The sexual orientation of Leo Varadkar may not be a big news story in Ireland’s media, but if he does become the next leader of Ireland, we can expect the fact that he’s gay to become an instant story of self-glorification, says Brian Finnegan.
Although the majority of us generally suspect otherwise, we want to believe our politicians are honest. To put it simply, we want to believe the promises they make because we want our expectations met, which is a basis for our perceived happiness. Yet, although we believe the promises, or want to believe, positive change is generally so incremental that feels like our expectations are never met. This illusion of the status quo, of nothing ever really changing for the good despite our great expectations, is what drove a majority of British voters into leaving the EU and American voters to putting Donald Trump into power. Both campaigns promised to kick the status quo to the curb.
Just a year before Brexit, the Irish electorate voted against the status quo, but in a markedly different direction. The 2015 marriage referendum win was founded upon the lionisation of and empathy with a marginalised group in society, while Brexit and the rise of Trump to the American presidency were both built upon the demonisation and rejection of marginalised groups. As the campaign for same-sex marriage began, Leo Varadkar became the first ever, acting Irish minister to publicly come out of the closet. With it, he not only grabbed hold of the zeitgeist with both hands, but he solidified the brand he’d been building for a year as a health minister who would gladly go on the airwaves to confirm how many people were lying on trolleys in hospital corridors rather than obfuscate the facts or pretend it wasn’t happening.
In the cosy intimacy of Miriam O’Callaghan’s studio, Leo Varadkar calmly and confidently told Ireland he was gay, and with that act of unflinching honesty, he ascended to a rarefied place, the realm of the politician everyone believes, or at least wants to believe.
In the hoo-hah that’s surrounding the race for the leadership of Fine Gael, it’s no wonder Varadkar has been singled out as the front-runner for succession. As we approach a General Election in which Fianna Fáil seem fully poised to return to power, Fine Gael need a leader that people can believe in. They also need a leader who represents the kind of people we want to project ourselves as in the current world climate.
On May 23, 2015, when 62% of our electorate voted for same-sex marriage to be included in the Constitution, the sun shone down on Ireland in a way it never had before. Colourful pictures of jubilant crowds were beamed across the planet, showing a people and a country that couldn’t be further away from the ubiquitous, rain-sodden, Angela’s Ashes image of the Irish, that of a population on the back foot, characterised by colonisation and acquiescence to the rules of the Catholic Church. More recently we’d been shown up as a profligate country, a people who had recklessly squandered our nouveau riche resources, dancing blindly at the crossroads while the Celtic Tiger perished.
In those pictures, we saw ourselves reflected back as what we truly believed we were, or wanted to be – a country that was the master of its own destiny rather than one that was cowed by troikas and priests. It was, after seven long years of being slapped on the wrist by Europe for our prolificacy, a positive message for the world about our independence, our progressiveness and our humanity.
Interestingly, and rightfully, in the coverage of Leo Varadkar possibly becoming the next Taoiseach, very little has been said about his sexual orientation, at least in the Irish media. (Global headlines, most particularly in India, are beginning to shout out about Ireland getting a gay Prime Minister.) In Ireland, Varadkar has not become ‘a gay politician’. This says something else about our country, as does the fact that it’s rarely mentioned that Varadkar’s colleague, Katherine Zappone is also a member of the LGBT community. Irish people care more about what our politicians do in their working lives than we care about what they do in their personal lives.
However, if Varadkar does become the next leader of Ireland, we can expect the fact that he’s gay to become an instant story of self-glorification. We will have become only the fourth country ever to have an openly gay leader (Iceland, Belgium and Luxembourg will have come before us), which is a news story in itself. But in a global media dominated by the Trump administration’s rolling back of human rights, it will be a good news story of the marginalised ascending to power. As such, Varadkar may become an empowering symbol for the marginalised everywhere.
In a burgeoning world order dominated by religious intolerance, xenophobia, racism and misogyny, the ascendancy of a gay leader in what’s still seen as a largely conservative country would represent a stark contrast. It would set Ireland apart as a maverick in a Europe that seems to be lurching to the far right, more aligned with the über liberal likes of Canada than our nearest neighbours. As the marriage referendum proved, we like being mavericks. We also like being seen as a people who care about the underdog, and about each other. In this respect, Varadkar’s succession could be a very good thing for Fine Gael indeed.
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