Farewell Leo, you were a decent taoiseach but not a great one - Tom Kelly

It won’t be plain sailing for Simon Harris is does indeed become Fine Gael leader and the next taoiseach

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

Simon Harris, pictured right, looks most likely to replace Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach

Alas, poor Leo... who, unlike Yorick, no-one really seemed to know too well.

The taoiseach surprised nearly everyone by announcing his resignation. His coalition partners weren’t happy but had the grace not to show it.

Unfortunately Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, showed no such grace. Leaving political differences aside, normally even the most bitter opponents wish retiring political foes good luck. It costs nothing. She chose the bitter bite.

Though McDonald may rue the loose language about her dislike, even distaste, for a rotating taoiseach. Unless there’s some kind of electoral tsunami, if and when Sinn Féin enter government it will be in a coalition. A deal with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael will almost certainly come with the price tag of a rotating taoiseach. But that’s for another day.

Leo Varadkar was an enigma wrapped in a complex personality. He could be brutal to the point of insensitivity .

As a previous taoiseach, Charles Haughey, once said: “I have done the state some service. They know’t.” Those words could also have sprung from the lips of Varadkar.

Varadkar was a decent taoiseach but not a great one. He attained the highest office in the land, which he had perhaps coveted, at an early age.

As a politician, Leo was ruthless in the pursuit of his quest and better minds guided him to victory. He has left Fine Gael in an electorally precarious situation. But he chalked up a few firsts - the youngest ever, the first openly gay taoiseach and the first from an ethnic minority group in Ireland.

The problem with people like Varadkar is that when they aspire to office too soon, there’s very little left when its time to go. His presumed successor Simon Harris is of similar ilk.

The double loss at the recent referendum was politically damaging for Varadkar. It was an unnecessary and pointless plebiscite which highlighted ropey political judgment. Ireland’s liberal credentials are secure and didn’t need hammered home to a referenda-weary public

The notion put forward by some very uninformed commentators that Harris is universally loved within Fine Gael is a rollicking myth. It will be debunked in time as a further slew of Fine Gael household names will desert the forthcoming fray rather than rally to his banner. Simon will find things won’t be so simple

But back to Leo.

Has he really run out of steam? Does he really have the sort of self-awareness to recognise that there’s someone out there better than him to lead Fine Gael? Nothing in his past would suggest the outgoing taoiseach is a shrinking violet or delicate wall flower.

But nor is he a stupid man. Electorally speaking he didn’t exactly have a Midas touch. Perhaps he simply realised that he’d put on hold a personal life with his partner, Matt, for far too long. Even for careerist politicians there are things more important than politics.

As taoiseach, he didn’t really have a praetorian guard of cabinet colleagues but he was prone to using the same inner circle as a touchstone on big issues, often ignoring grassroots opinion.

The double loss at the recent referendum was politically damaging. It was an unnecessary and pointless plebiscite which highlighted ropey political judgment. Ireland’s liberal credentials are secure and didn’t need hammered home to a referenda-weary public.

Varadkar showed tenacity when it came to the Brexit negotiations. Both he and Micheál Martin saved Ireland, not only from a hard border but also from the unravelling of the Good Friday Agreement.

Whilst waxing lyrical about Hugh Grant waltzing down the stairway at a Downing Street press conference was a low point, Leo demonstrated his steelier side when tackling condescending British politicians and intractable anti-agreement unionists.

His greatest achievement was in securing support for marriage equality.

Simon Harris will have to work hard to make the coalition government work or else he’ll face a premature election.

His relationship with Micheál Martin is pivotal. Harris is wholeheartedly behind the Shared Island Initiative, which he instinctively gets. Unfortunately political coronations never end well and Fine Gael may rue the lack of competition for the top spot.

As for Leo - it’s over. Or as Laertes put it in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “My necessaries are embark’d: farewell.”