Varadkar would be an exclusionary Taoiseach

Varadkar offers nothing to those who have been affected most by austerity. And he offers no hope for a more progressive, equal Ireland.

If Leo Varadkar becomes Taoiseach, it might seem to mark a positive step in Irish politics. A young, openly gay man with a name far from the traditional titles encountered in the Irish political arena will be in the top political position in Ireland. In reality, little will change in Ireland’s conservative, centrist political mindset which hinders progressive policies and kowtows to wealthy international corporations.

Possibly, we can expect Varadkar to lead us much further to the right, which will be detrimental to any kind of progress that has been made. There will be steps backwards leading to further inequalities and grievances for those who don’t fit into the “people who get up early in the morning” category.

Varadkar has frequently attacked the have-nots in Ireland in his campaign against welfare “cheats”.  An entire campaign directed at the people who have been worst hit by austerity has rightly led to Varadkar receiving criticism, but it hasn’t cost him the lead in the Fine Gael leadership race.

Instead, Varadkar is leading in the polls. Varadkar’s campaign ties in with his attack on welfare cheats. He wants to be Taoiseach of a country of people “who get up early in the morning”. Not content with simply singling out those on the bottom rung, here Varadkar aims to exclude everyone who doesn’t fall into his narrow conception of a hard-working citizen. Those who challenge the current status quo will be quashed; Varadkar is proposing a ban on striking in “essential” national services.

This narrative is damaging, but it will work. It’s a tired traditional political narrative that fuels the belief that there are dead-weights on our society, free riders, not only greedy but incompetent. The classic narrative that hard work will lead to success and what is preventing your success are the free riders allows the government to escape blame. This type of rhetoric is much further to the right than what has been typical of Irish politics, and indicates a far more right of centre politics taking shape in Ireland.

Not a Taoiseach for everyone

Varadkar says the people he is referring to when he speaks about those who get up, are those with long commutes, those who get up early to work as carers, and parents. What he means, despite these innocuous categories, is that he doesn’t want to be a leader of the poor, the disabled,  or the migrant worker.

He doesn’t want to lead those who can’t necessarily “get up in the morning” in the way he means.  And he has carefully managed to frame this in a way that has timely appeal for the middle class and the elderly, securing a potential long run for Fine Gael if they can swing the next election in the same way.

His statement that “we should not divide our society into one group of people who feel they pay for everything, but qualify for nothing, and another that believes that they’re entitled to everything for free” illustrates his contempt for those who dare to question the narrative of “entitlement.” On the Six One news last Monday, Varadkar expressed his disdain for those involved in the entitlement “culture”, stating that “they’re very often supporters of the far left, that believe that everything should be free.”

Not content with simply scapegoating the poor, Varadkar has been attempting to paint a particular picture of the left wing, presenting them as a radical fringe group who don’t want to “pay into the system,”. This seems ironic as Varadkar is campaigning for lower taxes. This irrational left wing group is “pretty small” but “they’re loud and they are growing”.

This will appeal to those at the top benefiting from Ireland’s low corporate taxes, and those who want to believe that they do. Varadkar argues that the left are entertaining dishonest fantasies by imagining that corporations should actually pay taxes that contribute to our society. They believe that “somehow, Apple or bondholders or somebody else should pay for it, or billionaires who don’t live in this country.” Varadkar characterises such politics as “dishonest”.

At the launch of his taking Fine Gael Forward plans today, he rejected the idea that Fine Gael would work with Sinn Féin in relation to the North. Varadkar is strongly opposed to any such cooperation, and cultivated fear about the growing strength of Sinn Féin polls. ”I think Sinn Féin remains the greatest threat to our democracy and our prosperity as a State.” In advance of any future election, Varadkar is pitting Fine Gael against Sinn Féin, a strategy that is reckless, given the growing uncertainty about the North’s status in the wake of Brexit.

I had the pleasure of hearing Varadkar speak to the Hist last year, where he dodged questions relating to abortion rights in Ireland. Varadkar has a conservative stance on abortion. He has previously questioned why people use the term “foetus” when they should mean baby. While conceding that abortion could be deemed permissible in the context of rape or a threat to the life of the woman, he has said that removing the 8th Amendment would lead to uncertainty.

We are unlikely to see any progress towards a solution to the abortion debate in Ireland if Varadkar comes into, and maintains, leadership in Fine Gael. Despite the outcome of the citizens assembly, it is unlikely Varadkar will give on this issue, particularly if Fine Gael are anticipating an upcoming general election.

Seeing ‘Welfare cheats cheat us all’ emblazoned on buses across Dublin should be a cause of great concern, particularly when our very own current Minister For Social Protection, Leo Varadkar, is responsible. Varadkar is polling strongly to win the campaign for Fine Gael leadership, and if he does we should be wary of his capabilities. He is running a hate campaign targeting the most vulnerable in our society, and he has no regard for the needs of those largely benefiting from welfare, the elderly and the poor.

Varadkar’s plan for a new “social contract” with the Irish people is based on exclusion and reliant on fear. His campaign for Fine Gael leadership should set alarm bells ringing, as it indicates shift further to the right in Ireland. It leaves little space for any progress in developing constructive social policies that assist Ireland’s poor, and will facilitate Fine Gael maintaining conservative control in the Dáil by appealing to voters in Ireland who want to believe it can be blamed on “entitlement culture”.

Alice Whelan

Alice Whelan is a former Comment Editor and Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. She is a Sociology and Political Science graduate.