June 6, 2017
‘Prejudice has no hold in this Republic’ – Leo Varadkar at the helmContact
The international interest in Leo Varadkar’s ascendancy to the head of the Fine Gael Party and as a presumed consequence to the position of Taoiseach has reminded us that our new leader reflects very much the ‘modern Ireland’, a country which has moved from its conservative roots to one of a liberal and progressive country. That said, the sceptics might say that Varadkar was supported by his parliamentary party purely on the basis that he is a more attractive proposition for the electorate and they may well be right. Varadkar ultimately amassed 60% of the electoral college (Fine Gael Parliamentary party, Fine Gael party members and Fine Gael councillors) and there is a distinct possibility that he will call an election before the year is out. In the meantime, all members of Dáil Eireann must vote on the Fine Gael leader in order for him to become Taoiseach. The date for this vote has not yet been confirmed but as the Dáil is in recess this week, it is expected a vote for Taoiseach will be held on Tuesday 13 June.
Varadkar followed his Indian immigrant father’s footsteps by studying medicine in Trinity College Dublin and first ran for the party at just 20 years old. He is now 38. Varadkar is very popular within his own party but even more so publicly. His decision to acknowledge his homosexuality publicly in 2015, during Ireland’s Same-Sex Marriage Referendum campaign, endeared him to a new generation of voters in Ireland. Describing himself as a reformer, Varadkar veers further to the right than many of his Fine Gael colleagues and is more right leaning than many of the electorate might realise. His policies may be economically liberal but he is a strong believer in personal responsibility, rather than State intervention.
His first job will be to heal the wounds that are within Fine Gael, a party more divided than it has been in years. Varadkar’s policy document ‘Courage to take us forward’ launched his proposals to reform Fine Gael which has become “overcentralised in its decision making” and to rebrand it as the United Ireland Party. His focus in the first few months of his tenure will need to be on Brexit, public sector pay talks, the Northern Irish political stalemate and on the ongoing controversy relating to Ireland’s police force, An Garda Síochana, where he is expected to be far more interventionist than his predecessor.
Apart from the promise to cut the top rate of income tax, his promises include a reduction in DIRT tax on savings and capital gains tax “to encourage enterprise and greater turnover in the property market”, more embassies and IDA missions abroad and balanced regional development including education, transport, jobs and health services. Varadkar’s Fine Gael will also move to give Ministers the option to include among their staff more external expertise and capacity and with an obligation to provide three-year budgets with expenditure ceilings. The Government will also be empowered to appoint Special Ambassadors for issues like human rights and climate change.
Simon Coveney may not have won the leadership race, but he did get 65% of the vote from the party’s general members and this has certainly put him in the running for Tánaiste in a Cabinet reshuffle, although he has not yet indicated that that is a role in which he is interested. Meanwhile Minister Frances Fitzgerald is unlikely to retain her position as Justice Minister, but she may well be given a different Cabinet position. Current Minister for Public Expenditure for Reform and close ally of Varadkar, Paschal Donohoe, is tipped to replace Michael Noonan as Minister for Finance, although current Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, is also in the running for this post. Meanwhile, Simon Harris faces demotion to a junior ministry, but Varadkar will promote at least one of Coveney’s supporters to Cabinet, possibly Damien English (currently Minister of State for Housing). Another one of Varadkar’s supporters, Eoghan Murphy, is likely set for a promotion possibly to Foreign Affairs, moving Fine Gael stalwart Charlie Flanagan out. Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor is rumoured to stay put for now, but Varadkar is under pressure to find roles for the likes of Regina Doherty, John Paul Phelan and Helen McEntee.
The new Taoiseach will have to ensure he can maintain the support from the Independent Alliance who hold three cabinet positions, and he is set to meet with them this Thursday. He also needs the support of largest opposition party Fianna Fáil in order to remain in Government on the basis of the confidence and supply agreement concluded between the two big parties after the last election. However, Varadkar was never a vocal supporter of this arrangement so the big question will be whether he will continue to allow Fianna Fáil play such a key role in the work of Dáil Eireann, or whether he will take the ultimate gamble and call for an election before the end of the year. Our money is on an election.