Ireland’s Gay Taoiseach– A Cause for Celebration?

After a brief leadership contest, Leo Varadkar was, on 2nd June, elected leader of Fine Gael, Ireland’s leading party. Now he has been approved by the assembly and will be sworn in as Taoiseach once his nomination is confirmed by President Higgins. This will make him Ireland’s youngest Prime Minister, the first from an ethnic minority background, and the first who is openly gay.

The son of an Indian immigrant father, and a doctor who came out in 2015, Varadkar is in many ways a welcome addition to the international political scene. Before liberals get too giddy, though, it’s worth remembering that Fine Gael are a centre-right party, and Varadkar has been described as belonging to their ‘Thatcherite’ wing. He’s neoliberal to the bone, having championed austerity and scorned the welfare state (he spearheaded a drive against benefit cheats that one social security inspector dubbed a “hate campaign”). Varadkar has also spoken of outlawing strikes in certain public services, and takes a pro-life stance towards abortion.

As with Emmanuel Macron, then, Varadkar’s ascent should be celebrated with caution. Still, this is a notable moment in a country where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993. In less than 25 years there’s been a remarkable acceleration in LGBTQ rights, demonstrated most notably when 63% of voters chose ‘Yes’ in a referendum on gay marriage (making Ireland the only country in the world where marriage equality was achieved by popular vote).

Varadkar becomes only the fourth openly gay head of government ever, following Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Belgium’s Elio Di Rupo and Luxembourg’s current PM Xavier Bettel (whose husband was recently included in a photo of so-called NATO ‘WAGs’). He’s also a rare example of somebody from an immigrant background leading a society, at a time when in so many other Western countries immigrants are barely even welcome.  

 His policies will prevent Varadkar from ever being the poster child of equality

Regardless of Varadkar’s political beliefs, this inevitably places Ireland at the front of the pack on visible progressiveness – another boon for a country already unusual for its lack of a far-right presence. Furthermore, having a gay Prime Minister across the border highlights just how much Northern Ireland are dragging their heels on equality, being the only part of the UK and Ireland where marriage equality is still outlawed. 

Given all this, the optics of Varadkar’s premiership are positive. Still, optics are far from everything, and it’s encouraging that within Ireland the vast majority of debate centred on his policies and character. Identity may be relevant, but it’s secondary – Varadkar’s sexuality and ethnicity haven’t stopped his supporters from supporting him, and aren't the reason his opponents oppose him. This is as it should be. It’s a prioritising of character over identity that we should remember when evaluating the likes of Theresa May and Sadiq Khan heading into the general election, and which the US might better embody the next time a Hillary or Obama jostles for their support.

His policies will prevent Varadkar from ever being the poster child of equality, but this moment is a milestone nonetheless. And in judging him on his political character, rather than largely irrelevant matters of sexuality, ethnicity, gender or faith, Ireland has set an example to the world. 

Harry Mason

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About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

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