The Varadkar Paradox |

53 mins

The Varadkar Paradox

In the months and weeks before Leo Varadkar was voted into the number one spot in the country by his party members, there was little mention in the Irish media of his sexual orientation. By comparison, stories across the world were all about Ireland possibly getting a gay prime minister. The latter wasn’t too surprising, given that newspapers in America or India aren’t too interested in the minutiae of Irish politics, while the muting of his sexual orientation in Irish reporting denoted an interest in policies over personal life that’s typical of the Irish electorate.

However, in the days after Varadkar became the leader of Fine Gael, the Irish media was full to bursting with stories about us having a gay Taoiseach and what that might mean for the country. The tone was self-congratulatory; the story was about the same Ireland that voted for marriage equality, the mature, liberal country that’s left the domination of the Catholic Church behind to become a world leader in openness and diversity.

The interesting contrast was that the LGBT+ community was not in celebratory mode. Activist Anna McCarthy wrote on GCN’s website that heralding his election as a success for equality was dangerous “because it is saying that having a gay man elected is enough for it to be an achievement for the equality movement overall, even when his success is based on sustained opposition to people who are also marginalised”. Newstalk broadcaster, Dil Wickremansinghe wrote on, “I feel Varadkar’s political success has been mainly down to the fact that he has assimilated to the point where he has turned against minority groups,” while Irish Times columnist Una Mullally described his election as “a strange victory for many LGBT people whose politics are rooted in solidarity, equality and standing up for minorities.”

A strange victory indeed. With Varadkar’s election Ireland became only the fourth country in the world to have an out gay prime minister, and it’s hard to underestimate the significance of this. In Varadkar’s father’s native India, sex between persons of the same gender is punishable by law. As Arpita Chakraborty wrote in the Indian Express following Varadkar’s appointment, “The symbolic importance of this cannot be over-emphasised in a country where homosexuals and lesbians have been ridiculed, bullied and killed for their sexual preferences.”

At home, Moninne Griffith, Director of BeLonG To, said, “As Ireland’s national LGBT+ youth service, we are delighted that the new leader of Fine Gael is a gay man, and now a role model for the youth who use our services across the country.”

In 2007, the year Varadkar was first elected to the Dáil, such a division in opinion would have been unimaginable. During the lead-up to that year’s general election, I sought out LGBT+ candidates to interview. I came up with a small list and made my approaches. Most of them were cautious about being interviewed in the queer press, they all wanted their bit of publicity but some of them stipulated that they wouldn’t answer questions about being gay in public life. The argument one of them made was that his sexuality shouldn’t matter, that his politics should. He was right, of course, but my agenda eight years before marriage equality was about visibility. I’ve always understood that visiblity is key to acceptance. The more people in public life who freely talk about their sexual or gender identities, the more our society is educated about the normalcy of our sexual and gender identities. Out and proud politicians are particularly important in this respect.

The brand identity he promoted during his two years as Minister for Health was ‘the straight-talking politician’.

In 2007, the then-closeted Leo Varadkar was not on my radar. His background wasn’t political – his father is a doctor, his mother was a nurse, and initially Leo followed the family footsteps into medicine, studying at Trinity College Dublin and qualifying as a GP in 2010. He began his political career while studying in the 1990s, as an active member of Young Fine Gael. He was vice-president of the European People’s Party’s youth wing and participated in the Washington-Ireland Programme that grooms potential future leaders. In 1999 he unsuccessfuly contested the 1999 local elections in Mulhuddart, before being co-opted on to Fingal County Council in 2003 at the age of 24.

After the 2007 elections he became the Fine Gael spokesperson for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and four years later, after being successfully elected again, he became a member of the cabinet, taking on the Transport, Tourism and Sport portfolio, where his most notable contribution was arranging The Gathering, a global coming together of Irish people in 2013.

It was after a cabinet reshuffle in 2014 that Varadkar became a household name, as is the fate of anyone appointed Minister for Health in this country.

The brand identity he promoted during his two years in the job was ‘the straight-talking politician’. He regularly turned up on radio shows to honestly report the number of people on trolleys in Irish hospitals, making himself enormously popular with a public who were tired of spin. However, his record as health minister is marked by the €12 million he cut from the €35 million ringfenced in that year’s budget for mental health care. He was reported as having told the Dáil that the cuts were “necessary as the funding could be better used elsewhere.”

In January 2015, on his 36th birthday, Varadkar came out on Miriam O’Callaghan’s RTÉ radio show, and although he’d planned to do the deed when he was appointed Minister for Health the previous June (his plans were scuppered over concerns about the approaching budget), he couldn’t have gotten the timing better. Ireland was just about to experience the Yes Equality campaign, a game-changer in terms of attitudes to lesbians and gay men in this country, and his announcement was greeted with sympathy and affection. The reaction of the LGBT+ community was largely positive, with people from across the community commending his decision in the pages of GCN. Interviewed in the same issue, Varadkar said: “I’d like the referendum to pass because I’d like to be an equal citizen in my own country.”

However, six years earlier, debating the Civil Partnership bill at second stage while he was still in the closet, Varadkar opposed his own equality, saying his view on adoption by same-sex couples was “simple”.

“Every child has a mother and father, and every child has a right to a mother and a father, and as much as possible the State should try and vindicate that right. And the right of that child to a mother and father is much more important than the right of two men to have a family or two women to have a family.”

It’s this statement in particular that underlines the largely negative reaction of the LGBT community to his elevation as leader of the country, and which undermines the statement Varadkar made after becoming the first Taoiseach to march in Dublin Pride on June 24. He pledged to use his office “to advance the cause of LGBT rights, to press for marriage equality across Ireland, to speak up for LGBT rights around the world where under attack, and to push for the implementation of the sexual health strategy here at home at a time when it is more important than ever.”

Writing on the Word Socialist Web Site after the Pride celebrations, Dermot Quinn opined: “Varadkar’s verbiage about his sexuality, democracy, young people and LGBT+ rights is a thin veneer to cover his right-wing agenda.”

Meanwhile Varadkar has been promoting himself alongside a new cohort of younger leaders, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, talking about a new centrist agenda. “The traditional divide between left and right, capital and labour, small state and big state, high taxes and low taxes doesn’t define politics in the way it did in the past,” he told Time magazine, of which he graced the European cover in July.

However, the traditional divide between rich and poor seems to remain firmly in place in this agenda, if not strengthened. Varadkar was a staunch supporter of the last four government budgets, which favoured tax cuts for the richest ten percent. As Minister for Social Protection, he launched a ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’ campaign, urging members of the public to call a special hotline and report their neighbours for welfare fraud, going after the poorest in society while massive financial fraud goes unpunished.

Varadkar has also said he will introduce anti-strike legislation over the next year, bringing the unions on board to make state arbitration in disuptes legally binding. This will have the effect of making workers who strike without union support subject to labour laws.

While his stance on abortion doesn’t seem to be consistent with the moderate politic he espouses – in 2015, he told the Dáil: “I consider myself pro-life, as I accept that the unborn is a human life with rights and I do not support abortion on request or on demand” – he was one of just six (out of 50) Fine Gael TDs to tell in 2016 that he is personally in favour of repealing the Eighth Ammendment, and he has announced that a referendum will be likely to take place next year. Whether or not Fine Gael will be firmly campaigning for a Yes remains to be seen.

That is the power of representation. It can instantly melt away decades of prejudice, ignorance and intolerance.

Leo Varadkar, the first Taoiseach ever to march in Dublin Pride.

The idea for this feature came after a friend who lives in rural Mayo became incensed when I told her of the LGBT+ community’s reaction to his elevation to Taoiseach She cited the fact Varadkar and his partner, Matt Barrett were pictured on the Irish Times, making their first appearance together at the Republic of Ireland versus Austria match in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on June 11. She felt it was complacent for the LGBT community not to celebrate this as a huge step forward for Ireland. The image, she felt, spoke volumes to people living in rural Ireland like herself, fundamentally challenging and possibly changing homophobia that’s still clear and present, despite the marriage referendum victory.

“That is the power of representation,” Dil Wickremasinghe wrote for “It can instantly melt away decades of prejudice, ignorance and intolerance. Well, here’s hoping that Varadkar will surprise us all and represent all the residents of Ireland equally, instead of stalling our endeavours for a compassionate and inclusive society.”

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