Trudeau, Twit­ter, tacos and a Taoiseach who wants to be Every­man

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT -

THERE are strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar and for­mer Fianna Fáil taoiseach Brian Cowen. The two highly in­tel­li­gent dar­lings of their re­spec­tive back­benches suc­ceeded vet­eran taoisigh who had gone on too long. Both men crave so­cial set­tings yet are fun­da­men­tally shy.

Ac­com­plished or­a­tors, they both have pas­sion­ate tem­per­a­ments that have seen them rise to bait­ing in the Dáil.

Cowen had another dam­ag­ing flaw that Varad­kar in­creas­ingly looks keen to add to own short­com­ings – mis­judg­ing mod­ern po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pre­sen­ta­tion. ‘But Varad­kar is the most mod­ern of politi­cians, me­dia-savvy, Twit­ter-lit­er­ate,’ I hear you say. I will get to that.

Cowen’s flaws con­trib­uted to the de­struc­tion of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. I in­ter­viewed him at length for a book, Hell At The Gates, that I co-au­thored last year.

For the first time, he ex­pressed deep re­gret about his fail­ures in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and his re­fusal to ad­dress the na­tion at the height of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis. He also re­gret­ted his drink­ing. Old-fash­ioned and stub­born, Cowen wouldn’t lis­ten to those who told him he needed to mod­ernise his comHugh mu­ni­ca­tions style.

AGAIN and again, the ques­tion of per­cep­tion arose. Cowen spoke about his so­cial­is­ing and his be­lief now that he should have tack­led sto­ries of his drink­ing head-on by cut­ting it out for a while.

‘This thing came up, too, about the drink…’ he said. ‘If there are peo­ple putting that about, you are bet­ter off killing it.’

Cowen was only 48 when he be­came Taoiseach. Varad­kar, 38, and is from a dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal gen­er­a­tion, one of so­cial me­dia, 24-hour news and celebrity sta­tus.

His mis­takes in com­mu­ni­ca­tion are dif­fer­ent but they could have the same ef­fect. Where Cowen was ‘un­cool’, per­ceived as be­ing out of shape and too keen on the boozer, Varad­kar is slim and neatly dressed but ob­sessed with ap­pear­ing ‘cool’.

Six days into his job as Taoiseach, at 10 Down­ing Street, Varad­kar met with Theresa May. He said he had got ‘a lit­tle thrill’. ‘I was re­minded of that fa­mous scene in Love Ac­tu­ally, where Grant does his dance down the stairs,’ the new Taoiseach said.

No doubt keen to fur­ther his ‘cool’ cre­den­tials, Varad­kar was af­forded a visit from the world’s most swooned-over leader, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime min­is­ter.

Trudeau is a hand­some, priv­i­leged, achingly lib­eral popin­jay, who hugs panda bears and has a pen­chant for nov­elty socks. He has 1.7m fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram and 3.68m on Twit­ter.

At their joint press con­fer­ence, Varad­kar showed off coloured socks to the press. It was a bit of fun, but cringe­wor­thy.

In Au­gust, Varad­kar met with Trudeau again in Canada. They went to a Gay Pride pa­rade.

Varad­kar places huge store in so­cial me­dia to con­vey his mes­sage. It’s a use­ful tool but noth­ing beats press­ing the flesh.

Last week, he went to a con­cert by LCD Soundsys­tem with Fi­nance Min­is­ter Paschal Dono­hoe, back­bench TD Tom Neville and Europe Min­is­ter He­len McEn­tee, who an­nounced the group’s pres­ence with a Twit­ter selfie.

We re­ported that a band mem­ber claimed the Taoiseach avoided him when he wore a Re­peal the Eighth tote bag. He later called Mr Varad­kar a ‘t***er’ on Twit­ter. A fe­male band mem­ber, Nancy Whang, is said to have ques­tioned his lack of ac­tion on abor­tion. On Sun­day, she tweeted @cam­paign­for­leo: ‘Hope you en­joyed yr free con­cert and taco.’

Ouch! These are the dan­gers of politi­cians en­gag­ing with pam­pered rock stars. Yet the re­ac­tion of Varad­kar’s peo­ple was in­trigu­ing – one ad­viser claimed that the Taoiseach had been there in a pri­vate ca­pac­ity. Ms McEn­tee told me it was just a night out with friends.

These were al­most iden­ti­cal to the re­sponses we re­ceived from Cowen’s ad­vis­ers and friends when we asked about his so­cial­is­ing at the height of the eco­nomic crash.

Tick­ets were hard to come by, yet Varad­kar’s group al­most cer­tainly re­ceived theirs for free and he was in­vited back­stage be­cause he is the Taoiseach. Does he not re­alise that apart from at home, there is no pri­vate life for the mod­ern politi­cian?

ONE thing is clear: the cam­paign on the Eighth Amend­ment is shap­ing up to be as bit­ter as any ref­er­en­dum we have had on abor­tion. The older pro-life fra­ter­nity is as en­trenched as ever, the Re­peal­ers are young, march­ing and logged on. Buoyed by the suc­cess of the gay ref­er­en­dum, they see re­peal­ing the Eighth Amend­ment as nat­u­ral suc­ces­sor to forg­ing a more lib­eral mod­ern Ire­land.

Varad­kar was rounded on for not set­ting out his po­si­tion. He, very rea­son­ably, said he would wait un­til he saw the word­ing. Not good enough, said the re­peal­ers, who ex­pect their light­ning rod of a New Ire­land to back them to sup­port Re­peal un­equiv­o­cally.

It’s very much a case of you are in favour of Re­peal or you are against it and there­fore a di­nosaur.

Can Varad­kar pull off the im­pos­si­ble and be the every­man of Ir­ish pol­i­tics, a ze­phyr of cool pol­i­tics, hotwired to Twit­ter, and a politi­cian to rep­re­sent those who get up early in the morn­ing, the blue-rinse brigade of tra­di­tional Fine Gael? Can Leo be adored by mammy and daddy and re­spected by the kids? So­cial me­dia reaches the lat­ter, press­ing the flesh the for­mer.

Cowen mis­judged the im­pact of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in mod­ern pol­i­tics.

Will Varad­kar fail be­cause he puts too much store in dig­i­tal?

The poll this week, putting his pop­u­lar­ity at 49%, will have been cau­tiously wel­comed by Varad­kar. But that’s be­fore the Bud­get and the un­fore­seen crises that are the in­evitable diet of po­lit­i­cal life.

Just ask Brian Cowen.

DIG­I­TAL DUO: Leo Varad­kar, right, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, above, are both avid users of so­cial me­dia

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