Kieran Allen dissects Leo Varadkar’s new-found liberalism
Dressed immaculately, Leo Varadkar recently joined a Repeal canvass in his Dublin West constituency as a plain individual citizen. Yet two years previously he gave a very different response to a journalist in the same constituency. Here is her report:
‘On record, [Varadkar] has already stated he is “pro-life” and does not want abortion-on-demand introduced here. “It would be weird to me if the right to property was there [in the Constitution] and not the right to be alive,” he laughs.’
Just before the marriage referendum, Varadkar came out in an RTE interview as gay and subsequently joined Pride demonstrations in Dublin, Belfast and Toronto. Yet back in 2010 he was a vociferous opponent of marriage equality. Here is what he told Dáil Éireann:
“Men cannot have a child, two women cannot have a child… That is a fact, nobody can deny otherwise. Every child has a right to a mother and father, and as much as possible, the state should try and vindicate that right, and that the right of a child to have a mother and father is much more important than the right of two men, or two women, to have a family.”
Varadkar’s flip-flopping doesn’t end here. Of late, he has been keen to highlight his background as the son of an Indian immigrant, and claims immigration helped America’s greatness. This, despite the fact that he previously suggested “foreign nationals receive up to six months benefit if they agree to repatriate to their country of origin.”
Two Faces of Varadkar
Individuals can, of course, change their minds but Varadkar’s volte-face has been pretty amazing and demands a wider explanation. So why these extraordinary contradictions?
On one level it is simply a story of politicians changing masks, as they invariably do. Varadkar has always been a publicity hound, concerned with catching the public mood. Before becoming Taoiseach, he kept a long list of journalists on his Twitter account and presented himself as a ‘straight talking’ politician. When the public mood became critical of a Garda Commissioner, Varadkar was the first in Fine Gael to jump in to signal a shift in support.
Presenting himself as a new-found liberal can, therefore, be seen as an instrumental way to catch the growing youth vote, but there is more to it than individual opportunism. The re-branding of Leo Varadkar reflects deeper problems facing the two main right-wing parties.
Southern Irish politics was a rock of stability for over eighty years; Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael promoted the same politics for decades, only differing over who got hold of the state’s patronage machine. This was a ‘two and a half’ party system, whereby a pathetic Labour Party took its turn on propping up one or the other big parties.
The crash of 2008 destroyed Fianna Fáil’s dominance and the former ‘spare wheel’ that was Fine Gael became the leading right-wing party. But this victory was marred by an overall decline of the right-wing grip on Irish politics, and the destruction of the two and a half party system.
Ever since the 2011 election, right-wing forces have faced a dilemma. They could either co-opt Sinn Féin into the establishment club as a junior coalition party or they could keep up the pretence of being both the government and the opposition. Varadkar realised that from the point of view of elite maintenance, both options were unsavoury.
Another long term ‘confidence and supply’ agreement between the two main parties risked creating more space for Sinn Féin and the radical left to grow in opposition. Co-opting Sinn Féin also created problems. While their leaders signalled a desire to play a role as junior partners, there is huge antipathy to such an arrangement in the core Fine Gael support base.
Liberal Fine Gael?
Varadkar’s solution was to engage in a bold strategic turn. Fine Gael was to be re-configured as a clear cut neoliberal party that combined social liberalism with economic liberalism.
By breaking from the culture of its rural big farmer base, Varadkar hoped to pull more white collar employees towards his party and garner enough support to rule in a new rainbow coalition that might include the Greens, Social Democrats, Labour and a few independents. He calculated that the rural base of Fine Gael could be appeased by a continual supply of grants and tax reliefs. Moreover, his ongoing attacks on ‘welfare cheats’ would gladden the hearts of right-wingers disappointed by his new found liberalism.
The re-branding exercise has been a bold move. It has been helped by the Dublin 4 media who are ardent advocates of elite liberalism. The head office of the Together for Yes campaign also assisted by continually promoting Varadkar’s minion, Simon Harris.
However, there are also huge contradictions in Varadkar’s project. He has still only won a thin layer of Fine Gael to his re-branded liberalism. Even his own supporters within the party are reluctant to identify strongly with Repeal. A small number of Fine Gael TDs make their way onto Together for Yes canvasses mainly for the photo shoots to testify to their born-again liberalism. But the rest of the party sits in the long grass, waiting to see if Varadkar’s gambit works.
Should the referendum be won—and we expect that it will—Fine Gael’s new found liberalism will come under even more pressure. The first test will be to carry through its promise to legalise abortion up to 12 weeks on request and to allow for other later abortions in the case where women’s health is in danger.
Before the referendum an Irish Times survey of TDs indicated that ‘A large number of Fine Gael TDs—22 out of the party’s 50 Dáil members—are currently undeclared. Nine Fine Gael TDs say they are opposed to the 12-weeks proposal, while 19 have said they support it.’
The narrower the vote, the lesser the willingness of Fine Gael TDs to carry through on their liberalism. The old habits of relying on a rural support base as well as D4 liberalism will re-assert itself.
By contrast, the grassroots movement that has been formed around Repeal will not stop. Emboldened by the timid support from the top of Irish society, many will want to carry through the radical battle for change.
Some will ask why 95% of our primary schools are run by Bishops such as Dermot Farrell, who thinks rape is preferable to abortion. Others will want to know why sex education is delivered by Catholic agencies or why religion classes in schools are compulsory. In other words, the liberal tide that Varadkar is trying to surf, can still engulf a party that relies on older power structures to keep the population obedient.
Cracks in the Hall of Mirrors
More fundamentality, there is a contradiction between economic and social liberalism. Varadkar’s social liberalism will allow the upper strata of Irish society more personal freedom. But his economic policies prevent many more from equal access to these privileges. The recent scandal over cervical cancer screening illustrates this contradiction. Right-wing parties dismantled screening and outsourced it to private companies in the US. Just as abortion was outsourced to hospitals in Liverpool, so too has women’s health been outsourced to Texas.
The reason, according to Mary Harney (the Health minister who took the original decision), was to cut costs by 30%. Since then matters have deteriorated as cuts in the US Medicare budget have led to even more cost reductions by US laboratories. Varadkar, of course, claims that privatisation has nothing to do with the scandal. We have to wait for public inquiries to get the ’full facts’, he insists.
But the ‘full facts’ are already evident in a HSE memo from March 2016. This reveals how audits on cervical screening tests began in 2010, but it was only six years later the HSE noted ‘the process is reaching the stage of communicating individual case reports’. In other words, telling doctors and the women concerned about problems found.
The memo then notes that ‘one of the cytology laboratories has sought legal advice on the right of the programme to communicate audit outcomes’. Again, the private companies that were doing the tests wanted to stop women hearing about false screening tests.
As a result of this pressure and out of concern for their own image, the HSE decided to ‘pause all letters’ and ‘await advice from solicitors’. They did not care if this delay in communications endangered the health of women. Varadkar and Harris’s claim that they knew nothing about all this is simply not credible and they should be forced to resign.
But even if they hang on, the contradictions between an economic programme that privatises women’s healthcare and Fine Gael’s rhetoric about women’s right is already evident.
Cracks are already appearing in Leo Varadkar’s hall of mirrors.