Ireland may have a gay leader, but Leo Varadkar is no friend to the marginalised, say Anna Mac Carthy and Aoife O’Driscoll
The election of Leo Varadkar as the new leader of Fine Gael has attracted worldwide attention over the past week. Most of the international news media articles have focused on the fact that he is gay and the son of an Indian immigrant. They have marvelled at how ‘holy Catholic Ireland’ could be so enlightened, so modern, so progressive. At home, the reporting has been only slightly more nuanced, with an awkward nod to Varadkar’s conservatism hidden behind sentences trumpeting his election as a testament to the spirit of equality in our little republic. Often times these articles have been hard to swallow.
The international community could be forgiven for celebrating this story because they are possibly assuming that Varadkar is someone who has experience of being an outsider, as a gay man and son of an Indian immigrant, and who may have first-hand knowledge of prejudice, whether racist or homophobic. There seems to be the assumption that someone who might have experiences of difference or of prejudice would have an inherent empathy for others who are different.
Unfortunately, and regrettably, this is not the case.
Dangerously simplistic analysis
Even from the coverage here in Ireland, heralding his success as success for ‘equality’ is a dangerously simplistic analysis. It is dangerous because it forces a number of other inequalities to be hidden/muted so that the ‘equality’ narrative can be achieved. It is 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.
The idea that Leo Varadkar’s election is progress towards equality and that any progress is to be celebrated is also dangerous. If we are all truly engaged in a movement for equality, we should at the very least be unwilling to underplay the harm that discriminatory ideologies cause to those most vulnerable in our society. And as a person in a position of power, Leo Varadkar should be accountable for the harm his ideologies and his policies cause. His success can’t be separated or celebrated in isolation from his politics without affording undue legitimacy to the very harmful social politics he advocates. We cannot be complicit in this.
Leo Varadkar did not succeed in his political career by pursuing politics that were inclusive or by speaking out against oppression. He succeeded using the rhetoric of elitism, of privilege, and of exclusion. Throughout his political career, Leo Varadkar has been actively disdainful of the already marginalised. His most recent stigmatising and wholly disproportionate campaign against ‘welfare cheats’ is but one example that has garnered much criticism in recent weeks.
Self-serving Display Of Thatcherite Politics
The entire campaign seemed a self-serving display of his Thatcherite politics in advance of the Fine Gael leadership race. In 2008, Varadkar was accused of racism when he suggested that foreign workers be paid to leave Ireland as a means of stemming rising unemployment figures. Last year, he chose to divert a large portion of the government’s ringfenced budget away from mental health services. This is despite the fact that our mental health services are already not coping with demand. In fact, just this month Barnardos, the children’s charity, has highlighted that there are over 2,500 children in Ireland on waiting lists for their initial mental health assessments. There is a crisis in our mental health services, though not one the then Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, sought to prioritise.
And the list goes on. When speaking in a radio interview Varadkar dismissively compared the women forced to travel to Britain every day for an abortion to tourists going to Las Vegas to gamble. And when asked about, homelessness, poverty levels and social inequalities in Ireland on the Vincent Browne show in April of this year, he made clear that he views equality as a negative concept saying, ‘We could have much more equality and all be poorer.”
A Role Model?
Despite his record, I have heard it be said that it is still positive for young LGBTI people to have a Taoiseach who is gay as a role model. But I can’t help question this notion and question what is being lost if we assert it.
Looking at his impact on LGBT issues for a moment. LGBT young people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues in comparison to their straight peers. As mentioned above, as Minister for Health he diverted funds from mental health services that are already frequently described as being in ‘crisis’. As Minister for Social Protection, he had the opportunity to give recognition to young trans and non-binary people by amending the Gender Recognition Act but he did not.
In 2010, when there was cross-party support for the Civil Partnership Legislation as it passed through the Oireachtas, Varadkar could have stayed silent during the debates. Instead, he chose not to and spoke in very strong terms against LGBT families and their suitability to rear children. He also seems somewhat unwilling to further gay visibility in his new role as Taoiseach, quickly reassuring Fine Gael members in advance of the leadership vote that his partner would not be attending state functions.
To put aside his politics and say that it’s great news for LGBT young people makes it seem as if people exist in some sort of vacuum where their layered identities can be separated out and their sexual or gender identities looked at in isolation from other aspects of their lived lives. I have to wonder at this blinkered approach. If you celebrate his success then you and yours are likely to be in the privileged position of not being affected by the social and economic policies that Varadkar and his party pursue. And if you are, then it is likely enough that he is a gay man and that he is going to be Taoiseach. In the end, I can’t help thinking that Leo Varadkar will be as helpful to the gays as Margaret Thatcher was to women- only protecting (or reassuring) the ones who already have power and privilege.
Leo Varadkar’s success has been interpreted as a symbol of modern Ireland and in some ways maybe it is. It shows that even if you are a member of multiple oppressed minority groups you can still be successful but only if you assimilate sufficiently as an oppressor
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