Leo Varadkar has been elected leader of the Fine Gael party in the Republic of Ireland which means that he will become the country’s next taoiseach, the equivalent of prime minister. On the positive side is the fact that the 38-year old Varadkar is the son of an Indian immigrant father and Irish mother. He is also gay. Neither of these is insignificant given the overwhelming Roman Catholic culture of the country and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment that saw the passage in 2004 of legislation that removed citizenship rights from the Irish-born children of non-national parents.
But there are also serious downsides to him. Varadkar is a conservative and as Emer O’Toole writes, this causes some degree of ambivalence about his rise.
Left-leaning folk in Ireland are hoarse trying to explain to the faraways that, yes, we understand the optics – but this is Ireland, land of the topsy-turvy, where the election of a gay person of colour at the same time signals the entrenchment of anti-woman, anti-working-class austerity-as-usual. There have been understandably frustrated reactions, not only to the tone-deaf global coverage, but also to the ostensible “identity politics” signalled by LGBT rights groups welcoming Varadkar’s election.
I am no fan of his. But I feel the following simple observation is necessary: we can celebrate the fact that Ireland’s next leader will be a gay man of colour, even while we protest his politics. It’s great that Ireland has socially evolved to the point that Varadkar’s race and sexuality are not barriers to his leadership; but it’s sad that the next taoiseach is a cardboard-cutout neoliberal.
Calling himself “pro-life”, he is a disaster for Ireland’s campaign for reproductive rights, and absolutely the wrong person to preside over the abortion referendum that he has inherited as a political inevitability.
Varadkar is intent on the project of demonising people on welfare. He recently fronted a €200,000 (£175,000) campaign with the catchy slogan Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All and a handy snitching hotline. This is despite the fact that there has been only one case of suspected identity fraud this year.
Ireland has legalized same-sex marriage and has passed quite progressive legislation concerning the transsexual community so it has deviated quite a bit from Catholic dogma. But in other areas of economic and social policy, it continues to be reactionary.