Varadkar election signals further shift to the right
30 June 2017
The election of Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader - and his assumption of the role of Taoiseach - has been hailed as a watershed event in Ireland. This perspective - which is particularity prevalent in international media coverage - carries the assumption that identity is the overriding factor in contemporary politics. Within this framework the election of a relatively young gay man of ethnic migrant descent - standing in stark contrast to the profile of leaders that went before - is indeed a seminal event. The other assumption attached to this identity centred perspective is that a person from such a background will have a more liberal approach to politics. However, a consideration the record of Leo Varadkar quickly debunks such assumptions.
Despite his relative youth Varadkar is a long standing member of Fine Gael (he claims to have joined as a 17 year old) - the most conservative party in the state - and has consistently occupied the most right wing positions on a range of issues, including those related to sexuality and race. In 2010 he opposed the Civil Partnership Bill and also raised concerns over the prospect of gay couples adopting children. Though he has shifted to a more liberal stance on this in recent years it has not been as part of broader liberalisation of his views.
His positions on race and migration have been and continue to be draconian. He was a member of Fine Gael in 2004 when it supported an amendment to the constitution that removed the right of Irish citizenship to people born on the island of Ireland. The campaign around the referendum at that time was largely driven by scares around "citizenship tourism" and “anchor babies”. It was no coincidence that citizenship rights only became an issue at a time of migration - even at a very low level - of non-white people into the state. While race was never made explicit by the political class it was certainly the driving force of the campaign.
Varadkar’s most direct intervention on immigration came in 2008 when he suggested that foreign workers be paid to leave Ireland as a means of stemming rising unemployment figures. When challenged on it recently he replied “that was a long time ago, I don’t remember that”. What isn’t a long time ago but ongoing is the harsh treatment of refugees. The most notorious element of this is the regime of direct provision presided over by successive Irish governments - including the most recent in which Varadkar has served as a minister - that is deliberately designed to deter asylum seekers.
He is also thoroughly reactionary when it comes to women’s rights. When speaking in a radio interview he once compared women forced to travel to Britain for an abortion to tourists going to Las Vegas to gamble. Varadkar’s views on abortion were exposed again in an interview with the Irish Independent ahead of 2016 general election. Asked if abortion was a class issue (given that the only way an Irish woman can legally get one is to pay and leave the country), the then Minister for Health laughed and said “I don’t know what that question means.” During the the Fine Gael election campaign he described himself as “pro-life” and pledged to make the party a welcome place for “social conservatives”. In relation to the law he said that he favoured a change that would allow “terminations of pregnancy in certain circumstances” but rejected the modest amendments to Article 8 that had been proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly. Given this position it is likely that any amendments proposed in the forthcoming referendum will be very limited. More importantly there are no proposals to remove religious orders from the running of health facilities. This renders changes to the constitution - no matter how liberal they are - as largely meaningless. The continuation of the state-church relationship exposes the claim of Varadkar that ‘prejudice has no hold on this Republic’ as risible.
While in recent years Varadkar has attempted to blur his views in relation to sexuality his class prejudices remain unadulterated. His disdain for working class and poor people has always been clear.
When Varadkar first came on the scene he was branded a "thrusting Thatcherite" - a tag which he unashamedly embraced. In 2010 the recently elected TD made a speech to the Dublin Economic Workshop in which he claimed that Fine Gael would go even further in terms of cuts and privatisation than the Thatcher government had done in Britain. He voiced his support for the introduction of water charges, a property tax and the privatisation of state assets such as Bord Gais and ESB. Indeed, these were the very policies followed by various Irish government’s over the subsequent years. Of course he was not the originator of these policies - which were held broadly across the political and capitalist class - but he was an enthusiastic supporter and more recently as a minister has had a direct involvement in their implementation.
Varadkar was transport member in the Fine Gael/Labour government that approved the sale of its stake in Aer Lingus to the IAG Group. Under this privatisation deal the company was freed from any legal obligation to honour pension commitments for about 15,000 employees. As health minster he chose to divert a large portion of his department’s ring fenced budget away from mental health services despite the fact that these services were struggling to cope with demand. As minister for social protection he launched the notorious Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All campaign that encouraged people to inform on those they suspected of benefit fraud. Despite €200,000 being spent on this only handful of cases were ever prosecuted. In terms of saving money it was a utter failure but it did perform the function of dividing the working class and demonising people on benefits. In government he has been a been a strong defender of the Troika’s austerity programme contemptuously telling its victims to “take a holiday, it won’t be all bad”.
The anti-welfare theme was the main plank of Varadkar’s leadership platform. At its launch he declared that: “We should not divide our society into one group of people who feel they pay for everything but qualify for nothing and another who believes they are entitled to everything for free and that others should pay for it.” Of course this it exactly what he is doing in statements such as this. He is conjuring up the image of welfare sponger to create a division between those in employment and those on benefits, and to pave the way for a further attack on the welfare state and public services. This obscures the reality of the rapid growth of the working poor and the dependence of many people in employment on benefits. Another element of this so called welfare reform would be the creation of a two tier social security system in which higher earners would draw more out.
The other stand-out policy of Varadkar’s programme was the proposal for recommendations from the Labour Court to be made binding. This would effectively be a ban on strikes. Though Varadkar denied this - claiming that it would only involve workers in essential services - his definition of what constituted essential was so broad as to cover most of the state and semi state sector. Trade union leaders reacted furiously to this suggestion - not because they support strikes but because it threatens their role in the whole bureaucracy of industrial relations. The assumption underlying these complaints was that draconian anti-strike legislation was not requited as trade unions were doing such an effective job in policing the workers and imposing the government and employers agenda. A good example of how they operate was the demobilisation of the recent Bus Eireann strike.
While social partnership has served the Irish political and capitalist class well there is a strand of opinion within it that believes the trade unions are now in such a week position that they can be dispensed with entirely. This is still a minority opinion but that fact that it has found expression within the government means that the prospect of social partnership being brought to an end by the employers side can’t be discounted. Such a scenario would be a nightmare for the current trade union leadership whose existence is utterly dependant on its continuation.
While Varadkar has made much of the newness of his leadership one area where it is completely consistent with what went before is the corruption and cronyism. There has already been a scandal over a judicial appointment. Varadkar has also given his backing to the Garda Commissioner despite the ongoing revelations of malpractice within the police. He would not even be in the position of Taoiseach were it not for the patronage votes of the various Independent TDs that prop up his government. That the vote of Michael Lowry was critical in making making up the 58 required to endorse Varadkar as Taoiseach really highlights the corrupt nature of Irish politics.
Despite the talk of a new centre politics that is neither left nor right the policies pursued by a Varadkar led government will be firmly right wing and thoroughly anti labour. The assault on the living standards Irish workers will continue to come under assault as the Troika programme rolls on. Indeed, the negative consequences of Brexit for Irish capitalism demand that it be intensified.
Within this the identity politics surrounding Varadkar count for very little - age, sexuality and race are all trumped by the class interest. But this also needs to be the case for Irish workers. In order to counter the capitalist offensive they must assert their own class identity and class interest. Central to this is the creation of a labour movement that is free from the shackles of social partnership.
Return to top of page