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Which Taoiseach would be in the best interests of Northern Ireland?

As the premier Enda Kenny prepares to step down, which of the two leading contenders to succeed him will make the most impact on Northern Ireland, asks Tom Kelly

During a St Patrick's Day reception at Westminster this year, a well-known Fine Gael senator recounted a recent conversation he had with a SDLP politician. The Fine Gael man, responding to some political flattery from his northern counterpart, said: "Ye northern nationalists like us alright but you have Fianna Fail in your DNA." It made me smile.

The attitude of most northern nationalists towards Fine Gael has historically been one of apathy and sometimes antipathy. The reality of that relationship the other way around is probably the same. Fine Gael's forefathers where the first to accept the abandonment of northern nationalists after the boundary commission gerrymandered the border to create Northern Ireland; it was a Fine Gael Taoiseach who in a fit of hubris that declared the Republic was further isolating northern nationalists by de facto sealing the border and it wasn't until the advent of Garret Fitzgerald and Peter Barry did Fine Gael regain ground on the question of the North.

Fine Gael may have been coolly received in the North but until the collapse of Fianna Fail following the economic crash, they hadn't much success at generating much lasting love from the Irish electorate either.

Now things are different, Enda Kenny, the last of the great Irish political survivors is on course to being a Fine Gael history maker, the first to be re-elected to lead a consecutive Fine Gael government and soon to be the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach too since 1957.

However, if Kenny does not know that his time is up, his canny wife will and she will be anxious for her husband to avoid the fate of many politicians who stay beyond their sell-by date. Yet the affable, sometimes Teflon, somewhat forgetful and stubbornly tenacious Taoiseach is not making it easy for any of his would-be successors.

The battle for the Fine Gael throne has been a long drawn-out process since Kenny entered the last election as a dead man walking having said he would not lead Fine Gael into the next election.

The former SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon once introduced me to a forlorn looking Enda Kenny at one of Bill Clinton's peace initiatives in Washington DC by saying "Meet Enda, the man who one day will be Taoiseach!" One doubts that even Kenny would have taken a punt on himself for that accolade in 1996. Whatever his time left, Kenny has ensured that the office of Taoiseach is a now zombie post as everyone looks to his successor.

The two front-runners, Simon Coveney (44) and Leo Varadkar (38), are political contemporaries and many insiders say that both have already done a deal to give a plum cabinet job to whichever loses the race. If that's true both should remind themselves of the now infamous 'Granita' Pact made between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the eventual calamitous consequences for the British Labour party. Whether Coveney or Varadkar loses given the closeness of their respective ages, the defeated contender can whistle goodbye to becoming either Fine Gael leader or Taoiseach in the future. Both men have been sabre rattling for over a year and yet both have failed to make the final push for fear of alienating Kenny and his old brigade of rural backbenchers. Half, if not more, of Kenny's old boys (and girls) could expect lose their cabinet positions in any future re-shuffle.

Whilst much has been written about both Coveney and Varadkar by media in the Republic and it has been on focused on their ministerial capabilities - less comment has been made of what Taoiseach Coveney or Varadkar would do in relation to Northern Ireland or for the leadership of wider nationalism.

The North and northern nationalism has been a bit of an achilles heel for Fine Gael and neither of the two current candidates for the leadership of that party seem to have done much in their careers to change that perception.

Simon Coveney is regarded as 'blue blood' Fine Gaeler, coming as he does from the merchant princes of Cork and having succeeded his respected late father Hugh Coveney as a TD - a pathway into politics like Enda Kenny. He is seen very much as a son of privilege. He is a polite, reserved, articulate, softly spoken, handsome and somewhat uninspiring politician. Though truth be told few would have described any of past five Fine Gael leaders as inspiring. Coveney epitomises what some would regard as traditional Fine Gael values, family-orientated, law and order loving and very typical of his patrician class. When it comes to the North, Coveney unsurprisingly has little to no empathy for Sinn Fein although his contacts with some in the SDLP would be strong. In 2012, he rather unwisely accepted an invitation to speak at the DUP party conference which again left many northern Catholics perplexed. More recently Coveney pitched up at the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Derry - a surprising decision when the government was already being represented by the Taoiseach and the Bogside isn't exactly fertile ground for Fine Gael.

Leo Varadkar is a bit of an enigma to Northerners and even more so to its nationalist community. In media terms his profile is extraordinarily low which is in stark contrast to his profile in the Republic were journalists say the man positively lights up when TV cameras come on. He shed some light on his well-hidden views on the north and re-unification last August at a Michael Collins/Arthur Griffith commemoration when he said Brexit should not be used as crude land-grab for Northern Ireland and that majoritarian politics was not the way to persuade unionists of the inclusivity of a future united Ireland.

He also said he believed in re-unification and repeated that recently in a speech in Dublin which brought a sharp rebuke from the DUP's Gregory Campbell. He also said Fine Gael as a party needed to "engage more fully on the North" - something northerners feel they don't do that enthusiastically when in ministerial office! There is no doubt that Varadkar is intelligent, (not always an endearing quality to backbenchers), he certainly has charm but he has also demonstrated in the past that he has the instincts of a political pit bull when required.

His followers see him as a departure from the past - a brash new leader and an invigorating youthful Taoiseach for a new generation. Being gay certainly adds to his panache.

In some ways, Fine Gael is lucky to have two competent contenders for the fading Emperor's crown but there is a vast difference between choosing a would-be leader of a political party and a would-be Taoiseach for the country. Brexit has changed everything for Ireland, North and South, an engaged Taoiseach is now needed on behalf of all people in Ireland. Neither Fine Gael contender has been particularly active in engaging on the North or in leading the direction of wider nationalism, but as the island now needs a new approach, Varadkar seems like the one with the new ideas.

  • Tom Kelly is a political commentator

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