Brexit halo fades for Ireland’s Indian-origin Prime Minister

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Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, in Brussels on Oct. 17, 2019.(Bloomberg photo by Simon Dawson)

When Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar welcomed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, there was plenty of noise. Here was the European Union’s top official coming to Dublin on the first full day of an election campaign.

But as von der Leyen arrived and commended him for his statesmanship during Britain’s divorce from the EU, there were few cheers. Outside the building that houses Ireland’s key ministries police were corralling protesting farmers as they hurled invective at the man they blame for neglecting them.

“We are broke, and the government knows we are broke,” said Vincent Harrington, who that mid-January morning had driven 160 kilometers (100 miles) in his tractor to join a convoy aiming to snarl up the Irish capital. “Leo Varadkar doesn’t understand.”

Varadkar’s premiership has been defined by Brexit. Just months after helping broker the most contentious part of Britain’s deal with the EU, the Irish leader is embroiled in a serious fight to keep power. His trouble is that kudos abroad isn’t translating into support at home as Ireland moves on from the painful saga imposed upon it by its larger neighbor.

To his counterparts across Europe, Varadkar, 41, is the cool head who delivered a viable agreement that kept the land border with the U.K. province of Northern Ireland free of checkpoints.

The openly gay son of an Indian immigrant, he also completed a social revolution by seeing through historic abortion legislation. That was all while cementing the Irish economy’s position as one of the continent’s strongest and getting unemployment down toward the lowest in a decade, achievements many in Ireland also acknowledge.

Yet polls suggest enough voters may abandon him in the Feb. 8 election, Varadkar’s first as prime minister. Fianna Fail, the party that led Ireland into an international bailout after Greece during Europe’s debt crisis in 2010, is making a comeback.

Varadkar’s Fine Gael has trailed Fianna Fail in every opinion poll published since the election was called. His party stood at 21% in a Red C/Business Post poll published Feb. 2, behind Fianna Fail and also Sinn Fein, both on 24%. Indeed, Varadkar has a one in seven chance of keeping power, betting odds at Paddy Power show.

Fine Gael “had hoped to concentrate on Brexit-the idea presumably being to show competence there would suggest competence on other issues,” said Eoin O’Malley, a politics professor at Dublin City University. “But it hasn’t really worked. Brexit hasn’t been a partisan issue here, and people are sick of hearing about it.”

The gulf between how Varadkar is viewed inside and outside Ireland was on full display again last week. It was the turn of Michel Barnier, chief Brexit negotiator and now head of the EU’s task force on relations with the U.K., to visit Dublin. The two men looked relaxed, posing together outside the neoclassical Government Buildings a few days before Britain left the EU on Jan. 31.

Then Catherine Noone, one of Varadkar’s candidates and a former running mate, tried to explain his difficulty connecting with voters. In comments published a day after Barnier’s visit, she described him as “autistic” and “uncomfortable socially.” Noone later apologized.

In truth, Varadkar himself has suggested he’s no people person. But his immediate problem is that voters don’t seem willing to cut him any slack on domestic issues. A visible rise in homelessness in Dublin, hospital waiting times and, in the case of the demonstrating farmers, stagnant agricultural prices all loom large over the campaign.

“I think he stands like a god, and behaves like a god, and it’s time that he was put down off his throne,” said Patsy Lee, a 74-year-old retired school headmaster in Cavan, a town about 100 kilometers northwest of Dublin. He and his friends were lamenting the closure of their favorite bakery.

The story-a young, fresh-faced leader feted internationally and struggling at home-has played out elsewhere in Europe recently. Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, lost an election last year as international praise for economic reform and the ending of a dispute with the country’s northern neighbor failed to make up for enduring hardship among voters.

Varadkar succeeded former Prime Minister Enda Kenny as leader of his party in 2017, a year after the U.K. voted to exit the EU.

The question of what would happen to the Irish land border with the U.K. threatened to push Britain out of the bloc without a deal until Varadkar broke the deadlock in an 11th hour meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The message on the campaign trail is that there’s more work to come because a trade deal remains to be negotiated, so don’t change the team now.

“The job isn’t done yet,” Neale Richmond, a Fine Gael candidate who is battling to win a seat in affluent south Dublin, tells voters on a bright sunny afternoon.

As he knocks on doors with a small team of volunteers, Richmond is greeted with some enthusiasm. A senator and local councilor, his profile is high because of regular media appearances to explain Varadkar’s Brexit policy-effectively to help act as acounterweight to Johnson.

“Give Mister J a run for his money,” one resident, Paula Callaghan, tells him. Yet, in the next breath, she warns him: “We are all Brexited-out.” After Richmond leaves, Callaghan says it would be a mistake for Varadkar to place too much emphasis on Brexit. For her, taxes are at least as important.

A poll for the Irish Times found that just 3% of respondents ranked Brexit as the most important issue. Varadkar argues that all the things voters care about-the health service, a housing shortage and taxes-can only be fixed with a strong economy. That, he says, depends on a trade deal with the U.K. and he’s the man to help deliver one.

Varadkar acknowledged his predicament on Friday. He said voters had been “very complimentary” about the work on Brexit but ultimately “in an election, it’s what’s in the news now,” he told reporters in Dublin. “People are asking what are you offering me now.”

Opposition parties paint the privately educated doctor as aloof and out of touch, a description he’s reinforced at times since the early days of his career.

In 2007, when he was first elected to parliament, he told the Irish Times that Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” was his least favorite Christmas entertainment. The character Tiny Tim, the embodiment of Victorian-era poverty, “should get a job,” he quipped.

More recently, pictures of him jogging with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arriving at his office in gym gear and sea swimming on Christmas Day, have added to the sense of a politician keen to keep his image polished. In Irish politics, that’s one way of standing out when there’s little ideological difference between the two biggest parties.

“He has a clean-cut image which certainly doesn’t identify with the average person,” said Lee, the retiree in Cavan. “I vote for personalities more than I do for parties nowadays. And I vote for people that I know do things and that are interested in doing things for the community.”

Lee was particularly vexed by the homelessness he saw on a recent trip to Dublin rather than the potential for Brexit to disrupt the economy around his home near Northern Ireland.

On the first day of the election campaign, city authorities inadvertently scooped up a homeless man living in a tent with a digger. The man suffered “life-changing injuries.” The episode took place on the banks of the Grand Canal, a short stroll from a neighborhood known as “Googletown,” the neighborhood dominated by the American company’s sprawling headquarters.

“The government is failing is a huge way,” said Kevin Crowley, a member of the Capuchin Franciscan order who runs a day center that serves up to 400 breakfasts and 700 dinners and also hands out parcels to meet other basic needs. “I never thought we’d see the day when mothers and babies were queuing for baby food and nappies.”

The center saw a surge when the economic crisis hit in 2008, he said in his office decorated with a framed picture of him greeting Pope Francis when he visited the center two years ago. The problem is that the numbers haven’t eased despite the economic revival, he said.

Plenty of voters acknowledge Varadkar’s achievements. Less than a year into his premiership, Ireland voted to legalize abortion after Varadkar called a referendum on a subject that had been taboo for an older generation of Irish politicians.

Under his stewardship, the nation’s economic revival has continued, driven by investments from companies like Apple Inc. and Salesforce Inc. Unemployment, which rose to 15% during the crisis, has dropped below 5%. Securing a Brexit deal, though, remains his crowning achievement.

“Leo was the man for the job, definitely,” said Mary O’Reilly, 63, from Monaghan, close to the Irish border. “When you saw him standing with Boris Johnson, you just thought, ‘Oh thank God, we totally look well.'” Yet even O’Reilly says Varadkar’s handling of Brexit won’t influence her vote and she’s more likely to be swayed by the efforts of local candidates on issues like health, housing and jobs.

Back outside the center of power in Dublin, Harrington is reluctant to even give him credit on Brexit. It was the EU, rather than Varadkar, that stopped the U.K. crashing out of the bloc, he said. The Irish government should have been focusing on halting what he and his fellow protesters call “the demise of rural Ireland.”

Harrington, a lifelong Fine Gael voter, blamed Varadkar for running away from the protest in Dublin to campaign elsewhere. “Leo Varadkar done no job on Brexit-he had Europe behind him,” he said. “Any county he goes to he should be run out of.”

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