Leo’s mask slips.
“We’re all in this together”.
That was the rallying cry six months ago, when Ireland entered its covid lockdown. I vividly recall the tears, the anxiety, the consoling hugs in the kitchen, as we watched, Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announcing the first lockdown; a two kilometre radius limit from your own home, with the only exception being essential travel and work.
In a matter of weeks, with his cool demeanour, medical background, and occasional film reference (egged on Samwise Gamgee himself from Lord of the Rings, actor Sean Astin), Leo went from receiving one of the most damning election results to his party, Fine Gael, just scraping by in his own home seat on the fifth count, and having to bitterly contend with opposition party Sin Fein in the race to form a government, to being praised as a comforting leader in a time of crisis.
Long gone from the public memory was the Sinn Fein surge earlier that year, the Cervical check scandal that left tens of women with an erroneous death sentence, and the uncomfortable fact that his bid for party president hinged on a class war against people on social welfare (while he was Minister for Social Protection). He was Leo Varadkar, the “progressive” once again.
But slowly, that mask slipped.
The first sign was the phasing out system put in place to return the country to “normal”. While numbers were dropping, each success phase showed spikes in covid numbers, but the trajectory was still downwards. Optimism can be excused, but Leo’s decision to then shorted the initial five phases to four was where he began to truly show his actual intentions. The ultimate stage, the aforementioned phase four (formerly five), would have seen the reintroduction of wet pubs (premises that served alcohol without food). As numbers continued to creep up from the low tens to the higher end, with peaks into the low one hundred, that phase was pushed back a few more times. The Vinters Federation of Ireland, VFI, was grumbled. As much as the stereotype is offensive to us, we must admit the alcohol industry makes up a huge part of our economy and employment.
On the surface, Leo appeared to be sticking to his guns, adhering to the advice of the body set up to recommend the government on the progression of covid in Ireland, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, but used his new found popularity to express sympathy with publicans. While this seemed to be sincere it was only after forming government with Fianna Fáil and the Green party, stepping down as Taoiseach to Tainaste (deputy minister), that Leo began letting his feelings be known a little more honestly.
Leo could afford to be a bit more blunt. His alliance with Fianna Fáil and party leader Micheál Martin was built on the promise of sharing power, splitting the four-year term in half, with Micheál taking the first two and Leo taking the latter half, meant he had a win-win scenario. If anything went wrong, he could blame it on Micheál and let the public assume the problems only arose after Leo left the position, while if things improved, not only could Leo take credit for bravely doing what had to be done, but also enjoy the benefits of a recovering economy (following in the footsteps of his precessor, Enda Kenny).
Assured of his future legacy, Leo began to speak openly for his concern for the country’s mental health, believing the daily announcements of covid numbers should be downplayed if not changed to a weekly announcement. There were grumblings but ultimately the public were willing to humour this attitude, excusing it as a legitimate concern from a man still seen with rosy glasses. His public image managed to be spared the comparison to the less articulate and charismatic Micheál Martin, who was essentially echoing the same sentiments, as were the more rambunctious and wilder anti-maskers that sprouted over the country. The language and conspiratorial accusations lobbed at Leo from controversial groups like “Ireland Breathes Free” (now removed from Facebook at the time of writing) helped to ensolate him. To criticise Leo was to risk being labelled an anti-masker (or “ratlicker”).
However, entering September, with the tension over schools rising, something about the government’s insistences that schools would not close again or be delayed felt… familiar. Not only did Leo, as acting Taoiseach before the government formation, harp on about his determination to have schools open and remain open, but he was banging this drum from the beginning. The government’s conflict with concerned teachers and school staff in September nearly matches perfectly Leo’s fight with them back in March. The millions spent to get schools Covid ready were a far cry from the Leo who ignored strikes and calls for more school funding. But that was before his legacy was at stake. Leo, reluctant to even close the country down in the first place (never forget, this man wanted to have St. Patrick’s Day celebrations go ahead, which, in retrospect, would have been a super-spreader event like the world had never seen), seemed suddenly empathetic to school budgets, despite still ignoring the concerns of schools for their own safety.
Now a cynic would say Leo is fully aware that schools (another major employer within the country) directly affect the strain placed on parents and families (a demographic he and Fine Gael have saddled themselves to court), and that avoiding closing schools has more to do with this family-minded attitude he’s carefully crafted for the party. But I am not that much of a cynic. I imagine this has more to do with his strong dislike to be seen eating his own words. He’s a prideful and vain man who hates being one up (to the point where any criticism he’s met with by Sinn Fein results in cheap “Ra” remarks (pot’s calling the kettle black there, Blueshirt)).
Which leads up neatly to the latest and most damning moment, where Leo’s vanity finally came into light for all to see.
As numbers continued to rise throughout September, matching the heights of the initial lockdown numbers, reaching a height (at the time of writing) of six hundred and five, with counties Dublin and Donegal being placed in level 3 lockdown (essentially restricting indoor services and closing down pubs and restaurants that can’t serve outside eating areas), with counties Cork and Monaghan looking like they were set to join them, NPHET, led by Dr. Tony Holohan (the Anthony Fauci of Ireland), studied the situation and made a decision that has changed their relatively friendly relationship with the government.
NPHET, in a bold move on Sunday evening, announced publicly that they would be recommending the government move the entire country into level 5 (the harshest and most restrictive possible level), in essence returning Ireland to the first lockdown stage it was in back in March.
There was no leak. This was no private recommendation that just somehow got out. NPHET knew what they were doing. They forced the government’s hand. And the government was furious.
With the eyes of the country upon them, not to mention the panic of industry lobby groups, most loudly the VFI, the government of Ireland knew, that if they had any chance of coming out at least somewhat intact, they had to raise the entire country to level 3, a conservative move that has been mocked and lampooned as a transparent and half-hearted compromise. NPHET are not happy they were ignored. People are not happy this is a soft approach to rising numbers. And the hospitality sector are not not as a nationwide level 3 might as well be 5 for what it’s worth. No one is happy here.
Least of all, Leo. And boy… did he let us know.
On Monday the 5th of October, after an official announcement from Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Leo, on “Claire Byrne Live”, visibly tense and annoyed from the beginning of the interview, shifting in his chair and scowling around the studio, describing NPHET’s announcement on Sunday as “out of the blue”. Leo began to launch into justifying the level 5 snub with three reasons (society concerns, not in line with the plan agreed with NPHET, HSE contesting NPHET’s concern that hospitals couldn’t manage).
As host Claire Byrne attempted to read the announcement made by NPHET and Tony Holohan on air, Leo ploughed ahead, determined to set the narrative. When thirty-one outbreaks in nursing homes (unknown to the public until the NPHET announced it) was put to Leo and asked were they aware and just kept quiet, he deflects pitifully by saying he was aware of the number being twenty-eight at the end of August (which, if true, was still kept from public knowledge). Leo argued nothing had happened in the space of three days to warrant NPHET seeking a level 5 (despite the fact the six hundred and five cases happened the day before NPHET’s announcement on Sunday).
Rightfully Claire expressed her concern that there’re divisions forming between government, the HSE, and NPHET. Leo goes on to talk about NPHET’s “circuit break” solution, a “short, sharp, strict lockdown”, making sure to mention how European countries with higher cases aren’t humouring the idea (again, Leo’s apt at ensuring the narrative is carefully woven into a bigger story).
Leo, in retelling his response to NPHET, puts the onus of mass unemployment on them, asking them what do they say to them. That’s a dirty trick, Leo, and you know it. NPHET was set up solely to be concerned with public health. You can no more ask them to consider employment than you can ask a plumber about faulty wires. What makes it rich is he ends this regailling with “they thought it was a political matter for us”.
Yes. Because you’re politicians.
I’m not entirely too sure Leo hasn’t forgotten who’s doing what job these days, because he seems surprised the buck stops with him and Micheál.
Again Leo tries hiding the fact he’s upset at Sunday’s announcement, but slips by saying they weren’t consulted. He then compares Ireland once again to higher cases in Franch and Spain, calling NPHET’s advice being “experimental”. He harps on about Europe, admitting, along with NPHET’s advice, he was watching what other countries were doing. Not very inspiring.
He returns again to saying they “would have liked to have been considered”.
Claire manages to stump him, as he’s talking about the burden of another lockdown on the budget, by questioning his reluctance to raise the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP), which was lowered from €350 a week to €300. This is a sore stop for Leo, who, as mentioned, detested his time as Minister for Social Protection, but I wonder could it be the possibility of souring middle-class voters if he raising PUP back is refused (if not, most likely, lowered to the standard €203 social welfare payment).
“So this is economy versus public health.” Claire asserts.
And there it is. The mask has hit the ground.
Leo meekly defends it as being “the public interest” and that “your best economic policy is to put public health first”.
The words and the actions of Leo Varadkar are seen for how unaligned they have always been. There’s Leo the image, and then Leo the politician. There’s something laughable, darkly, in Leo saying “poverty’s one of the biggest killers, you know” when he was the Taoiseach who presided over obscene levels of homelessness, homeless deaths, evictions, and a growing wealth gap.
The aftermath of the interview has seen Leo fall from grace in the public eye.
For many, this was there first glimpse at the true nature of Leo; a vain excuse who prizes his image over all and is will to throw digs and discard what isn’t useful.
This is nothing new.
Leo accused thousands on social welfare of being fraudsters and cheats. He accused his opposition of being terrorists. He’s accused his own co-government party, Fianna Fáil, of being populists (they are, but still).
This is nothing new. It just open now.
This is the one time someone taking off their mask in 2020 has been a good thing.