THERE was no love lost between Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar. When asked some years ago what word she’d use to sum him up, she said, “Smarmy”. The word, interestingly, was the name given to a heavy and cloying hair grease worn by Indian men in the nineteenth century. I doubt if Mary Lou had hair oil in mind. More likely she was thinking of someone who’d try to wheedle his way into your good books. It clearly didn’t work with the Sinn Féin President.

Besides Leo’s smarminess, Mary Lou had another reason to dislike the Fine Gael leader – in 2020 he presented a flinty opposition to forming a government with Sinn Féin: "We will not consider coalition with Sinn Féin... oil and water don't mix"  was his line. To mix in coalition with Fine Gael, according to Leo, she’d have needed to declare the republicans’ part in the TroDepubles as crimes. Whether he realised it or not, Leo was echoing the words of Margaret Thatcher: “Crime is crime is crime. It is not political, it is crime."  

You can see why Sinn Féin and its leader might find it difficult to praise Leo for the good things that he’d done during his political career. 

And using the old dictum ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’, you’d think unionist politicians would warm to Leo. Not so. He used a newspaper headline about IRA violence to warn unionists that a hard border would risk a return to the bad old days. The DUP, intent on a hard border across Ireland, didn’t like that one little bit.

There has been some praise for Varadkar’s commitment of €800 million to the construction of the A5 and Casement Park; here again unionist politicians have been sparing in their praise. That’s because they squirm at the idea that they’re  accepting what some would consider Southern charity. Besides being a timely gift, the €800 million underlines how the South has progressed over recent decades and how the North is now the poor relative. "Love your enemies," somebody said, “it drives them crazy."

But Varadkar’s legacy remains a mixed one. Recently he got behind two referenda that would have changed some wording in the Irish constitution: both referenda were kicked to death by the public at the polling booths. Not a good omen for the coming European and local elections, much less the South’s general election, which must happen inside the next year.

Varadkar has also left a startlingly poor record on health – despite the FG leader  himself being a doctor. The South spends roughly the same amount as Denmark and Austria on healthcare per capita, yet while those two countries rank third and fourth in the world, the South of Ireland ranks eightieth. No, Virginia, I don’t know how he managed that one.

And then just when you think nothing could be worse than health, you look at Leo’s performance on housing.  There are some 13,000 people homeless in the South. There are people living – and dying – in tents on the streets of Dublin, and a particularly nasty version of racism is developing under the slogan 'Ireland is full'.

So at least two big, big blots on Leo’s copybook. 

On the other hand, the South’s coffers are bulging as never before. In 2023, the Department of Finance had a budget surplus of almost €9 billion; in 2024 it’s expected to be roughly the same; and in 2025 they expect to be looking at over €14 billion. This is not solely the work of Varadkar, but he did feature as head of his party in this time of plenty. 

Napoleon said he wasn’t interested in having generals who were skilled in warfare, he was interested in generals who were lucky. As he leaves Leinster House, an invisible placard over Leo’s head might read 'Behold one lucky man'. A glance at what lies ahead for Fine Gael  might prompt a second invisible placard: ‘Furry creature departs sinking ship just in time’.