HE may have had a baptism of fire as Taoiseach, but Leo Varadkar certainly fought fire with fire and emerged fairly unscathed from his first fortnight in office as so many politicians – and not just opposition ones – set out to spoil the honeymoon period for him. He was barely in office a day when a legacy issue from his predecessor’s time, the appointment of outgoing Attorney General Máire Whelan as a judge of the Court of Appeal, which was formally recommended by Cabinet at Enda Kenny’s final meeting of it as Taoiseach, generated unwanted controversy for him.
Opposition parties cried foul, alleging that proper protocols were not followed in making the appointment and that it smacked of old-fashioned stroke politics. Fianna Fáil in particular saw it as an opportunity to put some manners on the cocky young Taoiseach and went for broke on the issue, but ended up shooting itself in the foot.
Taoiseach Varadkar called their bluff and quickly got the President to formally approve her appointment. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin did himself no favours with his distasteful personalised impugning of Ms Whelan’ standing in the Irish legal firmament, which went too far in most people’s opinions.
The new Taoiseach intimated to Fianna Fáil that, if they felt so strongly about the matter, they could withdraw their support of the minority government and trigger a general election. At this stage, Micheál Martin backed off, as the damage was already done – mainly to his own party – on which he had inflicted another dent in its credibility.
If he’s not careful about the battles he picks, he will end up like the boy who cried wolf in Aesop’s fable, with no credibility and his flock slaughtered. Leo Varadkar will be emboldened by this episode to continue playing hardball with Fianna Fáil in a way that Enda Kenny avoided so that he could achieve his remaining political ambitions before he retired.
Within his own party ranks, Taoiseach Varadkar was accused of not being well enough disposed towards female colleagues in his choices for ministerial positions, even though the numbers reflect the percentage (22%) of those elected to the Dáil. Of the 11 female Fine Gael TDs, six of them are either senior, super-junior or junior ministers, one was demoted from a junior ministry and the other four did not qualify because the Taoiseach, quite reasonably, deemed that all TDs who were only elected for the first time in 2016 would not be considered for promotion at this stage.
He opined with a straight face that all appointments were made on merit and that gender was not a factor in his decision-making. To redress the balance, obviously more women need to get involved in politics and, crucially, to get elected.
The 30% gender quota applied successfully for the 2016 general election needs to be extended to the 2019 local elections and maybe even upped for the next general election – which may come sooner than we expect!