WHAT a rough and tumble month it’s been for our beloved leader.
First, Ireland’s youngest ever Taoiseach had to negotiate the delicate personal hurdle of turning 40.
Then, a few days later, the outwardly fit and healthy Leo Varadkar faced the ignominious insult of being informed in front of the nation on TV’s Operation Transformation that his metabolic age was actually, er, 53.
That was enough to drive any proud man to, if not quite embrace a fully vegan lifestyle, then at least cut down a tad on the old red meat, whatever the Healy-Raes may think.
But the age-related numbers game wasn’t up yet for Leo.
Last weekend, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin weighed in, accusing him of being “childish” and “immature” for his aggressive stance to the UK on Brexit.
It seemed poor Leo just couldn’t win.
His relative youthfulness had been seen as an asset up to this point — now he was being told that he had the body of a near-geriatric and the mind of a silly schoolboy.
Of course, the slings and arrows of political discourse come with the territory — indeed, many have elevated the delivery of savage insults in the democratic arena to an artform.
I particularly like former Australian Prime Minister’s description of a rival as “like a shiver waiting for a spine”, and whatever you think of Brexit supremo Nigel Farage, his take-down of European Council President Herman Van Rompuy — “You have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk” — is only enriched by his words that immediately preceded it: “I don’t want to be rude but, really...”
Then there was Winston Churchill’s famous diatribe: “He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”
Here in Ireland, there is a special place in my heart for Dublin independent politician Paul Gogarty’s infamously passionate outburst to Labour Party TD Emmet Stagg: “With all due respect, in the most unparliamentary language, f**k you Deputy Stagg!”
Yes, the political arena is not the place for faint hearts, and to be fair, our Leo isn’t shy of delivering the odd barb or two himself.
The problem is, he only ever seems to aim them at the easy and obvious targets.
Take his regular outbursts against the Brits on Brexit, as alluded to by Deputy Martin.
I made the point on this page a year ago that Varadkar was playing a dangerous game. Sure, every time he insults the Brits, his short-term poll rating steps up a notch, but poking a hornets’ nest of Brexiteers was only going to make him more of a target, while he has left a lingering impression — whether true or not — that he has been at best unhelpful and at worst downright hostile in his dealings with the UK.
Whether or not there is a deal on Brexit in the coming weeks, that stance could come back to bite him — and us.
The Taoiseach appears happy to adopt such strong-arm tactics on a variety of similarly easy targets — remember his insistence late last year that nurses and doctors should not take holidays over Christmas?
Then there was his crusade to crack down on benefit cheats when he was Minister for Social Protection, described as a ‘hate campaign’ against the most needy in society, and for which he was described as — that word again — “childish” by Willie O’Dea.
For a man who has made his name standing up for minorities, such as in the debate on gay marriage, Leo has a penchant for going on full-blown attacks on other minorities, such as practicing Catholics and Unionists.
But when it comes to some of the big issues facing the country, our leader’s guns seem to be bafflingly spiked. The anger dissipates. The nice guy persona comes to the fore.
Take the crazy overspend on the National Children’s Hospital. Where is Leo’s anger here, in the face of the massive and unforeseen dents to the nation’s budget? Where are the barbs? The jibes?
It takes a certain kind of politician to be wound up by the cheap jibes of a few daft Brexiteers across the Channel, who aren’t even in positions of power, and be prepared to deliver that invective with both barrels blazing.
Then, when he is informed the National Children’s Hospital will not cost less than a billion euro, as originally thought, but perhaps close to double that, his verbal guns are spiked.
Leo showed similar restraint in his response to the smear tests scandal, and I don’t recall him ever getting angry at the lack of progress on the biggest issue facing society — the housing shortage.
Similarly, the most passionate speech by his Health Minister Simon Harris in recent times was nothing to do with scandals and hospital cost over-runs — it was delivered when his position was threatened by a no confidence motion in the Dáil.
The Minister works himself up to a frenzy when assailing the anti-abortion crowd but, like Leo, adopts a softly-softly, ‘sure-what- can-I-do-about-it’ shrug when dealing with the HSE and BAM.
I wonder what that great political outcast of our age, Donald Trump, would make of such fiascos on his watch. For all the boorishness and intellectual failings of the US President, I am pretty sure I know how he would react if he was told a €1billion State project would now cost almost twice as much again.
Trump would take it as a personal affront and stomp his feet, on behalf of the voters and taxpayers.
Sure, it may look — that word, again — childish, but it can also be a handy deterrent.
I regularly read about Trump losing his temper and bad-mouthing those around him as he seeks to impose his will, and it’s true true that he is an intemperate man often guilty of straying into outright bullying.
But sometimes, I wish we had a leader who could show similar gumption and stand up for the nation and its long-suffering taxpayers on some of the big issues of the day — and not just on the issues where a spot of posturing and a few jibes will win you a few extra votes..