by Frank Schnittger
Mon Jun 5th, 2017 at 10:42:27 AM EST
Leo Varadker, the son of an immigrant Indian Doctor and an Irish mother, has won the Fine Gael Leadership election and is set to become Taoiseach in the next week or so. To do so he needs to secure the agreement of Fianna Fail to a continuation of their "Confidence and Supply Arrangement" to abstain from votes of No Confidence in order to allow the minority Fine Gael government to remain in office. Several Independent ministers will also have to renew their agreement to support the Government.
The election was held using an electoral college system for the first time, whereby TDs, MEPs and Senators have 65% weighting, local county councillors 10% and general party members 25%. Varadker won the first group by 51 to 22 votes, won the councillor's votes by 123 to 100 votes, but lost the general membership vote by 3,772 to 7,051 votes - a 35-65% margin. Given the different weightings of the three parts of the electoral college, this was sufficient for an overall 60-40% win.
At 38, Varadker will become the youngest ever Taoiseach if one discounts the election of Michael Collins as Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State at the age of 31 in 1922. He will be the fourth openly gay leader of a European country to be elected Prime Minister following Jóhanna Sigurdardottir (Iceland 2009), Elio Di Rupo (Belgium 2011) and Xavier Bettel (Luxembourg 2013). While his sexuality was an issue for some older more conservative Fine Gael members, particularly from more rural areas, it was generally deemed to be no big deal by the media and the political establishment.
It is, however a big deal for the LGBT community given that it is only 25 years since homosexuality was formally decriminalised in Ireland, and given that an amendment to to Constitution to allow same sex marriage was only passed as recently as 2015 by a 62% majority in a referendum . It follows on from the near election of prominent gay right campaigner, David Norris, to the Irish Presidency in 2011, a campaign eventually won by Michael D. Higgins after a far superior campaign performance.
Nevertheless it is a victory that comes with some mixed feelings, because Varadker is one of the more conservative leaders of the most conservative party in the State. I had a little fun teasing him about his economic prognostication skills in the Irish Times today: Irish Times Letters to the Editor
Sir,- Writing on the letters page of your esteemed publication on January 12th, 2009, a certain young TD called Leo Varadkar stated: "There will be no global recession. The Minister for Finance really needs to understand this."
Given his recent elevation to the leadership of Fine Gael, and the expectation he will shortly become our Taoiseach, would he be so good as to share his predictions for the next few years? The world wants to know.
As a sometime fellow correspondent to the letters page of The Irish Times, I predict a great future for him. - Yours, etc,
Michael Noonan, long serving Finance Minister, will follow Enda Kenny into retirement so Varadker will have at least two senior cabinet portfolio jobs to fill, although he may take the opportunity to accentuate the sense of a generational change in Fine Gael by replacing some other older Ministers as well. His options are limited by Fine Gael having only 50 TDs; The pool of talent and experience at his disposal is not especially deep.
The key issues requiring his immediate attention on becoming Taoiseach will be Brexit, the future of the Northern Ireland Executive, public sector pay talks, and dealing with the ongoing scandals in An Garda Síochána, the Irish police service. The next budget in October could be contentious given below target tax receipts, expected pubic service pay increases and the as yet still uncertain impact of Brexit on the Irish economy and government finances.
Some commentators expect Varadker to take advantage of any bounce in the Fine Gael vote occasioned by his election to call an early general election. Like Theresa May, he has ruled out that possibility... However Fine Gael is unlikely to achieve a sufficient increase in their vote to be able to form a Government without the support of other parties, and that would be even more problematic than the last time around if he breaks the confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fail.
So, on balance, I would expect the current weak minority government consisting of just 50 Fine Gael seats out of 156 seats in Parliament supported by a few independents and the grudging abstention of Fianna Fail to survive for some time longer, and perhaps the two further budgets stipulated by the agreement. By that time the A50 period will have elapsed and we will all have a much clearer idea of what the post Brexit world will look like for Ireland.
Varadker has said he will hold a referendum to loosen the restrictions on abortion in Ireland but it is not clear he could secure a parliamentary majority for any particular wording. Some will oppose any compromise wording because it is too loose, and some will oppose it because it is too restrictive, and many will oppose it just because they are in opposition and the issue presents a golden opportunity to divide Fine Gael and weaken the Government and with it, Varadker's popularity and authority.
So the classic Irish political stratagem of "kicking the issue into the long grass" seems a likely outcome, together with procrastination on a whole range of other contentious issues. This will damage Varadker's carefully crafted public persona as a straight talker and probably result in much disillusion after his honeymoon period in office is over. But then, what do I know? My track record of prognostication, having gotten Trump's election wrong, is not all that much better than Varadker's...