Normally when a political party replaces an ageing leader with a leader in his/prime, the expectation is that this will give the party a bounce. People will see the new leader the way we look on the first snow-drops or a tentative daffodil tip pushing clear of the soil: something new and fresh and maybe wonderful is on the way.
Certainly Sinn Féin will be hoping that the nomination of Mary Lou McDonald as their new President will create a surge of excitement and expectation, not just among present Sinn Féin voters, but among people who would have passed Sinn Féin by on the ballot paper.
There are signs that a change of leader has indeed produced a surge for a political party. Unfortunately for Sinn Féin, the surge is being enjoyed by Fine Gael. Leo Varadkar has brought his party to the point where 32% of those polled prefer Fine Gael, as distinct from 26% for Fianna Fail and 15% for Sinn Féin.
Why the difference, with Fine Gael gaining points to hit 32% and Sinn Féin slipping back one point to 15% ?
There could be lots of reasons. One obvious one is that Leo is the Taoiseach whereas Mary Lou is not, which means that Leo is going to get a lot more airtime. That said, Leo is performing well when he does appear on our screens. He has that comfortable, cheerful, self-deprecating way of the well-heeled South Dubliner that can be very appealing. Mary Lou, of course, has South Dublin origins as well, but it’s clear that she’s committed herself to working for working-class people.
Leo also gives an impression of youth. He gets up early, he goes to the gym, he remembers the importance of the Bank of Mum and Dad when trying to get a first mortgage: he appeals strongly to those who are middle-class as well as those who aspire to be middle-class (and never underestimate the number of those in Irish life).
Leo also is seen as playing a blinder in the Brexit negotiations. He’s insisted there can be no hard border and has firmly called for the UK to live up to its commitments in the Good Friday Agreement. This the UK has vowed to do, and now in late January Leo has reminded them of this commitment – no hard border in Ireland permitted. What, Leo points out, would be the use of someone who in December firmly committed to a course of action – no hard border – and then a few months later ignored that commitment?
This is where the Leo success story begins to look a little less sure-footed. The Taoiseach appears to be unaware of the irony of his words. The reason there is no Executive functioning in Stormont is that the DUP has made solemn commitments in previous Agreements concerning a range of matters, but is unbothered by the fact that they’ve failed to live up to those commitments. How could Leo be so alert to making sure the UK stands by its word, yet so blind to the fact that the Tories’ bed-mate, the DUP, has done exactly that – failed to keep its word?
The other matter which could put a dent in Leo’s ratings is the strong possibility that the UK doesn’t give a damn about Ireland north or south. The Brexiteers in the Tory party are determined to remove the UK from the single market; so too, it seems, are the DUP. It would appear that this stand and the notion of an invisible border cannot co-exist. One has to go. And since the DUP is the stick that props up the Tories in power, and since the DUP and the Tory Brexiteers want to be set free from the imagined shackles of the EU, it is inconceivable that we won’t be landed with a hard border in Ireland. Which would be disastrous.
If that happens, Leo will be seen as the Taoiseach who smiled his way into a sucker punch from the Tories and unionism, a sucker punch that will have dark and long-lasting effects right across Ireland. Memories of the smiling youngish man who got up early and made his cheerful way to the gym and who was intelligent and pleasant in all his dealings: that will be scant consolation as the Irish economy is holed beneath the waterline by a Brexit Exocet missile.
To survive in political life, let alone do worthwhile work, you need more than a suave South Dublin charm.