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