Wednesday 16 January 2019

Laidback Leo's natural charm wooing voters

FEARS, tears and very few jeers.

Leo Varadkar isn't the most sensitive politician in the world but he's learning to feel people's pain.

Back in 2007 he won over voters by handing out specially commissioned "Leo the Lion" bars but chocolate isn't comfort enough anymore.

The problems are deeper, the doorstep conversations take longer and a sympathetic ear is the minimum price for a vote.

However, he's still getting them young. As we stroll through the grey streets of Carpenterstown in Dublin West, the young schoolgirls do a double-take before shouting after the good doctor.

"Are you Leo Varadkar?" they inquire shyly. He hesitates a little as though fearing the friendly faces are actually spies sent by Vincent Browne.

But the trio quickly lure him back with the knowledge that they are having a mock vote in schools and they are undecided as to who to choose.

He wastes no time in winning them over.

They won't count for much on February 25 but as he walks on to the next estate he advises that "kids have a big influence on their parents' thinking".

Minutes later, three had doubled to six and the schoolkids were racing up the path again waving a white paper.

"Can we have your autograph?" He obliges, smiling at the notion that it might be worth something if he ever became Taoiseach.


"I remember going up to Tesco to meet Mary Robinson but I said it to her last week and she didn't remember," he laughs.

It wasn't all so pleasant, though, in a constituency where voters have a choice from an all-star cast that also includes Brian Lenihan, Joan Burton and Joe Higgins.

Residents say that canvassers have been thin on the ground but the issues are endless. Emigration, jobs, the public service, NAMA, Fine Gael's Irish policy, the health service and even developer Gerry Gannon's fetish for Brown Thomas gets a mention.

One woman breaks down as she reveals how she is due to lose her job on April 1 and has no hope of finding another one. Leo doesn't really know what to say, instead leaving his local lieutenant Cllr Eithne Loftus to help her out.

Another warns: "We know exactly what your plan is for public servants."

Maureen Hogan tells him that she's "not keen on Enda". "If it was him on his own ye wouldn't have a hope in hell."

But Mr Varadkar -- who was part of the 'Green Isle Nine' who tried to dethrone Kenny last summer -- is now content to follow the leader.

Mind you, he doesn't offer much by way of a defence for the Mayo man's poor media performances.

"It's not just Enda on his own. We've a good team," he reassures her.

Mr Varadkar's laidback style to canvassing means there is no pavement pounding and his team are frequently forced to double back and pull him off the doorsteps.

"He's impossible," says Ms Loftus, "he'd stay there all day talking. He's useless to end a conversation."

One such doorstep was that of Tony Kilcullen, who stunned the politician when he said he didn't want to talk about the economy.

For the second time that afternoon, he was not sure how to answer as Mr Kilcullen complained about crime in the area.

"There is hardly a night you pick up the Herald that someone hasn't been stabbed or murdered or hurt," he said.

"I bet you if you open the Evening Herald this evening there'll be more in there.

"You don't hear any politicians taking about it, it's just the economy. Parents are sitting up praying every night that their kids go into town."

Crime doesn't feature in Fine Gael's much talked about five-point plan but Mr Varadkar assures him that they will be tough on criminals.

"You'll get one number one. I never thought I'd say that to a Fine Gaeler."

The comments lead Mr Varadkar to quietly suggest that an overall majority isn't beyond imagination.

But perhaps the most telling advice of all comes from one woman who thanked him for calling, before adding: "When you're a minister you'd better still call around."

The young deputy walks away with a wry smile.


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