“Indian Origin Gay Leader Leo Varadkar Will be Ireland’s New PM” is the headline in the Economic Times of India in response to Varadkar’s emergence as leader of Fine Gael (and probably taoiseach).
The Financial Times of the UK prioritized the fact that he will likely be “Ireland’s youngest prime minister”, but also highlighted that he is the “gay son of an Indian immigrant”.
Do Varadkar’s ethnic background and sexual identity matter? Yes, and Irish Times columnist Una Mullally is absolutely right to say that “A gay taoiseach is actually a very big deal indeed.” The same could be said for the fact that his father is an immigrant.
His election could not have happened in the Ireland of even the relatively recent past, and says a lot about positive changes in Irish society over the last decades.
But Mullally is also right to highlight the problematic nature of Varadkar’s politics and what they mean for the future rights of all marginalized communities.
As Emer O’Toole puts it, “we can celebrate the fact that Ireland’s next leader will be a gay man of colour, even while we protest his politics”.
And in this she has Varadkar’s own implicit support – he has said that he wants to be judged by his actions rather than by his origins or by his identity.
Indeed, the origins and the actions might not always seem to be in sync. In 2008, Varadkar suggested that unemployed immigrants in Ireland should be encouraged to go home in exchange for a few months’ benefits.
As journalist Dean Van Nguyen has summarized it (and he is putting it mildly), “Varadkar has not shown himself to be a great ally of migrants living here.”
And this takes us to the nub of the issue – Varadkar overwhelmingly represents a class, not LGBTQ people, not migrants, and certainly not the interests of the economically marginalized (including unemployed immigrants).
Satirical magazine Waterford Whispers News captured an essential truth when it ran the headline “Leo Varadkar Becomes Ireland’s First Openly Classist Leader.”
His recent campaign against claimed welfare fraud is probably the best-known example of these politics.
Using the slogan “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All”, Varadkar massively independent.ie/opinion/columnists/gene-kerrigan/do-it-for-leos-sake-rat-out-your-neighbour-35666823.html">overstated reported losses to the state from people claiming welfare payments, bogusly trumpeting that anti-fraud measures saved the state €500 million in 2016, when the real figure was probably a small fraction of that.
During his campaign for the Fine Gael leadership, Varadkar boasted that he would govern for “the people who get up early in the morning”.
Gene Kerrigan nailed it when he independent.ie/opinion/columnists/gene-kerrigan/is-this-really-the-best-fine-gael-can-offer-35763264.html">said this was a (none-too-subtly) coded pitch to the right wing of the party: “Look, the country’s full of lazy skangers who live off the rest of us and I hate them as much as you do.” His call to ban public-sector strikes in certain areas was a similar appeal to the same constituency.
For reasons of opportunism and/or ideology, Varadkar will almost certainly continue (and perhaps even deepen) the right-wing outlooks that preclude real solutions to crises such as housing and healthcare, solutions that would require, more than anything, a commitment to public ownership and provision.
Varadkar may in the past have overseen small, potentially progressive changes in policy, such as the introduction of free GP care for under-6s, but it is highly unlikely that, at the macroeconomic level, he would contemplate the overarching and essential paradigm shift we need, away from a reliance on the market for the supply of essential social services.
For me the most revealing independent.ie/irish-news/election-2016/i-am-not-so-naive-that-i-think-i-can-make-all-the-problems-go-away-34430155.html">insight into Varadkar’s worldview and politics came in a 2016 interview with Niamh Horan in the Irish Independent:
Does he believe abortion in Ireland is a class issue? [Horan asks.]
“No,” he [Varadkar] laughs. “I don’t know what that question means.”
I explain that a woman who is wealthy and can afford to travel to the UK has greater access to a safe abortion and medical care than a woman who has no access to similar funds.
“No, I don’t think it’s a class issue.”
And perhaps he doesn’t. Perhaps he simply cannot see how differential access to material resources generates advantages for some over others.
Varadkar wants people to be blind to his ethnic and sexual identity, but the most important (willful) blindness here is to the injustices of class inequality.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a Guardian newspaper column about Leo Varadkhar to Eimear McBride. The author was Emer O’Toole. Apologies for the error.]