Analysis: Let’s see if Leo cares for many, not just the few

Analysis: Let’s see if Leo cares for many, not just the few
Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar embracing after the result of the Fine Gael Leadership Election was announced yesterday. Pic: Gareth Chaney Collins

THE international press has made a big deal about how Ireland is about to have a young, openly gay, mixed-race Taoiseach, but Leo Varadkar wasn't elected because of those facts or in spite of them - he was elected because politicians wanted to look after their careers.

Last night he promised that "prejudice has no hold in this Republic", but the whole country is about to find out what he really means by that.

While other countries are heaping praise on Ireland and Fine Gael for choosing someone like Mr Varadkar, that praise is misplaced. Ireland and Fine Gael should be praised for seeing Mr Varadkar's identity as irrelevant to his ability to lead the country. 

At times during the last fortnight, it felt like this election was becoming a choice between two different types of leadership and philosophy, not just a personality contest, and for many members it was. The discourse of this campaign had real substance and a real debate about important issues. Both Mr Varadkar and Simon Coveney were open about their differences and managed to discuss them in a way that wasn't harmful to Fine Gael, but actually strengthened it. As they travelled around the country and appeared in the media, members were given the opportunity to decide what kind of Fine Gael they wanted, and what kind of Ireland they wanted. They chose Mr Coveney's vision, but they will get Mr Varadkar's.

The Fine Gael parliamentary party can make no claims that they based their choice of candidate based on their vision. The vast majority of them had made an endorsement before either man had even put out a manifesto, and long before they started debating with each other in public. They made their minds up based on geography, on who they thought would get a better boost in the polls or perform better in debates against Micheál Martin. Many of them are likely to have made up their minds based on the promise of a Ministerial appointment.

While the public-facing part of this campaign was a great example of openness and honesty in a party - and something that the other parties can learn from - the decision was ultimately made behind closed doors in Leinster House, long before Enda Kenny even announced his resignation. 

The parliamentary party got their way and now the membership and the general election are going to have to live with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Mr Coveney was no perfect candidate either - he was big on ideas but small on details - but if Mr Varadkar governs as he campaigned, there is a lot of people who should be worried.

He was clear that he felt it was futile for Fine Gael to be a party that represented everybody. He was clear that the most important value he saw in Fine Gael was rewarding people who succeed. 

Mr Varadkar has surely faced his fair share of struggles in his life, and he has overcome them to rise to one of the highest offices in the state. But his political philosophy comes from a place of economic privilege. There are whole sections of Ireland who can spend their whole lives trying to succeed like he did and will never be rewarded for it because of circumstances beyond their control. 

As well as talking about prejudice last night, Mr Varadkar said that he is still "evolving" and hopes to keep doing that as leader. The country can only hope that his evolution will turn him into a politician that cares for the many, not the few.

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