Ireland’s First Openly Center-Right Taoiseach

by Michael Brendan Dougherty

The results are in as expected in the contest to lead the Fine Gael party in Ireland. Leo Varadkar won it on the support of party councillors and parliamentary party members, defeating Simon Coveney, who won among members. Varadkar is now set to succeed Kenny as Taoiseach, though coalition partners could call an election at any time. 

The big story coming out of it is the one that the Irish Times and the international press love telling about Ireland. Here’s the lede from the New York Times, (which is splashed proudly on the Irish Times website):

A gay son of an Indian immigrant is now all but certain to become the next prime minister of Ireland, a country that has rapidly been leaving its conservative Roman Catholic social traditions behind.

It’s a little more complicated than that. One wag on Twitter joked this morning that Leo Varadkar would be Ireland’s first “openly center-right Taoiseach.”

Varadkar came out as gay during the marriage referendum two years ago. But he is often tagged as a “Tea Party” type conservative in the Irish press. He has suggested in the past that Ireland might consider paying unemployed immigrants to leave the country. He also pledged as a candidate that he would work for the people who “get up early in the morning.” And he’s also said that his party should be a  “warm house for social conservatives, many of whom quietly opposed him. That “warm house” remark is about as close as any elected official has come in a decade to acknowledging the existence of Ireland’s social conservatives as a constituency they might speak for, rather than maneuver around. And this at a time when Ireland’s constitutional prohibition of abortion is under constant media strafing. For his own part, Varadkar thinks the current anti-abortion regime is too restrictive but urges limits in liberalization. You could say he splits the baby on that one. But, perhaps Varadkar’s “warm house” can be a model for a genuinely tolerant social consensus unavailable elsewhere.

Irish politics are difficult to explain to an outsider. The major parties are ideologically amorphous even as Ireland has deep ideological divisions. And yet, you know what side you are on almost instantly. I sat in a hotel bar last year with two social conservatives, one from Fine Gael and one from Fianna Fáil. And though we agreed on everything we were there to discuss, when the Fine Gael man stood up and left, the remaining man and I instantly recognized each other as from the Fianna Fáil tribe. We rolled our eyes incredulously at the FG nonsense sprinkled in to the conversation. Scores of factors of class, style, imagination, and ambition figure into this identification. It sounds crazy to normal people, and it is, but the experience of it is undeniable.

It’s almost precisely the fact that Varadkar is a gay man and the child of an immigrant that allows him to be such an out and proud classical liberal on other questions. Ireland is going to need tough-minded and creative leadership as it prepares for Brexit. It must make its own case for liberal trade arrangements with Britain, a decent solution for what will be a new land border in the European Union, one that runs between the Republic and six counties it used to claim as its own. Good luck to Leo. 

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