Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is viscerally and divisively right-wing, socially and economically; but hides it behind incoherent and inept policies and a now-suspect nice-guy media persona.
By Michael Smith.
A famous 2010 Après Match sketch has Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar openly admitting he’s plotting to knife his party leader Enda Kenny while gratuitously denying, in a mid-Atlantic nasal twang, that he’s going to set up an elite party which of course suggests he is in fact intending to do just that. A stage-Vincent-Browne with an impossible wig wonders whether he was bitten by a lizard, a snake or an eel. Though the elite party isn’t part of the revealed agenda he’s an exotic and cosmopolitan proposition no doubt; young and attractive, hipsterish, agnostic; a half-Indian, gay, charming and articulate doctor; a star-turn on the international stage.
Over the last decade the satirist Oliver Callan has characterised Varadkar as an image-fetishising, gym-obsessed hipster, increasingly cold to the downsides of his austere policies, the Teesh in a cabal of unpleasant elitists. The Varadkar who presented at the first leaders’ debate on 22 January had clearly been briefed to project an image of humility, emotion and modesty.
Two and a half years into his premiership, scrutiny, the pressure of office and the relentless exposure of the policies and failures of his party are undermining his nice-guy credentials as his empathy becomes an election issue. And, as Village has always wondered, is there any beef?
Varadkar is young and attractive, hipsterish, agnostic: a half-Indian, gay, charming and articulate doctor’
Varadkar was born in Dublin in 1979. the youngest of three and the only son of Ashtok and Miriam Varadkar. His Mumbai-born father had moved to England as a doctor in the 1960s. Miriam comes from a Fianna Fáil family; Ashtok considered himself a socialist and voted Labour. His Dungarvan-born mother met her husband while working as a nurse in Slough. Later they lived in Leicester and India, returning to Dublin in 1973.
Leo, it seems, was the perfect son. His mother has said: “He was too good to be true, actually. Everyone adored him. He was adorable, a gorgeous baby and then he went into Fine Gael. And that’s it. He never said it. We just found out”. So little Leo wasn’t born a Fine Gaeler. But he soon made up for lost time.
Varadkar was brought up Catholic and educated at the St Francis Xavier National School in his home of Blanchardstown before attending the liberalising fee-paying Church of Ireland King’s Hospital School in Palmerstown, where his classmates included the future excitable-presenter Kathryn Thomas. He obtained a wagon-load of points in his Leaving Cert. It was during his secondary schooling, debating and all that, that he joined Fine Gael.
After an abortive few weeks in the Law faculty, he got a points-upgrade and studied Medicine at Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 2003. He spent several years as a junior doctor in Connolly Hospital before qualifying as a general practitioner in 2010. He often worked 36-hour shifts as a doctor, missing a night’s sleep; but rather than finding it stressful, he has said: “I quite liked the buzz of being busy”. Nevertheless, in 2016, he declined an invitation by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) to work a 12-hour shift alongside them in an A&E because “they never formally asked”.
Around this time Varadkar was singled out for greatness by the Washington Ireland Program, which prepares ambitious young people for future leadership roles. Party grandee Nora Owen recalls him as overweight and Thatcherite around this time when he came to her attention.
In 2004 the tyro’s ambition began to find expression as he was co-opted to Fingal County Council, serving as deputy mayor. Varadkar was first actually elected to Fingal County Council later on in 2004, drawing 4,894 votes, the highest in the State; there was a niche in Fingal for at least one meaty Thatcherite. He won a Dáil seat in 2007 and was immediately elevated by Enda Kenny to frontbench Spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, remaining in this position until a 2010 reshuffle when he became Spokesperson on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
When Kenny led Fine Gael into Government with Labour, Varadkar served as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, from 2011 to 2014. He presided over ‘The Gathering’: the largest and most successful tourism initiative ever held in Ireland though one that left little in the way of a long-term imprint. He took the decision to link Dublin’s two independent Luas lines, opened up more bus routes to competition, restarted development at the National Sport Campus, and gave independence to Shannon Airport. He also developed a new Road Safety Strategy and a National Ports Policy. These are petty enough achievements for a three-year Ministry.
He was already burnishing his lack of interest in the environment and did little to implement Noel Dempsey’s typically progressive ‘Smarter Travel – a Sustainable Transport Future’. He obtained government funding for its commitment to the €550m 57km public-private partnership of the egregiously over-scaled Gort-Tuam motorway while cancelling the necessary Dart Underground and Metro North underground plans, and again deferring Metro West, in Dublin.
’ These are petty enough achievements for a three-year Ministry’
He was then promoted to Minister for Health (2014-16) where he secured a controversial €1bn increase in the health budget, introduced free un-means-tested GP care for all children under six and seniors over 70, in what were iniquitous policy lurches. He published Ireland’s first ever National Maternity Strategy and secured funding and planning permission for the shifted National Children’s Hospital. He also introduced innovative public health legislation to regulate alcohol pricing and marketing and sought a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks.
Health is never an easy gig but he did not do anything dramatic beyond disposing of his party’s clearest policy – the promise to create a universal health care system, to move away from the invidious “two-tier” health system. Remarkably, he never had to explain what he was replacing it with. It’s not evident he even thought that the particular principle, or indeed having a principle, was of any significance. The issue is only now being addressed under the fangled ‘Sláintecare’, though with a long horizon.
The HSE too, in accordance with policy, was supposed to be abolished by 2020, though beyond a “healthcare commissioning agency” it was not clear by what it would be replaced. This did not happen, anyway, and it remains very much with us, a blotch of redundancy for a regime that fancies it is business-like. Some months ago, Minister Simon Harris announced it is to become a strategy and standards body supplemented by six regional health boards, not unlike those that predated the HSE’s establishment.
Varadkar also seems to have had little problem with the entitlements of professionals and, as Minister, announced the restoration of €12,000 for consultants who backed the Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road agreements. Of course, the indulgence of the entitled elite really re-emerged when complacency set in about the economy a few years later. In late 2019 Health Minister Simon Harris proposed that hospital consultants be offered a salary of up to €252,150, a significant increase on the rates currently applying to post-2012 consultants, under a new public-only consultant contract which prohibits private practice either on or off-site. It seems reasonable to construe such initiatives, promoted under his leadership, as consonant with Varadkar’s vision.
By any gauge Varadkar’s tenure delivered little policy progress in a sector crying out for coherence, efficiency and fairness. As Taoiseach he never grappled with the incoherence of his own legacy, adding the footling incompetence of Harris to his own.
Ultimately, Fine Gael has kicked for touch with the welcome comprehensive cross-party initiative, Sláintecare, whose implementation is projected to take up this full decade.
By any gauge Varadkar’s tenure in Health delivered little policy progress in a sector crying out for coherence, efficiency and fairness.
For a year from 2016 he was Minister for Social Protection during a time of sinking unemployment and after a succession of controversial reforms by former Labour leader, Joan Burton. Key priorities for his Department included activation, so that more people on welfare were assisted to move into the workforce or education. He instigated reforms of local activation programmes like Community Employment, TÚS and Gateway to reflect improvements in the labour market, and to place a greater focus on social inclusion and on those who find it hardest to secure and hold down a job. He scrapped controversial work-experience programme JobBridge ‘internships’, which had embraced companies like Tesco and some creches, but – again – never replaced it. In the end it was replaced under new Ministers by First Steps and then YESS which paid participants more, were limited to 18-24-year olds and less coercive than JobBridge with the employer limited to voluntary bodies.
He promoted the availability of social insurance to the – early-rising, of course – self-employed and a move towards a more European social insurance system with greater benefits for contributors. He provided for paternity benefit and better dental and optical benefits for everyone. He marginally improved the financial support provided to pensioners, carers, and people with disabilities. Tough-guy Varadkar said he wanted to change the law that allows EU citizens living in Ireland to claim child benefits here for children living abroad. But EEC Regulation 883/04 prohibits such a change and the nasty shape-throwing again came to nothing.
His highest-profile initiative came in April 2017, when Varadkar launched the ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’ advertising and online campaign allegedly costing the taxpayer €204,000. It aimed to encourage the reporting of suspected fraud to the Department of Social Protection anonymously.
The Department of Social Protection claimed that it had achieved overall savings of €506 million in 2016 as a result of ‘control and anti-fraud measures.’ However, this was based on an assumption that money saved by the measures would have otherwise continued to be paid out into the future. The real figure for 2016, according to Department officials, was €41m, but it had decided to apply an inexplicable multiplier.
Sinn Féin spokesperson for Social Protection John Brady gave context to the dogwhistle initiative: “Between 2007 and 2011, 50% of all overpayments were due to error while 38% of overpayments were due to fraud”.
Varadkar claimed at the time: “Arguing about the exact amount, the difference between control, fraud and error misses one undeniable fact – millions is [sic] defrauded from the taxpayer through the social welfare system. It’s a crime and cracking down on it frees up much needed resources to expand entitlements or return to taxpayers”.
Later in 2017, answering questions at the Oireachtas Public Account Committee, the Department’s Secretary General, John McKeon, said putting the words welfare and cheats together had been a mistake and that the department had learnt lessons from it. There was little sign by-then man of destiny Varadkar had.
The biggest threat to any legacy young Varadkar might leave is the undeniable truth that he has dashed from ministry to ministry leaving little or no policy imprint of substance. There simply have been no signature Varadkar policies. It’s a pity: he looks and sounds like he should be such a dynamic force. His legacy as Taoiseach is obviously a work in progress.
‘The undeniable truth is that as Taoiseach and from ministry to ministry he left little or no policy imprint of substance, and a whiff of nastiness’
‘ There are simply no Varadkar signature policies. It’s a pity: he LOOKS AND SOUNDS like he should be such a dynamic force’
Varadkar definitely seems to have a good temperament and there is nothing wrong with his intellect. He combines a dollop of gravitas, highlighted by the usually incisive impressionist Olive Callan who contrasts Varadkar’s gravelly adroitness with Simon Coveney’s alleged squeaky effeteness, though it masks an evident and self-declared shyness which sometimes translates to personal awkwardness. Unlike his predecessor he is better in front of a camera or a crowd.
Varadkar is a media darling – the late Marian Finucane was a particular devotee – because of his articulacy, colourfulness and a sulphuric streak of truth-speaking independence as when he brought down the house of cards on Garda Commisioner Callinan, by describing Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe as distinguished when Callinan had called him disgraceful. This contrived, and welcome, disloyalty also ultimately and predictably redounded on the widely-disliked Justice Minister Alan Shatter who resigned precipitately, only to be rehabilitated, too late, by a public inquiry.
Straight-talking is a feature of much of his approach. As far back as his maiden speech as a TD he slagged off Bertie Ahern for being dishonest. “History will judge the Taoiseach as being both devious and cunning, in the words of his mentor, master and, clearly, role model”. His speech managed to get under the then Taoiseach’s skin and provoked this deliciously shifty response: “When you hear a new deputy who isn’t a wet day in the place not alone castigating me, but castigating Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, I wish him well. I’d say he’d get an early exit”.
The Wilson-era UK Labour politician Denis Healey said that a politician should be judged by the richness of their passions, their “hinterland”. Varadkar definitely has some hinterland though it is not a cerebral one. He apparently likes to travel, attend concerts and festivals and go to the cinema and theatre. He likes watching rugby and Gaelic football, is a Dublin and Leinster fan and a fitness and running enthusiast in which capacity he allows himself from time to time to be photographed. Photos of the Taoiseach and his beefy partner, Matt, taking the plunge at Dublin’s forty foot stirred many a hangover this Christmas day.
Embarrassingly for his handlers the Teesh is less fit than he should be, and certainly than Matt. He was left red-faced last year when a test he took on RTÉ’s ineffable ‘Operation Transformation’ hosted by his vacant schoolmate gave him a metabolic age 13 years older than his actual age.
He doesn’t intend to remain in politics past 50: “I would like to travel… I have never lived outside of Ireland. I certainly see myself doing volunteer work… maybe something in the World Health Organisation”.
Unfortunately, his personality is no longer an unadulterated bonus for his party. His approval rating is a workaday 34%, according to the latest Irish Times poll. He has made torturous mistakes, some of which seem symptomatic.
His lizardly deference to Donald Trump crescendoed in 2017 during a lunch on Capitol Hill in front of the predatory President and members of Congress. He recalled that some years earlier Mr Trump raised the issue of his recent golf resort purchase in Doonbeg, Co Clare, and his concerns about windfarms that were to be built in the area.
Varadkar said he and the president “actually had been in contact before he was president and I was Taoiseach”. Trump rang Clare County Council. “I endeavoured to do what I could do about it. I rang the county council and inquired about the planning permission and subsequently the planning permission was declined and the wind farm was never built, thus the landscape had been preserved”, the Taoiseach went on. “And the president has very kindly given me credit for that, although I do think it probably would have been refused anyway but I’m very happy to take credit for it, if the president is going to offer it to me”. It was not just that the intervention was dubious and the County Council had no record of it, but that Varadkar was airing the affair gratuitously, to the world’s press. To impress it.
Equally toe-curling was his first outing in Downing Street when he declared it was a “thrill” to be in the location for Christmas-movie staple ‘Love Actually’.
‘Fine Gael stands above all for property rights; it stands for sniffy intolerance of those economically and socially inferior to the party’s – now often youthful and cosmopolitan – hegemons: for those who get up early’
And closer scrutiny suggests in fact that his cultural understanding never seems to rise beyond the predilections of an adolescent. Not for our Taoiseach the ballet, the opera, Wittgenstein or Beckett. In October in the Dáil he touted Danish artist Erik Pevarnan; “Erik Pevarnannaaarrghee; I don’t know how that’s pronounced”, he opened, lost. “You should ask whoever wrote your speech,” chortled Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.
The Taoiseach is alive to his on-the-town side. He staged his fortieth birthday in the fashionably miserable Hacienda club in the rundown markets area of Dublin. Sometimes it’s a little hard to take. A hip 2017 backstage appearance, with half his cabinet, at a gig by American rock band LCD Soundsystem backfired when the band’s guitarist Al Doyle took to Twitter to brand him a ‘tosser’ after a brief interaction between the two in the Olympia Theatre. “Irish PM Leo Varadkar came backstage. Wore a ‘repeal’ tote bag around my neck in front of him; he walked away. Tosser,” he wrote disrespectfully. More interesting still was Varadkar’s abject failure to defend his repeal politics or even his dignity which tended to prove the point: “One or two of the band members wanted to share their view with me on the Eighth Amendment. I had no problem at all with that”.
In May 2019 he attended a Croke Park Concert by the Spice Girls and Cher, and in 2018 he despatched a letter to diminutive pop diva, Kylie Minogue, signed “Leo V Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister)” on government notepaper before her planned concert at Dublin’s 3Arena.
“Dear Kylie”, the Taoiseach wrote, officially. “Just wanted to drop you a short note in advance of the concert in Dublin. I am really looking forward to it. Am a huge fan! I understand you are staying in the Merrion Hotel which is just across the street from my office in Government Buildings. If you like, I’d love to welcome you to Ireland personally”. Later government efforts to deny journalistic access to the letter failed.
And closer scrutiny suggests in fact that his cultural understanding never seems to rise beyond the predilections of an adolescent
Varadkar and FF
When the 2016 election produced no obvious path to a majority government Fianna Fáil, with a smaller haul of votes and a reputation for the hungry pursuit of power to attenuate, entered an agreement to support its age-old enemy. For the big parties this at least avoided the coalescence that might have exposed to the electorate the infinitesimality of the differences between the civil-war parties, and opened up a clear front of opposition.
Varadkar is not well-disposed to Fianna Fáil. The sort of contempt manifest in his early jack-hammering of Bertie Ahern plays badly with Fianna Fáil whose antagonism to him has never really relented. He has rarely given Micheál Martin credit for his patient and humiliating support forced upon him by the 2016 Confidence and Supply Agreement. Then again Varadkar spreads his disdain widely. Shortly after creasing Bertie he attacked Garret FitzGerald, for trebling the national debt and effectively destroying the country. According to former Fianna Fáil minister Conor Lehihan, “his hostility to the soldiers of destiny was very evident to the FF negotiators at Trinity College in the post-election discussions” in 2016.
Varadkar exudes the typical Fine Gael sniffiness about the class and probity of its more successful cousin. He once said:
“The big difference, and the reason I joined Fine Gael, is values. There’s really two things that make the parties very different. The first thing is that Fine Gael is the party that likes to tell the truth. It’s the party that will tell people the truth even when they don’t want to hear it. We did that with things like benchmarking, the wage agreement, decentralisation, neutrality, all that kind of stuff, whereas Fianna Fáil is the party that’s naturally inclined to find a white lie, or a formula of words, that’ll keep everyone on board. So, if there is a problem, we try and fix it, whereas they try and buy it out. Unfortunately, that means that we usually end up in opposition because the other way is the more naturally Irish way of doing things”.
Of course, as Taoiseach Varadkar has done his bit to upend the natural order of Fine Gael’s gentlemanly oppositionalism. Meanwhile, worryingly, Micheál Martin, has done his bit to upend – at least the perception of – the natural order of Fianna Fáil’s venal grubby husbanding of power.
The big difference, and the reason I joined Fine Gael, is values
Varadkar and Fine Gael
Varadkar threw in his lot with Richard Bruton’s push to remove Kenny before the 2011 election, though the initiative was extirpated by Phil Hogan and Frank Flannery.
His thinking on his party leader was evident in two comments he made to a 2016 Pat Leahy documentary on Enda Kenny: he confessed to finding his optimism “irritating” and admitted that he had no idea what makes him tick. He tempered his irritation and, in the end, a smooth passage of power ensued. Gavan Reilly’s book, ‘Enda the Road,’ which describes Kenny’s final days as Taoiseach, reveals how he and his inner circle were extremely wary of the ‘young buck’ Varadkar and his clear manoeuvrings to succeed him.
Perhaps because he lacks pedigree and perhaps because Fine Gael constituency members tend to be ageing and conservative about sexuality, in the 2017 convention Varadkar lost the vote of the grassroots members comprehensively.
The final count of all three party electoral colleges saw him win with 60% to Coveney’s 40%. The electoral college breakdown was: Parliamentary party: 70:30; Local public representatives: 55:45; Membership: 65:35.
In 2015 Varadkar was praised widely for the manner in which he declared that he was gay. Perhaps in part following injudicious commentary in this magazine he went on Miriam O’Callaghan’s radio show to out himself and silence the prurient.
His father did not know his son was going to do this and said he was “shocked” by his son’s very public revelation. “Whether his sisters knew or not I’m not sure – they may have (had) some inkling but I didn’t”, he said. “But I know it’s not uncommon to be gay so I’ve supported him fully. As long as he’s happy – that’s the main thing as far as we are concerned”.
It must have been difficult but he was, himself, a model of dignity. He told a highly receptive O’Callaghan: “It’s not something that defines me. I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am”.
He was celebrated for this controlled dignified honesty and played a role in the subsequent success of the gay-marriage campaign.
Inevitably there was something of a backlash and The Sunday Independent insisted that Varadkar’s sexuality had to be an issue, when clearly it should not be. Independent Newspapers pointedly printed a number of pictures of Varadkar’s leadership rival Simon Coveney with his wife, juxtaposed with pictures of wifeless Varadkar but like almost everyone else they seem now to have moved on.
Varadkar has not suffered significant abuse, either before or after becoming Taoiseach. In January he accepted an apology from lightweight Sinn Féin councillor Paddy Holohan who had said that a “family man” should run the country and questioned the Fine Gael leader’s connectedness with Ireland because of his Indian heritage.
Varadkar told the Irish Times in December: “If you’re mixed race and if you’re a person of colour you do experience a degree of racism and discrimination. If you’re a gay man or a gay woman you do experience a degree of homophobia. It’s just the way it is”. However, he says, “I’ve never been somebody who goes on about it. I’ve a good life. I’ve done well. I’ve very little to complain about, much less so than other people”.
He has been presumed liberal on social matters but it is not clear if this is true.
On homosexuality he told Hot Press in 2010, “Obviously the Bible has severe statements on homosexual sex, but I don’t think it’s morally wrong.”
On gay marriage – before the promise of a referendum – he conservatively stated: “Marriage in our Constitution is very clear that it’s a man marrying a woman, largely with a view to having a natural family, and if they are unable to do that, obviously then they can adopt. And I would be of the view that it doesn’t have to be the case for everyone, but that the preferable construct in a society is the traditional family, and the State through its laws should protect that and promote that. And that doesn’t mean to say that other people can’t have a different form of relationship, or different choices in their lives, and lots of people do, and that’s fine. But I don’t think that the government should be neutral on that, and that the best thing for – and this would be backed up by evidence – that the best thing for children is to be brought up by their father and their mother, a man and a woman, in a stable relationship underwritten by marriage. And I think the State should support that”.
In 2010 he told the Dáil: “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”.
Not so forward-thinking, then, perhaps.
He has said he is “pro-life” and against abortion on demand: “I think from a human rights point of view I wouldn’t be in favour of legalising abortion in Ireland. But I certainly don’t condemn people who have abortions. I can’t imagine it’s an easy decision anyone makes”.
In 2016 he told the Sunday Independent’s Niamh Horan, “It would be weird to me if the right to property was there [in the Constitution] and not the right to be alive”.
Since Varadkar supported the Repeal the Eighth referendum which liberalised abortion it is clear he had bandwagonned to the fashionable view.
Although clearly, he left the burden of fighting for liberal social rights to others perhaps, it is only fair to acknowledge the difficulties for a gay man championing these issues in a conservative party and in a once homophobic society. Still, his unreconstructed perspective sheds light on his underlying empathy quotient; and his leadership qualities.
He is certainly not a religious zealot. He has said “I’m not a religious person. I might go to mass maybe at Christmas, but yeah, I’m not a confessional person. I don’t necessarily believe it all”. He got into trouble, and inevitably apologised, last year for describing angelic Micheál Martin as a “sinning priest”.
He smoked cannabis “a bit in my college years, yeah. But I wouldn’t be advocating that anybody else do the same – particularly being more aware now of the evidence linking cannabis smoking to schizophrenia”.
On drugs he believes “you need to have some sort of rational basis on which you decide which substances are legal and which ones aren’t, and which ones you allow people to use, and under what circumstances. I don’t think you can have a situation where you allow people to sell drugs and try and pass them off as bath salts or plant food”.
Nor is he particularly animated by the plight of immigrants. In 2008 he proposed that Ireland should pay foreign immigrants a lump sum of up to six months’ worth of unemployment benefit to return to their home country. “We had 200, 000 people, maybe more, came to the country from Poland, from Lithuania, from other countries, often to work in our economy, but also fuelling our economy at a time when it shouldn’t have been fuelled. And we weren’t prepared for that. We hadn’t organised ourselves for it economically; we hadn’t organised ourselves for it in terms of schools. I don’t know if anyone can turn that into a racist statement, they can try their best! But it just happens to be the truth”. A clear dogwhistle to the base.
In November 2019 he said it should not be controversial to speak out against illegal immigration. He had been criticised after he said that Georgian and Albanian migrants travelling to Ireland with fake documents are behind a rise in asylum seekers coming here.
He has defended the Direct Provision system and said the Government has not yet come up with a better system, but also said it is open to finding alternative solutions that are viable and affordable.
More recently still he failed to move swiftly to remove by-election candidate Verona Murphy, who made extravagantly disparaging comments about immigrants. He did remove her in the end, but by then she had polluted the discourse and the reputation of her party.
In 2008 he proposed that Ireland should pay foreign immigrants a lump sum of up to six months’ worth of unemployment benefit to return to their home country.
Varadkar’s economic surefootedness is not beyond reproach. In May 2011, he suggested Ireland might need a second EU-IMF bailout, causing jitters in international markets. Enda Kenny felt compelled to complain that he had warned all ministers against making negative public remarks about the economy.
Economically, Varadkar is a Thatcherite. When seeking election as Fine Gael leader in 2017, his pitch to the reactionary Fine Gael cumainn centred on cutting the taxes that obsess them. He started a 2017 Irish Independent article: “Taxes should be low, simple and fair. In Ireland, this principle is broadly accepted when it comes to taxing corporate profits, but not when it comes to personal taxation. Why is that?”.
Varadkar’s economics might be understandable in a high-tax country. But in fact, we have poor services and pay low taxes. According to Eurostat, Ireland had the lowest tax revenues as a percentage of (admittedly inflated) GDP of 30 European countries in 2018 at just 23 per cent (France’s is 48.4%).
We know what sparked Varadkar into declaring for Fine Gael. But the quest for and accrual of power have mitigated his right-wing ardour. Varadkar is well to the right of the prevailing centre in Ireland but he has stopped declaring it so often. There is evidence he has mitigated his tax-reduction zeal since becoming Taoiseach – even admitting we are a low-tax country.
Fine Gael has been criticised for breaking its 2016 promise to scrap the Universal Social Charge for its target ‘squeezed middle’. Nevertheless, for General Election 2020 Fine Gael is promising a tax-cut package that will leave some middle-income earners just under €3,000 better off after five years. Around half of all households in Ireland would benefit from a proposal to raise the threshold at which the higher rate of income tax is paid from €35,300 to €50,000 over five years, according to a briefing document prepared for Fine Gael in recent days. The ESRI considers such changes would move Ireland from being the EU’s thirteenth most unequal to being its tenth most unequal.
A person who earns around €50,000 would be just under €3,000 better off after five years, it is claimed. A “fair tax plan” will be detailed in the Fine Gael manifesto to be published next week with the income-tax reductions costing €2.4bn over five years.
Varadkar first pledged to raise the higher-rate threshold at the Fine Gael ard fheis in 2018. Its introduction was postponed amid fears over a hard Brexit. He was at the same game before budget 2020 when he claimed the government was looking at tax cuts, before his cabinet shut him down.
When he was honest about it Varadkar’s economic agenda was neo-liberal. The strictures of electoral reward have softened it and official Fine Gael policy is an anodyne twist to the right of centre but a long run in government might well be expected to facilitate a hubristic return to form. There is no evidence the ideology and the instinct for tax cuts over spending increases have been replaced.
The ESRI considers Fine Gael’s proposed tax changes would move Ireland from being the EU’s thirteenth most unequal to being its tenth most unequal.
Varadkar pulled defeat from the jaws of victory when, in the supposed interest of avoiding a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, he made himself a go-between between the fatuous new British PM, Boris Johnson and the recalcitrant EU Commission to promote the scrapping of Theresa May’s soft Brexit and its replacement with one that he and his entourage have almost always made clear would be fast and hard. Varadkar seems oblivious to the dangers of the UK trading into Ireland having undercut it because of the economies of reduced social and environmental standards. An inept press has let him away with this.
The National Question
Varadkar is not imbued with a civil-war ethos and his attitude to a united Ireland is not tribal – indeed his line is close to the traditional Fianna Fáil one except that it seems rooted in culture and economics: “People who you might describe as moderate nationalists or moderate Catholics”, he says, “who were more or less happy with the status quo, will look more towards a united Ireland . . . I think increasingly you’ll see liberal Protestants, liberal unionists, starting to ask the question as to where they feel more at home”.
There is no evidence Varadkar ‘gets’ the environmental agenda. He seems to have an economics-driven worldview and his party is at-bottom driven by property rights to the detriment of any public-interest perspective on planning and the environment.
He has accepted that Ireland is a climate “laggard,” but done little to move it from its position as the most delinquent country in Europe in terms of compliance with the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, according to the Climate Change Performance Index 2019.
He recently shed some light on his thinking when he touted some of the upsides of climate change to be weighed in the balance against the positives, suggesting he is incapable of dealing with existential or pessimism-inducing issues.
He is also wedded to the agricultural vote and its associated degradations and emissions. He rowed back fast from the image he nearly created for himself as someone who would on occasion avoid a burger. He has unreconstructed views on transport; he and his party have not divorced themselves from a love affair with the automobile. There is rarely an over-priced by-pass that Varadkar will not endorse: he is enthusiastic about the €1bn Limerick to Cork motorway, the budget for which would fund a nationwide network of cycle routes. Sometimes his antagonism to the environment appears visceral. When Green Party leader Eamon Ryan slated Fine Gael’s climate policies as shameful in the Dáil last year, Varadkar said Ryan’s passion was ridiculous. Since then electoral mathematics have wiped away his sneer.
There is no evidence Varadkar ‘gets’ the environmental agenda. He seems to have an economics-driven worldview and his party is at-bottom driven by property rights
His politics: right-wing and nasty, tempered by populist blandness
So against that background, what does Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach, stand for at election 2020?
Nora Owen whose appeal is otherwise limited but who seems to know a lot about Fine Gael, of which she was once deputy leader, including perhaps what it represents, says Leo Varadkar came to her constituency as a 17-year-old and that “he was appallingly right-wing and very aggressive”. It is easy to imagine him as the caricature of a Tory. Lucinda Creighton has said she wasn’t exactly enamoured of him when she first met him around that time: “I felt he was a bit obnoxious”, she has said.
Campaigning for leadership of his party he claimed: “I’m not sure what values Minister Coveney is putting across. The only value seems to be that we should try to be kind to everyone. And that’s not what I mean by political values. When I talk about political values I mean the things that actually are Fine Gael’s political values – like equality of opportunity, and like enterprise and reward. These aren’t things I’ve invented; these are in our Constitution”. He added other values but for him these were incontrovertible, prime and pre-eminent.
Hot Press asked him if he was a right-winger? “Yeah”, was his surprising, and much-forgotten, reply. “Centre-right, anyway. In Ireland that’s a difficult term to use. I think most countries understanding of things is a bit better, but in Ireland left-wing means you’re a good person, right-wing means you’re a bad person, which is a very unsophisticated way of interpreting politics.
To be somebody who is right of centre is somebody who has broadly liberal-conservative/Christian-democrat ideals, and the basic principles of that is that before you can distribute wealth you have to create it. So the first thing that you need to do is set up an environment in which wealth can be created, and then it’s the role of the government to distribute it reasonably equitably. Whereas if you’re on the left you start the other way. Ireland is a country where the vast majority of people have a centre-right mindset and vote that way, but yet they can’t say that, because ‘right’ is a bad word. So they kind of delude themselves into being left-wing”.
Varadkar peremptorily dismissed Labour Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin’s early 2016 jibe that he was becoming a “social democrat”. Instead, he saw himself as “either centre right or a higher class of liberal… somebody who believes in personal freedom, someone who believes in a political economy and in a free market as the best way to create wealth”.
Delivering an oration at the Collins/Griffith Commemoration in 2017 we got an insight into Varadkar’s thinking: “Collins recognised that ‘the essence of our struggle was to secure freedom to order our own life. And that is the vision that should be at the heart of our thinking in the 21st century. We need to advance and expand the recovering economy so that more people are free to order their own life”.
Nothing in that quotation would separate him from Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, in the past he has not blanched at invoking that architect of British social division’s name. He shares her predilection for gratuitous divisiveness. A speech he gave to the Kenmare economists conference in 2010 has been forgotten but is instructive: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had never saved more than £2 for every extra £1 raised through new taxes, he noted. “In many ways three to one might be what the election will be about”.
“All parties accepted that the fiscal deficit had to be reduced so the next election will be fought over how much of the deficit should be erased by spending cuts and how much should be erased through tax increases”, he predicted.
Fine Gael, which is currently drawing up a list of 100 ideas to reform the public sector, will be adopting many more ideas from the Bord Snip Nua report drawn up by Colm McCarthy last year than previously envisaged”, Varadkar said, gratuitously.
The party also wanted “to create a single agency to inspect businesses and a single agency to determine means testing”. Other ideas included “the sale of Bord Gáis Energy and ESB Customer Supply although the party is also considering the merits of selling the entire ESB in an initial public offering…FG also wants to create an independent water utility to remove responsibility for water provision from local councils. Fine Gael would honour the Croke Park agreement if civil servants made real changes in 2011 but would revoke the agreement if they didn’t”, he said.
Varadkar was – is – a young man, and Ireland’s policies have had a fluctuating canvas for the last decade. Nevertheless, more recent comments are no less bullish.
Writing in the Sunday Independent in February 2017 he asserted: “Around the world we are witnessing a new choice between those who want to go back to the ideologies of the past like nationalism, protectionism, equality of outcome and greater State control, and those who advocate the ideology of the future: liberalism, globalism, equality of opportunity, enterprise and greater personal liberty and responsibility”.
The language of division is central to his platform. He went on: “We are strong believers in the contributory principle. We don’t want a society divided into those who pay for everything and get nothing in return because they fall on the wrong side of a means-test, and those who believe they should be entitled to everything for free, paid for by someone else. We believe everyone should pay into the system and everyone should benefit”.
And the emotional focus of his article was divisive: “Fine Gael is for the Ireland that gets up early, the taxpayer, citizens who obey the law and are ambitious for themselves, their children and their communities. We represent people who don’t expect the Government to do everything for them, but who do expect the Government to help them or get out of the way”.
As was its climax: “I believe Fine Gael should also be guided by our root values: equality of opportunity, enterprise, reward, security, globalism and personal liberty. These values will lead Ireland to the next phase of our development as a nation”.
In the context we may read the enthusiasm for equality of opportunity as an indicator of passion for freedom over substantive equality. The theme of getting up early seemed to chime well for him, so much that he has reiterated it constantly to the point where it has become his own, fracturing, little mantra. He leads a party, and we infer a country, for “people who get up early in the morning”.
His nastiest single initiative came just before he stood for the leadership of his party, with the fractious ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’ campaign. But it positioned Varadkar where he wanted to be.
Imagine being in the prime of your life and at the top of your career and deciding what you want to do is target the most disadvantaged in society, those most discriminated against in the most tangible ways, economically and socially. Imagine feeling that you want to spell out a message that the most scandalous misappropriations are by the welfare classes not the bankster classes. Imagine being Minister for Social Protection, representing the classes that have nothing to get up for in the morning and running a campaign that promotes those who get up early in the morning.
We should also remember that it is not clear that, if Varadkar had led the way, we would even have had the successful gay-marriage referendum.
His commitment to equality seems tentative. His commitment to divisiveness, if anything, stronger. What constitutes robustness when standing up to the clowns in Fianna Fáil accelerates into meanness when deployed against the vulnerable and the impoverished in society.
He recently wrote in the Irish Independent: “We have allowed society to be divided into one group of people who pay for everything but get little in return due to means-tests, and another who believe they should be entitled to everything for free and that someone else should pay for it”. The gratuitousness of the divisiveness derives from the simple fact there is no such second group. While he later claimed he intends to unite it, this is cynical rhetoric, for the beef is in the divisiveness.
Being ideological in Ireland is difficult for historical and cultural reasons so the press can’t call a right-winger a right-winger. But he is.
His articulacy, his youth, his modernity on the international stage suggest a progressivism that just isn’t there. His ideology and his fetish for low taxation is outlined above, even if the country seems loath to internalise it. The principal brake on his laissez-faire politics is that Ireland is not a doctrinaire country and is sceptical of Thatcherism.
If Varadkar has realised that full-blooded pursuit of his regressive ideals is a dead-end politically, there is a danger that he has mitigated it with an unradical centrist blandness that ill befits a country with the opportunities a booming economy presents. Varadkar melds neoliberalism and anodyne blandness. But the glue he deploys is the most interesting thing about the man, for the glue is the glue of nastiness.
The big parties seem to have seen off demagoguery, the economy is thriving, the demographics are favourable, and the church is on its knees: the government is its own agent, and now we can finally see what Fine Gael and its young modern leader stand for.
His MEPs unblinkingly voted against life-saving search and rescue measures for migrants in the Mediterranean on obscure grounds. His candidate in the recent Wexford by-election was “under no illusion that Isis is a big part of the migrant population”, that some asylum-seekers need “deprogramming” and that immigration risks a “return to the type of conflict seen during the troubles in the North”. When confronted with the reality of how a homelessness man had suffered life-changing injuries when Dublin City Council cleared his tent with heavy machinery while he was inside, Varadkar seemed above all concerned to shift the blame to the Fianna Fáil Lord Mayor.
But it is by his policies that Varadkar should be judged. He has been Taoiseach for more than two-and-a-half years and was supportive of its policies for the previous more than six years it was in government. The test is fair. Varadkar in 2020 is Fine Gael in 2020.
In Ireland in 2019 the top 1 per cent of the population gets more than 5 per cent of the national income. The bottom 40 per cent gets 22 per cent. The State’s “unusually high” incidence of low pay and weak labour protections generates inequality, with the working and lower-middle classes struggling most to make ends meet, according to Tasc.
Uniquely in Europe Ireland does not have a system of universal healthcare. Cross-party consensus led to the reinstigation of universal healthcare as a goal under ‘Sláintecare’ but only at the end of the decade. There are more than 10,000 people waiting on hospital trolleys, twice the number a decade before and that has been the case for the last year.
85,000 people are on social housing lists. Yet hotels and student housing are rising all over the country’s capital. Average rents are 45% of average earnings. The government lies about how many houses it was building. It won’t deal with the problem because Fine Gael is ideologically opposed to social housing as there is nothing in it for its buy-to-let-fetishising members.
Its solutions are all developer-facilitating. Its Minister for Housing is in thrall to the building industry and will not consider compulsory purchase measures.
Fine Gael has no chance of implementing a National Planning Framework as it is ideologically unable to assert national planning norms such as avoidance of sprawl into Leinster and one-off housing, which interfere with the property rights of developers and landowners.
Varadkar’s Ireland is the second worst climate offender in the EU. Hand-wringing Varadkar – perhaps with an eye to his hipster global-Teesh credentials – confesses it is a laggard, but is nevertheless a dinosaur on transport and agriculture.
It is extraordinary that in every case where it cannot or won’t effectively intervene it is the wealthiest who benefit from Fine Gael’s inertia.
Fine Gael stands above all for property rights; it stands for sniffy intolerance of those economically and socially inferior to the party’s – now often youthful and cosmopolitan – hegemons: for those who get up early; it stands for laissez faire and deference to developers and multinationals; and for indulgence of those who are intolerant of migrants.
But it has no vision, no empathy and no radicalism. It is the Nasty Party. And Leo Varadkar is its icon.
Fine Gael stands above all for property rights; it stands for sniffy intolerance of those economically and socially inferior to the party’s – now often youthful and cosmopolitan – hegemons: for those who get up early;