Varad­kar’s re­defin­ing of Fine Gael is not as rad­i­cal as first ap­pears

The Taoiseach is try­ing to marry his new style of ‘pop lead­er­ship’ with old-school pol­i­tics, writes Kevin Doyle

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - ANALYSIS -

LIFE coaches will tell you to aim high in case you fall short. The the­ory is sim­ple: you might not reach the stars but you’ll def­i­nitely stretch your­self try­ing.

But it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily work in the po­lit­i­cal sphere. Aim­ing high in this world sounds good but will, in all like­li­hood, re­sult in over-promis­ing.

Yet it seems one of Leo Varad­kar’s many ad­vis­ers has told him to ap­ply the mantra and it is a dan­ger­ous game for the young Taoiseach. It will prove ei­ther brave or stupid — but we won’t know which un­til af­ter the next elec­tion.

Varad­kar wants to be a Taoiseach who stood for some­thing. He said as much dur­ing the Fine Gael lead­er­ship con­test when he ac­cused Si­mon Coveney of try­ing to stand for ev­ery­thing and there­fore stand­ing for noth­ing.

Fine Gael is al­most seven years in Gov­ern­ment and while the next elec­tion now seems fur­ther away than at any point since Fe­bru­ary last year, there was a mood among del­e­gates at its na­tional con­fer­ence that it’s time for a re­boot.

“We have lifted our­selves off the can­vas, dusted our­selves down, and the Fine Gael fight­ing spirit is back,” said Cul­ture Min­is­ter Heather Humphreys.

That’s a strange state­ment from the party in power. Sure- ly they should be the con­fi­dent ones, not the ones feel­ing bat­tered and bruised.

“We are not look­ing for an elec­tion but when it comes we are ready,” she added.

As part of that elec­tion prepa­ra­tion, Varad­kar has com­mis­sioned a ‘rolling man­i­festo’ — ex­cept party mem­bers have been told not to call it a man­i­festo. That would be too bla­tant so in­stead they’ve pro­duced a “rolling po­lit­i­cal pro­gramme” called: ‘Build­ing a Repub­lic of Op­por­tu­nity — The First It­er­a­tion’.

How very Fine Gael. You’d never hear words like ‘it­er­a­tion’ used at a Fianna Fail Ard Fheis.

The 48-page doc­u­ment has chap­ters cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from “pro­tect­ing the planet” to “a sport­ing na­tion” and be­ing “an is­land at the cen­tre of the world”.

The first three pages are a cut and paste of Varad­kar’s speech to this week­end’s na­tional con­fer­ence. It reads bet­ter than he de­liv­ered, set­ting out his vi­sion for the party.

It’s not that the Taoiseach is try­ing to re­de­fine Fine Gael. In fact he’s try­ing to bring it back to what he sees as the Blueshirts’ roots. The sort of soul-search­ing ex­er­cise a party usu­ally does af­ter an elec­tion drubbing.

“Fine Gael has never been, and never will be, a party of priv­i­lege. Fine Gael is a party of as­pi­ra­tion, a party of en­ter­prise, a party of op­por­tu­nity, and a party of hope.

“These are our val­ues. And these val­ues guide my am­bi­tion for this coun­try,” he said.

But the as­pi­ra­tion could be what trips him up. The are three main rea­sons Fine Gael isn’t act­ing like the dom­i­nant party de­spite its poll rat­ings. Firstly it can’t do any­thing off­piste with­out ask­ing Fianna Fail. And it can’t even sanc­tion an In­de­pen­dent min­is­ter for gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in case his col­leagues take the hump and threaten to walk out on the whole af­fair.

The shiny new doc­u­ment ad­mits as much. “Given that Fine Gael is part of the Part­ner­ship Gov­ern­ment with the In­de­pen­dent Al­liance and In­de­pen­dents, ac­tions in the life­time of that Gov­ern­ment are gov­erned by the Pro­gramme for Gov­ern­ment and by the Con­fi­dence and Sup­ply agree­ment with Fianna Fail,” it says.

Then there is the le­gacy of the recession which is sum­marised best in a hous­ing cri­sis that af­fects Fine Gael vot­ers. Home­less­ness is one thing, but for Mr Varad­kar the real prob­lem is that young vot­ers he wants to at­tract can’t af­ford rent or find a home to call their own.

So Varad­kar must give them hope be­cause right now that’s all he can of­fer. The ‘Re­build­ing Ire­land’ plan may well work but that’s go­ing to take time — some­thing that is rarely af­forded politi­cians in a far-too-fickle 24-hour news cy­cle. In his speech he went heavy on the as­pi­ra­tional.

He said Fine Gael “as­pire to full em­ploy­ment”, want to al­low ev­ery­body to “as­pire to home own­er­ship” and “as­pire to a pro­mo­tion or a bet­ter job”.

He said: “No one could limit the great­ness to which our coun­try could as­pire.”

Like­wise in his in­tro­duc­tion to the ‘non-man­i­festo’, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Richard Bru­ton writes: “Ire­land is at a wa­ter­shed. Only now af­ter many years of dif­fi­cult strug­gle we are, as a coun­try, in a po­si­tion to set out plans to shape a fu­ture which meets our peo­ple’s hopes and am­bi­tions.”

He talks at length about the need to em­power cit­i­zens and serve “with­out fear or favour”.

In fact, if you want proof that Fine Gael is at­tempt­ing to ‘find it­self within it­self’, you need only look as far as Bru­ton’s com­ment on its plan for jus­tice.

“The most fun­da­men­tal obli­ga­tion of the State is to pro­tect its peo­ple from crim­i­nal acts. Fine Gael is the party of law and or­der.”

The ‘law-and-or­der’ tra­di­tion goes back to the early days of the State and has for decades been part of the def­i­ni­tion of Fine Gael. It’s not rad­i­cal think­ing in any sense — but that’s the point.

Here are some other aspi­ra­tions from the new pol­icy doc­u­ment:

Shared paid parental leave in the first year of a child’s life will be in­tro­duced in­cre­men­tally.

Bal­ance the State’s fi­nances and pro­vide strong “buf­fers” against fu­ture shocks.

De­velop the same rep­u­ta­tion for Ire­land as a home for world-lead­ing indige­nous SMEs as we have as a lo­ca­tion for FDI.

New ap­proaches to but­tress towns and vil­lages as vi­brant cen­tres for thriv­ing ru­ral hin­ter­lands.

A medium-term tax strat­egy that con­sis­tently raises the point at which peo­ple on mod­est in­comes reach the top rate of tax in ev­ery bud­get.

I could keep go­ing, but you get the point. It’s not rad­i­cal, just re­de­fined.

Parental leave has been long on the agenda. The talk of fa­cil­i­tat­ing “world-lead­ing indige­nous SMEs” is a fancy repack­ag­ing of Enda Kenny’s “best small coun­try in the world to do busi­ness”.

So for all the talk in Fine Gael cir­cles about this be­ing a “new de­par­ture”, the Repub­lic of Op­por­tu­nity is ac­tu­ally far from the first it­er­a­tion.

It points to an at­tempt by Varad­kar to merge his new style of pop lead­er­ship with old-school pol­i­tics. He is look­ing to the past in or­der to find his sub­stance.

Of course there is an ar­gu­ment that the past is be­ing viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

He told the con­fer­ence “as a coun­try [Enda Kenny] gave us back our fu­ture”.

Af­ter the Taoiseach de­liv­ered his speech, it was widely crit­i­cised in the bar of the Slieve Rus­sell ho­tel.

The faith­ful, a ma­jor­ity of whom voted for Si­mon Coveney in the lead­er­ship con­test, had come ex­pect­ing a show. In­stead they got a list of past achieve­ments and a se­ries of am­bi­tions.

Merg­ing a leader’s style with a party’s sub­stance is prov­ing dif­fi­cult and begs the ques­tion: is Leo Varad­kar de­fined by Fine Gael or is Fine Gael de­fined by Leo Varad­kar?

‘Varad­kar is look­ing to the past in or­der to find his sub­stance’

Photo: Fergal Phillips

AS­PI­RA­TIONAL: Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar de­liv­ers his first con­fer­ence speech as party leader at Fine Gael’s Na­tional Con­fer­ence.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.