past the post rules, that Varadkar had lost his seat entirely. They were jubilant in their ignorance, and have probably forgotten all about it by Monday morning.

Still, that is the kind of confusion and chaos that was a poignant echo of Fine Gael's own campaign.

Much has been made of Sinn Féin's strategic blunder in failing to run more candidates. Varadkar's blunder was worse. On several occasions, Varadkar could have called this snap election and come out the victor.

Certainly after the Repeal the Eighth vote, a time when the likes of Simon Harris and Catherine Noone were being hailed as heroes.

Certainly in late 2017, when he and Simon Coveney had showed their steel with lots of tough talk towards the DUP, and he'd been painted as the enemy of Ireland's enemies; The Sun, the hard-right wing of the Tory Party, and hardline unionists.

Maybe even after he had just been selected as Taoiseach, riding a wave of misplaced faith in a progressive agenda, thanks to the international response to Ireland's first openly gay, half-Indian Taoiseach. Palling around with Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron and looking every inch a 21st century celebrity statesman.

All of those options made a lot more sense than calling the election one week after his party's disastrous, calamitous, comically ill-advised decision to commemorate the RIC - an idea that quickly became perceived by the public as a party for the Black and Tans.

But the sad fact is that he had no choice. He had waited too long, much like he was left waiting far too long on the floor of the Phibblestown Communtiy Centre, amongst the tidied away goalposts that I maintain would have been ideal for a kickabout in between counts, if only the returning officer had let me fetch a ball.

Instead, Varadkar chose now - hinging his party's appeal on Brexit, something that people have stopped caring about. Painting Sinn Féin as intolerable and illegitimate, something that the Irish public no longer believe. Defending his party's record on crises, from housing to healthcare, something that the Irish public can no longer tolerate.

All of this must have been going through Varadkar's head as he waited, for hours, to be re-elected. Munching on Manhattan popcorn, wishing there was something he could do or say to change the fate of his party at this late stage. But it was too late. The votes were being counted. There was nothing left to do.

Forget it, Leo. It's Phibblestown.