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The “leak” was always the least of Leo’s sins

The Gardai have investigated the alleged leaking of a document by Leo Varadkar. The Director of Public Prosecutions has taken a close look at the file. The conclusion of the authorities, following a full investigation, is that the once and future Taoiseach has no criminal case to answer.

In a democracy, like ours, this should be enough for everyone. Either we have confidence in the separation of politics and law enforcement, or we do not. And, if we do not, then we have vastly bigger problems in this country than the already horrendous levels of inflation, homelessness, and all the rest of it. If you’re going to make a big claim like that the DPP is politicised, you’d better have evidence, and the evidence better be more than just a re-statement of your own cynicism.

In any case, it’s also the case that what Varadkar stood accused of was not really corruption of any kind.

He passed on a confidential document – the draft deal between the then Government and GPs – for the allegedly nefarious purpose of helping a friend. How the friend, Dr. Mathieu O’Tuathail, was supposed to have been meaningfully helped by the document has never really been established or explained. If anything, leaking a document which might sow some division amongst GPs at a time when the Government was negotiating with them stood to advantage the Government at the expense of GPs, not the other way around.

“Corruption” necessarily involves self-enrichment: That is a fundamental element of what the word means, in the context of politics. Charlie Haughey enriched himself by accepting wads of cash from businessmen. Leo Varadkar has not enriched himself. Nor has he any need to: Politicians in this era have no need of bribes and brown envelopes. The new system, if one was to be a cynic, is that they just wait until they leave office to accept lucrative seats on company and foundation boards. There are very few retired senior politicians living in penury.

Of course, to some readers, and many more who are not readers, none of this matters. The matter of the contract being sent to a friend might not technically be corruption, but it does speak to something many of us instinctively know about Ireland: That “who you know” remains a currency almost as powerful as the poor beleaguered Euro itself. That people who has contacts and the nerve to text a government minister are better off than the rest of us in their dealings with the Government. It’s the old “Golden Circle” of the celtic tiger days, come again. Assuming, in fact, that it ever left.

And this is the greatest of Varadkar’s sins. He is of my generation: A different generation to Ahern, and Cowen, and Reynolds and Haughey, and Bruton. He came of age in the Ireland of the tribunals, and the Ireland of the brown envelopes, and the Ireland of who you know mattering more than what you know. He has been in elected office for fifteen years, and a senior Minister for over a decade, and the leader of his party for pushing seven years, all while it has been in Government. And what does he, or the country, have to show for it? That fellas like me, who once thought he was a genuine reformer, now must write pieces saying that as bad as he is, he’s not corrupted?

If you asked him that question – “how have you changed Ireland for the better” – then no doubt you’d get a long answer. Gay marriage would be mentioned, as would be repeal of the 8th amendment, as would be “steering the country through Brexit and Covid”. But all those things would have happened without him. And besides: Steering it to where, exactly?

Is our health service better after Leo’s long years in office? Are waiting lists shorter? Are taxes lower, or higher? Has he abolished the USC? Is there more of a supply of housing now than when he was elected, or less?

And what about society itself? Are we more united? Or is there more division? Is this a better, or a worse, country to have a child in? Is childcare cheaper, or more expensive? Are schools better, or more crowded? Are our streets safer, or more dangerous?

This past week, in the UK, there’s been lots of talk – much of it correct – about how Boris Johnson squandered a mandate for governing, and never really had any vision of what he wanted to do with it. That’s correct – but isn’t it also entirely true of Mr. Varadkar?

At some point, Fine Gaelers must stop pretending that the public are drifting towards Sinn Fein because they are in some way blind to that party’s faults and realise that they are drifting towards Sinn Fein precisely because they are not blind to Fine Gael’s own. At some point “but the IRA” just gets outweighed by “but things are much worse now than they were ten years ago”.

The leak of the document was not, by itself, a crime. There is no reason to distrust or dispute the verdict of the DPP. But Mr. Varadkar is a politician: The court of public opinion is much more dangerous to him than the courts of law. Though Paddy Cosgrave and Chay Bowes, the oddball online weirdos who prosecuted this case with manic fervour, are worse, objectively, than Varadkar, they are not wrong about that.

The public, in Ireland, don’t necessarily care that much about perceived corruption. After all, when things were going well, we re-elected Bertie Ahern handsomely, despite the best efforts of Vincent Browne and others to persuade us that he was not, in fact, squeaky clean. But when you add the perception that Mr Varadkar was helping out a friend to the fact that people can’t get houses, or GP appointments, or afford a tank of diesel, the public might find this whole sordid affair to be just one more reason to wave goodbye to the Varadkar era.

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