A famous 2010 ‘Après Match’ sketch has Ireland’s now Minister for Social Protection 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 if he was bitten by a lizard, or a snake or an eel.
Though the elite party isn’t part of the current agenda he’s an exotic and cosmopolitan proposition no doubt; young and attractive, hipsterish, agnostic: a half-Indian, gay, charming and articulate doctor. Apparently a nice guy and doing enough, according to opinion polls, to ingratiate himself to the Fine Gael party in whose hands rests the decision on whether he or the infinitesimally posher, and somewhat more reserved, Simon Coveney should succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. He’s the sort of guy you might find at an Emmanuel Macron rally and he’ll be a star turn on the international stage. But is there any beef?
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. He considered himself a socialist and voted Labour. His Dungarvan-born mother met her future husband while working as a nurse in Slough. Later they lived in Leicester and India, returning to Dublin in 1973.
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 out on a night’s sleep. But rather than finding it stressful, he has said: “I quite liked the buzz of being busy”. Nevertheless, last year, 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”. It’s unlikely it would have put him out.
Around this time Varadkar was singled out for greatness by the Washington Ireland Program, which prepares ambitious young people for future leadership roles. In 2004 the tyro’s ambition began to find expression as he was co-opted onto Fingal County Council,
serving as deputy mayor. Varadkar was first actually elected to Fingal County Council in 2004, drawing 4,894 votes, the highest vote in the State. He won a Dáil seat in 2007 and was immediately elevated by Enda Kenny to be front bench 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. 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. Environmentalists say he did little to implement Noel Dempsey’s ‘Smarter Travel – a Sustainable Transport Future’. He obtained government funding for its commitment to the €550m 57km public-private partnership of the egregiously unnecessary Gort-Tuam motorway while cancelling the necessary Dart Underground and Metro North Underground plans, and long-fingering Metro West, in Dublin.
He was 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. And there was absolutely no progress on moving away from the invidious “two-tier” health system. 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. Remarkably he never had to explain what he was replacing it with.
The HSE too, in accordance with policy was to be abolished by 2020, though beyond a “healthcare commissioning agency” it was not clear by what. He also seems to have had little problem with the entitlements of professionals and announced the restoration of €12,000 for consultants who backed the Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road agreements. By any gauge Varadkar’s tenure represented little policy progress in a sector crying out for coherence, efficiency and fairness.
3. Social Protection
Since 2016 he has been 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 include activation, so that more people on welfare are assisted to move into the workforce or education. He is currently reforming 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 will shortly launch a new work-experience programme to replace JobBridge ‘internships’, replacing the existing 40-hour JobBridge ceiling with a working-week ceiling of 30 hours, reducing placements from nine months to six months, limiting the number of interns to 10% of a company’s workforce, and guaranteeing that interns receive at least the net minimum wage.
This means participants will be in line to receive about €258 per week, compared to the existing system which works out at €152.50 per week for a person under the age of 25 and €240.50 per week for older participants. While the increases will be welcome they are hardly down to Varadkar so much as due to an improving economy and reduced unemployment.
He is promoting the availability of social insurance to the self-employed and a move towards a more European social insurance system with greater benefits for contributors. He provided for paternity benefit last year and for better dental and optical benefits for everyone. He is marginally improving the financial support provided to pensioners, carers, and people with disabilities. He wants to change a law that allows EU citizens living in Ireland claim child benefits here for children living abroad.
His highest-profile initiative came in late April, when Varadkar launched the ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’ advertising and online campaign set to cost the taxpayer €204,000. It aims to encourage the reporting of suspected fraud to the Department of Social Protection anonymously via phone/or online.
The Department of Social Protection has claimed that it achieved overall savings of €506 million last year as a result of ‘control and anti-fraud measures’. However, this is based on an assumption that money saved by the measures would have otherwise continued to be paid out into the future: “the value of future social welfare expenditure which was avoided, owing to proactive investigations and reviews”.
The real figure for 2016 according to Department officials, is €41m, but it has decided to apply an unexplained multiplier. In the case of Carers Allowance and Disability Allowance, the payment is multiplied by 136.
This has been as subject of a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority.
Sinn Féin spokesperson for Social Protection John Brady declared:
“When we look at the figures from past reviews undertaken by the Department, it clearly shows that the real issue to be tackled is the prevalence of over-payments rather than fraud. This is reflected in a number of previous Controller and Auditor General Reports which showed that between 2007 and 2011, 50% of all overpayments were due to error while 38% of overpayments were due to fraud”.
The Department of Social Protection press office responded that the campaign aims to: “Raise awareness and challenge the culture around how Social Welfare Fraud is perceived – it is not a victimless crime”. It re-asserted that [note the unorthodox way “last year” is used] “Last year, the Department achieved overall savings of €506m as a result of control and anti-fraud measures. This reflects the 950,000 reviews of individual claims undertaken by the Department last year to determine on-going entitlements.
The €506m in control savings does not include any cases where the customer voluntarily told the Department of changes in their means or circumstances which resulted in a reduction in the rate of payment or termination of their claim”.
‘The Department raised €110m in overpayments last year of which €41m related to customer fraud. Over €82m was actually recovered last year. These are the amounts detected and recovered and represent a figure that must be below the actual level of fraud given the volume that goes undetected or cannot be recovered.
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”.
It has been reported that Varadkar is using the Social Protection portfolio, seen as not too time-consuming, to promote his claims to leadership. In September it was reported he had “spent the weekend meeting TDs in the West” and even “invited a TD for pizza and beer after a recent football match in Croke Park” (which he denied was “lovebombing”, all to advance his leadership ambitions.
The biggest threat to Leo Varadkar is the undeniable truth that he has dashed from ministry to ministry leaving little or no policy imprint of substance. There are simply no Varadkar signature policies. It’s a pity: he looks and sounds like he should be such a dynamic force.
Moreover, Varadkar definitely seems to have a hinterland and a good temperament. He likes watching rugby and Gaelic football, is a Dublin and Leinster fan and a fitness enthusiast in which capacity he allows himself from time to time to be photographed. He likes to travel, attend concerts and festivals and go to the cinema and theatre. 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”.
Not entirely dead to his on-the-town side, 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; with a social malleability, that masks a self-declared shyness. According to Callan Leo Varadkar is Marian Finucane’s favourite, and Harry McGee, in assessing the performance of all Government Ministers, recently bent over backwards to claim implausibly that Varadkar (at an apparently arbitrary “under six”) was doing “infinitesimally” better than Coveney (at an apparently arbitrary “over five”). Certainly he is a media darling because of his colourfulness and a sulphuric streak of truth-speaking independence as when he brought down the house of cards on Garda Commisioner Callinan, and therefore on the widely-disliked Justice Minister Alan Shatter who resigned precipitately; and, when standing in for Enda Kenny recently, he did damage to Fianna Fáil when accurately explaining that their stance on Water Taxes came via Sinn Féin and ultimately Paul Murphy. In 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 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”.
It’s the sort of contempt which plays badly with Fianna Fáil whose antagonism has never really relented. Then again he also attacked Garret Fitzgerald shortly afterwards, for trebling the national debt and effectively destroying the country.
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”. Varadkar said he told his father he was gay three months before he went public in January last year and presumed his mother would tell him about the radio interview.
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.
A number of irritating ‘personal’ pieces have followed, led by the Sunday Independent such as one titled: ‘Meet Dr Matt Barrett – the rock behind Leo Varadkar as he strives to become leader of Fine Gael’. It recorded that: “Although the pair have been an item for the last 18 months, they have so far shunned the spotlight – although that could change should Mr Varadkar become Taoiseach. The couple have holidayed together, met each other’s families and even shared a joint birthday bash” attended by most of the cabinet incongruously in a den of hipsters in Dublin’s markets area.
Inevitably there has been something of a backlash and the Sunday Independent has insisted that Varadkar’s sexuality has to be an issue, when clearly it should not be. A later article by Brian O’Reilly in the Sindo, for example, purported to claim that being gay doesn’t matter but did seem to proceed on the basis it did: “Being gay doesn’t matter at the ballot box or internal party politics. We know this because Leo Varadkar has already proved it. And that matters”. Independent Newspaper have pointedly printed a number of pictures of Varadkar’s leadership rival Simon Coveney with his wife, juxtaposed with pictures of wifeless Varadkar.
Not clear how liberal he is on social issues
He’s presumed liberal on social matters but it is not clear if this is merited. On homosexuality he told Hot Press, “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 asserted: “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”. Not so forward-thinking, then, perhaps.
He has said he is “pro-life” and against abortion on demand (but isn’t everyone in Ireland?): “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”.
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”. She pressed him: “Do you believe in abortion when the foetus isn’t viable?”.
“Em…I’m sort of conscious that we are going into a general election now and I am running in the general election as a Fine Gael candidate and I am asking people to vote for me as a FG candidate and I am not asking them to vote for me based on my personal or individual views”.
On his private religious beliefs, 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 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”.
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”. True but, for a Fine Gael politician, a dogwhistle to the base.
Varadkar and FF
Varadkar is not well disposed to Fianna Fáil (FF): “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”.
Leo Varadkar is unsurprisingly not popular in FF. He is a rhetorical bruiser and effective attacks on the party over the years rankle. According to Conor Lehihan, “his hostility to the soldiers of destiny was very evident to the FF negotiators at Trinity College in the post-election discussions”. He has also bated them most effectively over their hypocrisy on water charges. Since FF are supporting FG in government the lack of underlying respect between the two biggest and most conservative parties, incarnate in Varadkar, will be a recurring theme of his Taoiseachship.
Varadkar and Kenny
A healthy paranoia on Leo Varadkar’s part might suggest that Enda Kenny is not out to help him. After all Varadkar did throw in his lot with Richard Bruton’s push to remove Kenny before the 2011 election before it was extirpated by Phil Hogan and Frank Flannery. Varadkar’s thinking on his party leader was evident in two comments he made to last year’s Pat Leahy documentary on Enda Kenny: he confessed to finding his optimism “irritating” and admitted that he has no idea what makes him tick.
Varadkar’s economics is not beyond reproach: seven years ago he claimed that the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) might be preventing property prices from hitting a floor and that Fine Gael would examine whether it made sense to force NAMA to begin selling property earlier than previously planned to bring some kind of certainty to the property market. Rents have not fallen as much as they should have “and we’re concerned that NAMA is creating a problem there”, he said. This cuts across current received wisdom that Noonan sold the crown jewels too early and too cheaply. Worse, in May 2011, Varadkar suggested Ireland might need a second EU-IMF bailout, causing jitters on international markets. Enda Kenny felt compelled to complain that he had warned all ministers against making negative public remarks about the economy.
His pitch to the reactionary Fine Gael cumainn centres on cutting the taxes that obsess them. He started a recent 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 insists the marginal tax rate needs to be brought below 50pc. Many workers already pay a punitive rate as high as 52pc, once Universal Social Charge and PRSI are factored in.
For the self-employed, the marginal rate can be as high as 55pc. He intends to achieve this by raising the entry point at which workers begin paying the higher tax rate of 40pc, which is currently set at €33,800. He supports his party’s pledge to scrap USC, although he does not specify whether this will be achieved by 2021 as promised by Finance Minister Noonan.
But while Mr Varadkar wants people to pay less via income tax, he believes that a fair compromise is that they pay more into ‘social insurance’ – a swipe at those least well-equipped to pay social insurance, or anything. Varadkar’s economics might appeal in a high-tax country.
In fact we have poor services and pay low taxes. According to Eurostat Ireland had the lowest tax revenues as a percentage of GDP of 30 European countries in 2015, at just 24.4 per cent. His economic agenda is skewed and could skew the country.
His politics: right-wing?
Hot Press asked him if he was a right-winger? “Yeah”, was his surprising 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”.
Not surprisingly, Varadkar peremptorily dismissed Labour Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin’s early 2016 jibe that he was becoming a “social democrat”. Instead, he sees 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 earlier this year 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 there that would separate him from Margaret Thatcher. Indeed in the past he has not blanched at invoking the architect of 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. 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 Gais 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.
To be fair, Varadkar is a young man, and Ireland’s policies have had a fluctuating canvas for the last decade. Nevertheless his latest comments are no less bullish. Writing in the Sunday Independent in February 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”.
Sadly 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.
That’s why I have resisted any attempt to diminish or means-test free travel for pensioners, and it’s why I am extending the benefits you get in return for PRSI, like paternity benefit and dental and optical treatment benefits. It’s also why we believe that anyone who uses water should pay for what they use above an agreed allowance”.
And if you thought he was progressive, dwell on the emotional focus of his article: “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”. And on 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.
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. This is the politics of Attila.
If he becomes Taoiseach, and a supporter recently told the Irish Times, “the momentum is with Leo”, we know his articulacy and how he will play for Ireland on the international stage and indeed we know his ideology and his fetish for low taxation, even if the country seems loath to internalise it, the issue – with his track record – is whether he will be able to implement it.
By Michael Smith