Political survivor has more to do
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.”