Po­lit­i­cal sur­vivor has more to do

Irish Examiner - - Opinion -

Leo Varad­kar this week cel­e­brates — if that is the right word — his first year as Taoiseach.

He has a num­ber of firsts to his credit: At 38, he be­came the coun­try’s youngest ever Taoiseach, the first from an eth­nic mi­nor­ity back­ground, and the first to have come out as gay.

Asked in the Dáil ear­lier this week about his first an­niver­sary in of­fice, the Taoiseach said he was “not one for an­niver­saries or birth­days” and was “known to for­get them, or decline to cel­e­brate them”.

Nev­er­the­less, he was quick to note the achieve­ments of his Gov­ern­ment over the past year, among them: “Record lev­els of em­ploy­ment, bal­anced the books, im­proved liv­ing stan­dards, re­duced in­come in­equal­ity, re­duced poverty, and re­duced de­pri­va­tion.”

He can hardly take credit for all of those suc­cesses, con­sid­er­ing they were well in train since 2011 and gath­ered mo­men­tum dur­ing Enda Kenny’s ten­ure as taoiseach.

What he can take credit for per­son­ally is get­ting the ref­er­en­dum to re­move the Eighth Amend­ment over the line. He ex­hib­ited em­pa­thy with those vot­ing no and showed an un­canny abil­ity to read the pub­lic mood.

He has also cut a dash on the in­ter­na­tional stage, dis­play­ing charm and so­phis­ti­ca­tion when meet­ing world lead­ers dur­ing his in­ter­na­tional trav­els over the past year.

There have though been some cringe-in­duc­ing mo­ments. Dur­ing his first over­seas trip as Taoiseach, he could not con­tain his ex­cite­ment and spoke of his “thrill” at be­ing in 10 Down­ing Street, com­par­ing his first time there to the an­tics of Hugh Grant’s fic­ti­tious prime min­is­ter in the movie Love Ac­tu­ally. A month later, he dis­played a pair of nov­elty socks when meet­ing with Cana­dian prime min­is­ter Justin Trudeau in Dublin.

De­spite these gaffes, he is be­ing taken se­ri­ously by world lead­ers and in April was se­lected as one of Time mag­a­zine’s 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple for 2018.

Do­mes­ti­cally, too, Mr Varad­kar has much to cel­e­brate, with a grow­ing econ­omy, a sharp fall in un­em­ploy­ment, and move­ment on house con­struc­tion.

Yet, there are glar­ing omis­sions and fail­ures, most no­tably the grow­ing level of home­less­ness and the con­tin­u­ing cri­sis in the health ser­vice.

When he took of­fice a year ago, one of Mr Varad­kar’s stated pri­or­i­ties was to re­pair our ail­ing and fail­ing health ser­vice so as to en­sure greater lev­els of pa­tient ac­cess. In­stead, as fig­ures is­sued by the Na­tional Treat­ment Pur­chase Fund to­day re­veal, there are now more than 700,000 peo­ple on wait­ing lists for hos­pi­tal beds, the high­est num­ber on record.

How­ever, he is show­ing all the signs of be­ing a po­lit­i­cal sur­vivor. Over the past year he has faced in­creased do­mes­tic chal­lenges but has shown steel and re­solve in fac­ing them.

On as­sum­ing of­fice a year ago, the Taoiseach pledged “to build a re­pub­lic where ev­ery cit­i­zen gets a fair go”.

He has made a rea­son­ably good start but, as Ber­tie Ah­ern mem­o­rably put it dur­ing the 2002 gen­eral elec­tion: “A lot done. More to do.”

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