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Decision time

Varadkar made decision to resign last weekend - so were there any hints on the US trip?

It was decision-time for the Taoiseach this time last week.

LATE ON THE evening of Tuesday 12 March, the Taoiseach’s Washington DC media schedule landed with journalists who were stateside for the St Patrick’s Day events. 

The Taoiseach had already been in Boston for two days and was due to head to Washington DC the following day.

First of all, over the years the press schedule for these trips tends to be nailed down well in advance, due to the fact it has to be largely cleared with the White House side of things which is pretty pedantic when it comes to timings and details.

For it to arrive so late in the day – just hours before he travelled to Washington DC on the Wednesday -  raised some eyebrows about what was going on behind the scenes – but not to the point that it was any indication that he would be resigning just a week later.

Scanning the official itinerary, it was evident he had events on almost every day, except for a notable hole in the timetable with no events scheduled between 2.15pm on Friday and 2pm on Sunday.

Repeated questions to his handlers revealed the same answer: the Taoiseach had scheduled some private time.

It was only on Wednesday this week that the Taoiseach revealed why he needed personal time on a state visit to the US. 

Following his shock resignation, Leo Varadkar said he had been thinking about stepping down since around Christmas and New Year.

However, he told The Journal that he definitively made the final decision last weekend, while in the US. 

When asked if that is what he used the ‘private time’ for, Varadkar said yes, stating that he used the space to tell some of his staff of his decision to step down.

Hindsight is a great thing, particularly in politics.

The truth is, no-one stateside saw Varadkar’s resignation coming, and nor did anyone else in his party for that matter. Anyone who says otherwise is not being honest.

Since his announcement, there has been lots of talk about Varadkar’s lack of energy and enthusiasm of late. The same could be said for his most recent trip to the US.

Whatever signs there might or might not have been on the trip, it is fair to say that the feeling around Leinster House for some time now is that Varadkar had lost his love for the job. 

Speaking to a senior government source following Varadkar’s resignation announcement, they said those around the Cabinet table also noticed that the drive and energy that had been there when he previously held the position of Taoiseach just hasn’t been there the second time around. 

“His heart just wasn’t in it, you could see that,” they said. 

Prior to the trip stateside, it was also noted that he did not seem overly excited about the trip to the White House this year, with concerns that it was a long enough trip for the Taoiseach.

Throughout the Washington DC element of the trip, Varadkar was whisked from pillar to post by his staff, oftentimes not getting a chance to schmooze with attendees at the events.

Some have noted that this is unusual, but that is only if you compare Varadkar’s US trips to those of Enda Kenny. 

Kenny was like a duck to water meeting and greeting people, and would often have to be dragged out of a room full of Irish-Americans.

For Varadkar, the large-scale networking events were never really his thing. So to draw any conclusions from that would be foolish – this wasn’t unusual for him. 

The Journal has attended some seven visits to the White House, with Enda Kenny, Micheál Martin (though he never made it into the Oval Office due to Covid) and Leo Varadkar, with visits paid to Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Each trip brings its own challenges, its own Taoiseach personalities and also the certainty of toing and froing between the Taoiseach’s staff, the Department of Foreign Affairs and officials of the consulate. It’s part and parcel of the week, and it’s a healthy tension.

Looking back on the week, perhaps there were some indications, that Varadkar was checking out, but at the time they were merely put down to the fact that this was going to be his last visit to the Washington DC as Taoiseach, realistically, with the government term coming to an end in March 2025 at the latest. 

On Friday, Varadkar hosted a reception in Blair House, which is located across the road from the White House, for some 30 guests. Perhaps this could now be viewed as a final hurrah.

The final of the Six Nations was on Saturday, so when there was time off in the timetable, the obvious conclusion was he was going to watch the match with his partner Matt Barrett and close friends.

In the end, the Taoiseach did watch the match with friends on Saturday morning, local time, in Exiles Bar in Washington DC.

Can we draw any meaning for the name? Did Leo also feel a little exiled from his party or from his role as Taoiseach?

The Taoiseach admitted this week that the long weekends and late hours were something that he knew had to stop and he indicated they were taking its toll on him.

He appeared to long for the normal life.

Varadkar told reporters in Brussels this week about his packed schedule and how he managed to fit in a takeaway late on Wednesday evening before getting up early to catch a flight in the morning. He said it was something that people shouldn’t have to do forever.

Perhaps the normalcy of watching the game with mates in the pub over a pint in the US made the decision all that more easier. 

After much badgering, the travelling journalists in Washington DC managed to wrangle another media opportunity with Varadkar after the match on Saturday, just outside Blair House, under the famous overhang where he first announced that Ireland was going into lockdown back in 2020.  

This time, he congratulated the Irish team on their success and spoke about issues of the day such as asylum seekers, Gaza, the falling of the referendum and Botox (perhaps that was the last straw for Varadkar, in terms of the questions he gets asked).

When questioned on some items, the usually well-briefed Taoiseach replied that he would have to check out the details, that he hadn’t read the story or would have to get more information. 

Media on the trip noted that it was very unlike him and that he always gets well-briefed whether at home or abroad on the issues of the day. 

But now that the mist has cleared, it is apparent that he had other things on his mind during the trip. 

The Taoiseach did get to do some high-level schmoozing over the weekend, when he went to the Gridiron dinner where he dined with US President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and business tycoon Jeff Bezos.

Maybe he saw a different way of life at this high-level, knees-up event.

The Irish media were not invited to the dinner, which was described as a “closed event” with only a small pool of US White House correspondents in attendance. 

While the Taoiseach was under the spotlight during the trip over the words he used to speak about Gaza, Varadkar’s final speech was stronger than some expected. 

Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny made a similar move during the same ceremony with then-US President Donald Trump, when he spoke candidly about immigration and Ireland’s role in building America, all the while Trump was speaking about building a wall. 

Kenny went further than most expected, but he wasn’t around as Taoiseach for much longer after that speech. Similarly, when Varadkar made that speech on Sunday in the White House, his mind was already made up and he knew he had nothing to lose.

Perhaps the most revealing thing on the US trip this year, was when he was asked if he would return as Taoiseach for the annual tradition next year, Varadkar said:

“I don’t know. You’re asking me two questions there. When is the election and are we going to be able to form a government after?

“All of those things are yet to be determined.” 

But, after this week, we now have our answer.

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