With international attention being drawn to Ireland’s first openly gay Taoiseach, Amy Crean asks whether this praise is warranted in the face of Mr. Varadkar’s very conservative politics.
The incessant praise surrounding Varadkar’s appointment to the office of Taoiseach is a study in modern identity politics gone very, very wrong. That a 38 year old, half-Indian, openly gay man became Taoiseach made headlines internationally, and understandably so. Off the back of the successful marriage referendum, it seemed to follow a new and shocking trend of Catholic Ireland embracing diversity at speed.
The image of Varadkar as a progressive politician is rooted almost exclusively in his identity as a gay man of colour. Whilst on a representational level this is absolutely a step forward for Irish politics, in terms of policy it does not translate to any positive action. He has done nothing for the majority of Irish people of colour. His history on race issues is hardly a shining example of inclusive politics.
“It is incredible how often his sexuality is brought up as a positive point when he actively spoke out against LGBT+ people raising children during the debates around the Civil Partnership Legislation in 2010.”
In 2008 he came under fire for suggesting that the State deport foreign workers by incentivising them with ‘three or four or six months of benefits’ if they return to their home countries as a measure to decrease unemployment rates. He has failed to address the systemic abuse within direct provision, the system for asylum seekers that has met consistent criticism for its human rights abuses. He has done nothing to aid immigration procedures nor has he addressed racism on any meaningful level, despite record numbers of racist assaults. The European Network Against Racism Ireland’s reports on racist abuses have shown a consistent rise since their launch in 2013, but the lack of hate crime legislation in Ireland is seemingly not on Varadakar’s agenda. A non-white Taoiseach is not an accomplishment for the progression of racial equality when he fails to enact any policy changes that aid ethnic minorities.
Similar metrics should be applied when analysing just how progressive his status as an openly gay man is. Whilst representation of LGBT+ people matters, it is a very small step when it has no impact on policy. During his time as Minister for Social Protection, Varadkar had the opportunity to amend the Gender Recognition Act to include and support young trans and non-binary people, but he did not. Labour leader Brendan Howlin has spoken out on Varadkar’s conservatism in an interview with the Irish Times, saying that he even opposed the legislation initially.
Another major issue facing the LGBT+ community is that they are disproportionately affected by mental health issues. Last year, Varadkar cut the mental health services budget significantly while the country was experiencing a mental health crisis.
The Taoiseach is keen to distance himself from his identity as a gay politician. It is incredible how often his sexuality is brought up as a positive point when he actively spoke out against LGBT+ people raising children during the debates around the Civil Partnership Legislation in 2010. “Every child has a right to a mother and father, and, as much as is possible, the State should vindicate that right” is not the stance one expects from the man celebrated for being openly gay. Varadkar may be a gay man, but he is a conservative first.
He has repeatedly emphasised that his sexuality “is just a part” of who he is and “doesn’t define” him. This stance is one strongly embraced by his supporters, who see the dismissal of his sexuality as a progressive step. Speaking to the University Observer, Conor McGowan, chair of UCD Young Fine Gael, said “I really like the way his sexuality never came into the campaign. That it was just like, oh, okay, that’s fine. I think the best thing was that it was never a barrier.” Perhaps his sexuality was not a barrier because Ireland has become more accepting. Maybe it was that he carefully chose to draw little attention to it and focus on the truly defining aspects of his identity: privilege and class.
“Leo Varadkar is to young people, people of colour and the LGBT+ community what Thatcher was to women; a sign that you too can reach the top in spite of your marginalised status, as long as you have money, and the backing of the conservative 1%.”
Varadkar is first and foremost a conservative, who is more ideologically aligned with a Christian elite than the oppressed groups he is continuously connected to by his liberal supporters. He opposes abortion on demand, having previously stated that he is ‘pro-life’ and has repeatedly remarked on the 8th amendment in dismissive tones. In one radio interview, he compared women travelling to England to obtain abortions to people going to Las Vegas to gamble. Then again, empathy towards issues that largely affect women was hardly to be expected from the man who appointed a mere seven women to his cabinet of thirty-four.
He spearheaded the ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’ campaign earlier in the year, which attempted to bring attention to the issue of welfare fraud at a cost of over €160,000. It speaks volumes of his rigidly right-wing politics that he chose to focus on the economic cost of supporting those at the bottom rather than the lining of the pockets of the 1%. He is driving the argument that it is the poor, the working class, the migrants who depend on State support who have caused economic turmoil as opposed to tax-avoiding corporations and banks.
Leo Varadkar is to young people, people of colour and the LGBT+ community what Thatcher was to women: a sign that you too can reach the top in spite of your marginalised status, as long as you have money, and the backing of the conservative 1%.