Leo Varadkar’s ascendency and the need for an intersectional lens

An openly gay Prime Minister in Ireland should be a cause for celebration. Lee Williscroft-Ferris looks at Leo Varadkar’s dubious record and suggests otherwise.


LGBTQ+ people struggle more than most to reach the upper echelons of political power. When a group of out LGB (note the deliberate omission of TQ+) MPs and peers posed for a photo outside the Houses of Parliament in February last year, their number totalled 28. The House of Commons and House of Lords comprise 1,450 seats combined. That means that 1.9% of parliamentarians at that time identified as openly LGB, far short of even the most conservative estimates of the general LGB population.

It’s entirely understandable, then, that when an LGBTQ+ politician does attain high office, it is regarded as a major milestone. This week, Leo Varadkar was elected leader of Ireland’s Fine Gael party and is therefore almost certain to become the country’s new Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, later this month. Varadkar follows in the footsteps of Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Belgium’s Elio Di Rupo and Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel as his country’s first out LGBTQ+ head of government. His appointment is made even more significant by virtue of his background as the son of an Indian immigrant and his age – at 38, Varadkar is set to become Ireland’s youngest ever leader.

LGBTQ+ people struggle more than most to reach the upper echelons of political power.

This is undeniably momentous and is indicative of a positive shift in European politics. A young, mixed-race, gay Prime Minister makes that which once seemed unattainable to many that bit less fantastical. We should celebrate that. It is especially significant for a country such as Ireland, where socially conservative forces have historically maintained a stranglehold on the nation’s development – and continue to do so to this very day.

We must, however, be careful not to issue ‘free passes’ to individuals such as Leo Varadkar. The response to his impending investiture on social media has, in some quarters, focussed entirely on his sexuality and the poignancy of the prospect of an openly gay PM in this past bastion of Catholic influence. Examine the situation more carefully, though, and there is perhaps less reason for jubilation.

Beyond Varadkar’s impressive set of ‘firsts’, he is a politician of a very typical centre-right mould. Privately educated and once an intern for a Republican congressman, he is widely viewed as a Thatcherite neoliberal with aspirations of becoming a union-buster and with a previous campaign based on tired dog-whistle platitudes about ‘welfare cheats’. On social issues, while Varadkar became a figurehead for Ireland’s marriage equality referendum, he has a record of opposition to reproductive rights. Despite promising a referendum to legalise abortion ‘in some circumstances’, he stubbornly continues to oppose access to abortion on request and only recently ceased to dispute safe access to termination for rape victims.

A young, mixed-race, gay Prime Minister makes that which once seemed unattainable to many that bit less fantastical.

Of course, the LGBTQ+ community is not, and should not be, politically homogenous. From Ernst Röhm in Nazi Germany to Nikki Sinclaire, trans/lesbian ex-UKIP MEP, we are not immune to the pull of illiberal ideologies. Indeed, LGB people currently occupy high-profile positions in UKIP, Germany’s far-right AfD and France’s Front National. In Varadkar’s case, however, the attempts to place him in a cosy little box alongside Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron belies his socially regressive views and whitewashes the potential harm his tenure might cause.

Ireland is a country still heaving under the weight of the legacy of entrenched clerical and state-sponsored oppression of women in particular. From the Magdalene Laundries to the Tuam babies scandal and the continued refusal to grant basic reproductive rights, we should all be concerned at the appointment of Varadkar as the Taoiseach-designate. In reality, Varadkar has sought to play down his cultural background, age and sexuality in his quest to reach the pinnacle of Irish politics, such is his determination to become part of the political fabric of the country.

We should beware celebrating the rise of a man who espouses the kind of views more often associated with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Iain Duncan Smith and Donald Trump. The LGBTQ+ community truly shines when it takes an intersectional standpoint on the issues of our times. The internal election of a man to the position of party leader and its subsequent ratification by the Irish parliament is not a public endorsement of a gay person at the helm of government. Furthermore, when that gay man personifies many of Ireland’s deep-rooted socio-legal problems, rather than getting out the party poppers, we should be organising around those likely to most adversely affected by the ascendency of a neoliberal social conservative like Varadkar.

The attempts to place him in a cosy little box alongside Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron belies his socially regressive views and whitewashes the potential harm his tenure might cause.

LGBTQ+ people have an intersectional duty to see beyond their own wedding gift list and consider the wider implications of an individual like Varadkar taking the reins across the Irish Sea.

Follow Lee on Twitter (@calamospondylus)

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