FINE GAEL leader Leo Varadkar has predicted a return to power for Fianna Fail if they capture three seats in Laois Offaly in next month’s general election.
Speaking to the Tribune in Tullamore on Friday evening last in what was his first newspaper interview of the election campaign, Mr Varadkar stressed he was confident the party will hold the two seats currently filled by Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.
But he admitted it would be a very tight race to the finish.
“I would very much encourage all our supporters to come out as this is a crucial constituency,” stressed the Taoiseach.
“If Fianna Fail win three out of five they’ll be back in Government as this has happened every time Fine Gael loses power,” he added.
Questioned about the impact of the recent controversy surrounding a proposed commemoration for the RIC on Charlie Flanagan’s vote, Mr Varadkar said he did not know how the issue would play out.
“Charlie organised the commemoration in good faith and made the right decision to cancel it,” he outlined.
Continued the Taoiseach: “Over the past two and a half years he has been a very steady pair of hands in the Department of Justice and has brought a huge amount of legislation through the Dail.”
Asked if Offaly-based Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy would be in line for a junior ministry position if Fine Gael was returned to power, Mr Varadkar said she had completed a good job in her previous role as Minister of State at the Department of Health.
“But we didn’t have enough place to go around,” he added referring to her demotion to the back benches following his election as party leader.
“But I have to say that sometimes when people lose their position they can become bitter and negative . . . Marcella did the opposite and was always there for Leader’s Questions in the Dail.”
The Taoiseach also extended his best wishes to the former holder of the office, Brian Cowen who is currently recovering from a serious illness.
“We are all aware that Brian is not in the best of health and I want to wish him a good recovery. I knew him as a young T.D. and he was always courteous and a very nice person but had a rough ride in his last few years in Government.”
Mr Varadkar said he had received a warm welcome on walkabout in Birr earlier that day after he officially opened a major €14 million expansion at Grant Engineering in Crinkill.
The Taoiseach took time out of his busy schedule to call into the Tullamore Tribune office that evening on his way back to Dublin.
“Birr was a great reception . . . I have been there many times with Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy in the past including for the hot air balloon festival.”
He said voters has raised issues such as mental health and the ongoing Brexit situation.
Mr Varadkar added he was enjoying meeting voters face to face and listening to their concerns at first hand.
“It has been most interesting to hear what people are saying and I know voters want to be listened to,” stressed the outgoing Taoiseach..
“A lot of people are very concerned about the future of Bord na Mona,” added Mr Varadkar.
He continued: “I am very aware of the impact of job losses in Bord na Mona but we want to make sure there will be many new jobs coming in and a good payroll coming into the affected villages.” The Fine Gael leader stressed there will be good redundancy packages available to workers and predicted that new jobs would be created as Bord na Mona made the transition to green energy.
Questioned about the perception that IDA Ireland was not promoting Offaly as a destination for foreign direct investment, Mr Varadkar said that the body needed to do more to ensure that the county received its fair share of investment.
But he noted that since Fine Gael entered Government in 2011 IDA jobs had increased by 21 per cent in Offaly while posts created by Enterprise Ireland jumped by 42pc.
“We are going in the right direction but I would like to see much more IDA created jobs,” he added referring to the huge growth overall in employment during the current economic recovery.
Mr Varadkar stressed ensuring a fair trade was put in the place with Britain in the next phase of Brexit negotiations was crucial to the economic future of the country, particularly the agriculture sector.
“Ensuring tariff free and quota free access to the British market is essential or the current beef price crisis will get much worse,” he predicted.
The Fine Gael leader said the Government team that represented Ireland in Europe during the Brexit negotiations would continue to fight the country’s corner if returned to power.
“I have built up a lot of political capital and I want to use some of that goodwill to ensure that the CAP budget continues to be well funded,” he outlined.
Mr Varadkar said he understood the pressure farmers were under for the best part of the past two years on the beef prices front in reference to the recent protests at factory gates and in Dublin city centre.
“Beef farmers are being paid far less than the cost of production. Farmers should be getting at least the EU average but are receiving 20c less per kilogramme.”
But he added that he could not make a promise that no politician could keep on beef prices.
Asked about farmer fears of the Green party having a major input into the formation of the next Government, Mr Varadkar said he thought “there was a very strong possibility that the Greens will be in Government.”
’Neither Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will have enough seats to do it on their own,” he added.
“I can understand why some people are concerned about their policies . . . people in rural Ireland will be against a ban on live exports,” he said also hitting out at the party’s proposal to replace the property tax with a site tax which would take into account the garden area of homes.
He said that it was up to the bigger party in Government to lead on policies.
But Mr Varadkar stressed that the Green party had been right on issues such as climate change and water quality.
Responding to a question on the decline of provincial towns such as Tullamore, Birr and Edenderry Mr Varadkar said this was a feature common to every county in the country.
He said decline had also been witnessed in parts of larger urban areas such as Dublin, Cork and Limerick.
“It’s a reflection of the fact that the world has changed,” pointed out Mr Varadkar who said that vacant retail spaces in town centres would have to be put to other uses such as for cafes and housing.
As regards the homelessness crisis which has emerged as one of the defining issues in the campaign to date, Mr Varadkar admitted that the problem had worsened in the past number of years.
’But what is encouraging is that family and child homelessness had decreased since this time last year,” he outlined.
He said there had been a very slow start to combatting the housing crisis as the capacity to build homes had collapsed during the economic downturn with many construction workers emigrating to Australia and other destinations.
“It wasn’t a case of just being able to turn on the tap,” outlined Mr Varadkar.
Turning to health, one of the other major issues in the campaign, Mr Varadkar, himself a former Minister for Health, said “some progress had been made in some areas”.
“We have seen some progress in waiting lists and the number of people waiting for operations had come down from 70,000 to 35,000 since I became Taoiseach,” he added.
Mr Varadkar said that many of the problems facing the health sector were not unique to Ireland but were common in countries across Europe, in particular the ageing population.
He said “fixing” the health service was not going to be easy and noted that the Health Service Executive was running over budget.
“I believe that health can be fixed now that we have the resources,” stressed Mr Varadkar.
He also gave his full backing to the campaign to build a Midland Hospice in Tullamore to cater for the counties of Offaly, Laois, Westmeath and Longford.
Referring to hospices in his native Blanchardstown and the recently opened facility in Co. Mayo, Mr Varadkar said the Government would support the running and staffing costs while the initial development funds would be raised locally.
“People forget that hospice care frees up a lot of hospital beds which will help reduce waiting lists,” he added.
And before leaving the county town, Mr Varadkar took time out to drop into hardware retailer Brian Cloonan, a member of Tullamore Lions Club which launched a campaign for the Midlands Hospice last week, to signal his support for the Hooves4Hospice fund-raiser.