New Irish PM Leo Varadkar is a gay, immigrant’s son. So what?!

I have to admit also for my journalistic colleagues around the world that basically every article about Varadkar starts with the fact that varadkar is openly gay, immigrant’s son. But is it somehow important from your point of view, does he represent something new for Ireland, for Ireland politics? Read few comments.

Irish PM Leo Varadkar. Credit: http://www.finegael.ie

Maura Adshead, Associate Professor in Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

During his leadership campaign, I think that progressive people did not mention that he was openly gay – for fear of raising this as an issue with more conservative party members. Conservative people don’t like to talk about homosexuality and perhaps fear being called homophobic. Also, since our referendum in May 2015, which gave resounding approval for marriage equality, there is a feeling that attitudes to homosexuality have been dealt with conclusively and really do not need to be discussed. But also, in Ireland, there has always been a reticence to negatively personalize political campaigns. We operate in a small state and our politicians regularly have to form coalitions – it is just not practical to sling mud, and moreover, it is not the Irish way.

In relation to being Indian /Irish – that never came up in the campaign for leadership at all, until Leo mentioned it in his party hustings debates with Simon Coveney. He mentioned it in the context of wanting Ireland to be a land of opportunity for all who are willing to work (or in Leo’s words ‘for the people who get up in the morning’). This is a bit like Mrs Thatcher boasting that she came from a grocer’s shop in Grantham, and is a common trope with right of centre politicians who wish to demonstrate that individuals who work hard can succeed. After winning the leadership contest, he suggested that if his election had shown anything “it is that prejudice has no hold in this Republic” and went on to say that “Around the world people look to Ireland as a country where it doesn’t matter where you come from, only where you want to go”.

Regardless of being gay or the son of an immigrant father, Leo Varadkar is most well known and recognised in Irish politics for nudging the Fine Gael party a little to the right. His opponent for the leadership of the party was keen to promote the party as centrist and more catch-all party. Leo Varadkar by contrast expressly stated that trying to appeal to everyone was what the Fianna Fail party did. This approach demonstrates two things: first that he is willing to carve out an electoral niche which is centre right – and this is interesting for Irish politics, since it is only since the great recession that we are beginning to see the emergence of a left / right cleavage in Irish politics; and second that he is well-known as a straight talker. In the Irish political commentary, Leo is often referred to as a ‘Maverick’ because he is willing to speak forthrightly and say what he thinks, rather than speaking in riddles and trying to keep everyone happy.

So on balance, when people in Ireland think about Leo Varadkar being gay, or the son of an Indian immigrant, these are only evidence of his primary political identity and modus operandi, that is: ‘this is who I am; take me as you find me; and I tell it the way I see it’. This contrasts very starkly with the more traditional political approach, which is more inclined to follow popular opinion. It is in this respect most of all that Leo Varadkar represents something new in Irish politics.

Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

Leo Varadkar? I will start by sending you an article – On ethnicity, identity and class – by a colleague of mine from University College Dublin, Dr Andy Storey, which I think captures some of the issues about Leo Varadkar.

My own view is that Varadkar’s election is something significant, not because he is gay and very young and the son of an immigrant, but because that has aroused virtually no reaction at all in Ireland. Thirty years ago, a gay, half-Indian person benig elected Taoiseach would have been virtually unthinkable; now, it isn’t at all controversial, and indeed it is almost a case of people saying “so what?”

That’s the very good aspect of Varadkar’s election. But I do agree with Andy Storey’s analysis. Varadkar might be a progressive symbol on some issues, but he is much less progressive on other ones. The policy choices he will make will undoubtedly continue to favour a very narrow set of business interests, while public services in Ireland continue to deteriorate.

So Varadkar shows us that Irish society has changed, and is now one that is more open and tolerant of cultural diversity, and I’m happy with that. But he also represents the “same old” politics, and that is something more at dispute. I would be slightly concerned that the (positive) enthusiasm for him as a gay, half-Indian leader makes people overlook his policy choices, as I would be far more critical of those.

Lisa SmythLecturer in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast

It would appear at first glance that the election of Leo Varadkar, an openly gay politician of Indian-Irish heritage, is an important historic moment for Ireland, a move towards a more egalitarian future. With his election, attitudes to sexuality and ethnicity appear to be liberalizing, as Ireland seeks to presents itself as an equal player in a globalized democratic world. However, his election offers little for the future of gender. Varadkar’s non-committal attitude to reproductive justice should give all those who care about gender equality in Ireland pause for thought.

John O’ Brennan, Senior Lecturer, Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration, National University of Ireland Maynooth NUIM

Varadkar’s ascent has been framed very differently outside Ireland to inside the country. The emphasis on his ethnic background and sexuality rarely -if ever- gets commented on in Ireland. Which is why we have been so bemused etching the global coverage around his appointment. That may be a sign of political maturity or at least of a country that is comfortable with itself. Internationally the image of Ireland still revolves around completely outdated images of a state dominated by the Catholic Church and its ethos. The truth is that the Church is a busted flush in Ireland. Nobody listens anymore. Varadkar’s appointment is the latest demonstration of this, following in from the passing by referendum of the marriage equality act in 2015.

He is a self-described pragmatist and Christian Democrat but he will find it very difficult- if not impossible- to get his policy preferences converted into legislation. This is because he will lead a minority government supported through a “confidence and supply” arrangement by the largest opposition party, Fianna Fáil. This current parliament has produced fewer legislative bills than any in modern times. So unless Mr Varadkar calls an election and manages to increase Fine Gael’s share of the vote substantially (something the latest opinion polls suggest he might) then he will be hamstrung from the beginning of his term in office. Watching what happened to Theresa May last week I doubt he will be tempted into calling such an election. The Brexit talks begin next week and these will occupy the attention  of government in the months ahead as well as the attempt to re-start talks on the Northern Ireland Power-sharing arrangement.

Kenneth McDonaghLecturer in International Relations, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

Dr Varadkar has just been formally elected as Taoiseach (prime minister) and will appoint his cabinet later this evening. In general terms it is historic that Ireland has elected its first openly gay premier and first non-white premier (Leo’s father is from India). However domestically neither of these two issues have really been important. The change in social attitudes to homosexuality over the last 20 years has been stark (it was only decriminalised in 1993) but did occur incrementally. Leo has never been seen as an advocate or champion of gay rights nor has he been involved in the many civil society campaigns on social issues. On his immigrant background, Ireland (perhaps uniquely in Europe) has no organised anti-immigrant party and while racism is an issue in social terms it has never really featured as part of the domestic political debate.

In policy terms, Leo is seen as part of the right wing of his own party both in terms of economic policy and (with the exception of gay rights) on social policy. He is personally anti-choice, although I understand he has made clear he has an open mind on how the ongoing debate around abortion-rights in Ireland will be resolved. I understand his position is that he supports a repeal of the relevant amendment in our constitution but only once a suitable and still quite restrictive replacement has been decided upon.

He will, like his predecessor, lead a minority government with a very precarious hold on power – his coalition can rely on just 57 votes in a 158 seat parliament. There is an additional vote from a former FG member who is outside the party for corruption issues but essentially he governs at the pleasure of the main opposition party. I’d expect no significant policy changes as a result, and even though his own political instincts would be to cut social spending to fund tax reductions he’ll be limited by the opposition in departing too far from current tax and spending policy.

So in short, I don’t expect much change just more of the same in a younger, more articulate and media-savvy package.

David Farrell, Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

His election as Taoiseach does, indeed, represent something new for Ireland, but his election was not due to these personal features: his election is more due to his own innate abilities as a shrewd and intelligent operator.

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