No victory for progress
The new taoiseach is anything but progressive, writes Anne McShane. He opposes abortion and women’s rights
The selection of Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrant, to replace Enda Kenny as the new leader of the ruling Fine Gael party elicited excited headlines in the liberal media. TheGuardian hailed it as “another significant step forward for equality in the country, after 2015’s gay marriage referendum”.1 The BBC proclaimed that Varadkar personified “the liberalisation of a country which was once regarded as one of Europe’s most socially conservative nations ...” He was trumpeted as one of the key figures in the marriage equality referendum in 2015 - which resulted in 62% of the population voting to amend the constitution to allow marriage to be contracted by two persons without distinction as to their sex.2
But Varadkar is no progressive. He is a deeply conservative politician who is simply furthering his ambitions. True, the election of a gay man has symbolic importance. However, rather than a step forward for equality in Ireland, his election is part of attempts to derail the persistent demands for secularism and women’s rights. He has made it clear that he is deeply bound to the traditionalist politics of Fine Gael and the Irish state. Most certainly he wants no rift between church and state. Immediately he will be seeking to guard his party from the controversy around abortion rights - an issue that beyond all others has the potential to cause a major crisis within the theocratic state.
Despite all its efforts to silence them, demands for a woman’s right to an abortion continue. The sops which had been legislated by way of appeasement have been treated with the derision they deserve. It is still the case that there can be no abortion unless a woman’s life is at imminent risk unless it is carried out. This means that virtually no abortions are carried out and women continue to travel or seek illegal backstreet abortions or obtain online pills. In 2016 the United Nations once again condemned the Irish state as “cruel, inhuman and degrading in its treatment of women with non-viable pregnancies”. Enda Kenny set up the Citizens Assembly of 100 people to reflect a “cross-section of the nation” in an attempt to stall the calls for change. The assembly heard submissions from all sides, including medical practitioners, and then - to the horror of its creator - came out firmly in support of abortion rights in a wide range of situations. It has proposed that terminations be allowed up to 12 weeks into the pregnancy for socio-economic reasons and thereafter for health reasons, rape or foetal abnormalities. This has clearly been a major blow to the government, which has since been trying to dig itself out of that particular hole.
Varadkar is primed to assist with this difficult process. He has made it clear that he does not support abortion except in exceptional circumstances of fatal foetal abnormalities (when there is no chance of the foetus surviving) or when the health or life of the woman is at serious risk. He has indicated that the recommendations from the Citizens Assembly are likely to be ditched when the matter comes back before the Dáil. For Varadkar,
… abortion is a matter of sincerely held and different views within society and Fine Gael. It is essential that the debate ahead is conducted in a manner respectful of these different points of view. There will be no three-line whip on this issue.3
Indeed he objects to the controversial word ‘foetus’ being used: “It is yet to be explained to me why people use a medical word to talk about what is a form of human life, if not a person.” At his patronising best, Varadkar, who is a trained GP, is clearly anxious that there be no challenge to the pro-life campaign, which insists on using photographs of full-term babies in its propaganda materials.
As well as the movement for women’s rights, Varadkar will have to deal with the continuing objections to the involvement of the Catholic church in health and education, along with the never-ending exposures of abuses against women in mother-and-baby homes. One such has been over the involvement of the Sisters of Charity nuns in the operation of a new national maternity hospital. The controversy was provoked by the refusal of leading doctors to work within a framework where religion would play any role in their decisions. These objections led to demonstrations and petitions for the exclusion of the nuns.
Arguments also continue to run over the role of the church in schools, with more and more parents objecting to religious education. The debate on the separation of church and state is no longer an abstract one. There is a new generation of Irish people who are not prepared to live under church domination.
It was obvious that something was afoot when it was announced that Varadkar, then minister of health, would be the guest on Miriam O’Callaghan’s Sunday morning radio show. Apparently she was surprised to be interviewing a serving politician, being more used to lining up various worthies of the Irish establishment for our delectation. It was his birthday. O’Callaghan innocently (sic) enquired of him in her usual saccharine manner: “You are 36 today. You are by all accounts very eligible, but you haven’t settled down yet, have you?” There was a little bit of stumbling and radio blushing before Varadkar informed the nation that he was gay. We were then treated to an in-depth account of Leo Varadkar - the man, the son, the partner. But the most important part was Leo, the politician. This was his official bid for the leadership of Fine Gael.
Varadkar seeks to blend what he believes to be his own ‘personal appeal’ with a bid to renew the conservatism of Fine Gael. In his leadership acceptance speech he declared that “prejudice has no hold in this republic”. An absolute lie.
Not only is he is no friend of those seeking equality, but he is an avowed enemy of the poor and unemployed. His most recent initiative to ‘name and shame’ dole cheaters is a disgusting attempt to further oppress the poorest and most desperate of the population. As health minister he was known for his complete lack of empathy with the plight of those stuck in hospital corridors waiting for treatment. He prides himself on not giving in to the unions and has plans to outlaw strikes in some essential services. In all respects Varadkar is as bad, if not worse, than his predecessor.
On a final note, it is instructive to compare his enthusiasm for the marriage equality referendum in 2015 with his negative attitude to same-sex couples in 2010. In a Dáil debate on the civil partnership legislation he argued that it was inappropriate for them to adopt children. He stated:
Every child has the right to a mother and father and, as much as is possible, the state should vindicate that right. That is a much more important right than that of two men or women having a family. That is the principle that should underline our laws regarding children and adoption. I am also uncomfortable about adoption by single people regardless of their sexual orientation. I do not believe I as a single man should adopt a child. The child should go to parents, a mother and father…4
The Irish theocratic state is safe in his hands. Leo Varadkar’s attempt to wrap himself in the colours of the struggle for gay liberation in Ireland is deeply cynical and must be rejected.