Ireland's youngest leader battles to remain in power after dead heat

Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael party is suffering a backlash from long-standing problems facing voters and a poor campaign

Ireland's Prime Minister and leader of the Fine Gael party party, Leo Varadkar (C) holds his purchase of meat as he leaves a butcher's shop, whilst canvassing for support in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland on February 7, 2020, ahead of the February 8 General Election. Ireland on Friday entered the final day of campaigning before this weekend's election, as polls predicted a historic three-way fight for control of the next government. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, of the Fine Gael party, was canvassing in the western town of Ennis while Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin was in his home city of Cork, in the south. / AFP / Ben STANSALL
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Leo Varadkar took office as Irish prime minister in 2017 boasting all the hallmarks of a transformative political figure.

The youngest leader the country had ever had. He was half-Indian, son of a doctor born in Mumbai, a significant talking point in a nation that was shaped by emigration not immigration. His Fine Gael party government was hailed for pursuing a radical agenda of liberal social reforms.

For all his advantages, Mr Varadkar is clinging on to power after Saturday’s general election. Exit polls showed the nation's three largest parties effectively in a dead heat, with a leftist surge putting Sinn Fein just ahead of Mr Varadkar's Fine Gael and the Fianna Fail party.

Lucinda Creighton, a one time colleague of Mr Varadkar as Europe minister in Fine Gael's first term in 2011, told The National that the party was both suffering a backlash from long-standing problems facing voters and a poor three-week election campaign.

“Things have gone wrong for him,” said Ms Creighton, who is a senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project think tank. “The message honed in on the wrong issues and the party failed to read the mood of the nation.

“After so long in government it is to be expected that the party would slide in the polls but no one expected this slide to be quite so pronounced down to the level of 18 to 20 per cent.”

The last week of the campaign was enlivened by an Irish Times MRBI poll that showed Fine Gael lying third at 20 per cent behind its traditional — but fellow centre-right — rival Fianna Fail on 23 per cent and Sinn Fein, the paramilitary-tied left-wing party leading on 25 per cent.

For a leader who has overseen the fastest growing economy in Europe and possesses a deft diplomatic record in handling the dangers posed to Ireland by Britain’s exit from the EU, the collapse in support is puzzling. “I suppose the expression ‘eaten bread is soon forgotten’ applies,” said Ms Creighton. “Fine Gael went into this election with a historic diplomatic success and you could see why it thought it had a trump card. When the party came in we had the 2010 IMF bailout and the financial crisis and now by every measure the economy is the envy of Europe."

Sinn Fein’s rise has been powered by its strong messages on tackling the country’s lack of affordable new homes, expensive childcare and under-resourced health service.

“It's an election about change and that means the outcome is not going to be good for the outgoing government. It inherited a legacy of things to sort out in the wake of the bail-out, things that would take time to sort out, and it’s ran out of time,” said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin, told The National.

Election posters are displayed on lampposts outside the Irish Prime Minister offices in Dublin, Ireland, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. Irish voters will choose a new parliament on Saturday, and may have bad news for the two parties that have dominated the country’s politics for a century, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Polls show a surprise surge for Sinn Fein, the party historically linked to the Irish Republican Army and its violent struggle for a united Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Ireland on Friday entered the final day of campaigning before this weekend's election, as polls predicted a historic three-way fight for control of the next government. AP

Mr Farrell also saw long-running traits in the conservative party come to the fore that have cost it support. “Fine Gael in power can get quite arrogant, quite quickly and certainly ministers are seen as more arrogant than they should be.”

All that plays into the anti-establishment mood in the electorate. “There’s a coterie of citizens who felt left behind and who have driven support for populism,” he added.

“The explanation for the polls is similar to that for support for US President Donald Trump or Brexit. The economy might be doing well but some people don’t feel the benefit, whether it’s in experiences of housing rents or homelessness or waiting on hospital trolleys.”

Before the election, the largest party by seats was set to be Fianna Fail and Micheal Martin its leader could face the dilemma of having to work in coalition with its republican nemesis. The question then posed is how that would fit with the open economic model that has rejuvenated the Irish economy.

In the canal-side district of south Dublin, the successes and flaws of the Irish economic model exist cheek by jowl. The headquarters of social media giants overlook the still canal waters. A Google maps screen contains Amazon, LinkedIn and many others in close proximity. Cranes tower over the steel-structured tower blocks under construction. Such is the influx of US multi-nationals, economists refer to Dublin as the 51st state.

The locals are largely welcoming of the jobs boom, contrasting the deprivation that went before in the docklands districts. Passing a Google office, Kevin O’Neill, a retired service worker, pointed to streets that were formerly a “no-go zone”.

“Now we have people bringing good jobs and money for families to live well,” he said. “Otherwise the children round here would have nothing but to turn to drugs.”

Caroline Morley, who lives in a council-owned property overlooking the canal, also welcomes new faces but she is one of those ready to vote for Sinn Fein for the first time. The two-party duopoly that has existed for the 100 years since the foundation of the Irish state has run out of steam. “We need mega-change,” she said. “The Northern (Ireland) record of Sinn Fein doesn’t phase me. We have to give them a chance to make a change. Otherwise it’s the same old, the rich getting richer and the poor getting the crumbs.”

The Sinn Fein candidate Chris Andrews is hotly tipped to take a seat in the Dublin Bay South constituency.

A Polling Station sign is seen during the build-up to Ireland's national election in Dublin, Ireland, February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Polling stations were set up as opinion polls showed a significant fall in support for Mr Varadkar's Fine Gael party. Reuters

Campaigning with Mr Andrews on a public housing estate last week, Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Fein leader, drove home the anti-establishment message. “You know they don’t want people from communities like this to vote on Saturday because Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, their leaders don’t want change. So let’s put it up to them,” he declared.

A last-minute hiccup for Sinn Fein arose when Mr Adam’s successor Mary-Lou McDonald was confronted in a televised leadership debate with the role of a senior colleague in smearing a young man killed in an IRA-linked punishment beating in 2007. Ms McDonald fumbled the answer. Not for the first time Sinn Fein was hit by accusations of a ruthless disregard for the victims of terror in Northern Ireland.

If the mould of Irish politics does break when the results are revealed after Saturday's vote, the irony is that Mr Varadkar is almost certain to be the biggest loser. Ms Creighton said he was sure to be returned as an MP but that his leadership could come under pressure. “Certainly he will be back but if he will still be [party] leader will be determined by the scale of the losses.”