Ireland’s gay prime minister – class versus identity politics

The retirement of southern Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny several months ago led to Leo Varadkar taking his place.  Varadkar is young, gay and his father is an Indian immigrant to Ireland.  Varadkar’s victory in the leadership contest in the Fine Gael party and assumption of the role of prime minister has been widely hailed as some kind of victory for gay rights and anti-racism.  Varadkar, however, is a committed anti-working class politician, with no track record of campaigning for either gay or migrant rights.  Varadkar  is no friend of the oppressed and exploited – quite the contrary.  The article is taken from the Irish Socialist Democracy website here, where it appeared on June 30.  It is a timely reminder that people need to be judged by their politics rather than being lauded because they are gay and/or female and/or brown.

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 of 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 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 (member of parliament – Redline) 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 the ESB.  Indeed, these were the very policies followed by various Irish governments 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 minister 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 minister 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 a handful of cases were ever prosecuted.  In terms of saving money it was an 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: “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 spongers 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 required 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 weak position that they can be dispensed with entirely.  This is still a minority opinion but the 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 dependent 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 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 up the 58 required to endorse Varadkar as taoiseach really highlights the corrupt nature of Irish politics.

Class Identity 

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 of Irish workers will continue 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 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.    


  1. Another white heterosexual male view attacking “identity politics”. But what has most of the white male left done for the groups of people who are organizing for their rights and status – around “identity politics”?. Most Irish LGBT people understand that this Irish politician will not end capitalism or even support England out of Ireland. But the implication that LGBT people should stop working and organizing independently as an identity – is just another way to promote heterosexism and for Gay people to stay in the closet – “and in their place”. It is not just stating politics that matters, it is also what one does! This article offers no alternative political formation that is actively working to improve the lives of working class LGBT’s. What is being done for poor elder LGBT’s in nursing homes terrorized by religious fanatics? The same for those poor LGBT’s incarcerated in many prisons? Or for the poor young LGBT’s placed in conversion therapy which is simply child torture? Or for all the other areas of life that poor and working class LGBT’s each day must deal with heterosexism and homophobic prejudice. It was only when LGBT’s organized as an identity group that changes took place. To now want LGBT’s to just follow some hetero male who has “good politics” but offers no LGBT empowerment and does nothing but talk – is really providing no alternative, but for LGBT’s to stop organizing and working together as an independent movement. It is interesting that Varadkar and Redline both share the same view (and fear?) with an independent LGBT Movement existing and continuing and growing in numbers and support. Varadkar is using that movement for his own personal advances, but history shows that many in that movement will not be satisfied with words and promises – but expect action to resolve the real injustices against working class LGBT’s. And that is when and where Class issues will be moved forward. The role of conscious Gay and non-Gay activists who are anti-capitalist and hold a world view, in support of that independent LGBT Movement and involvement in that movement, will be better than just singling out bourgeois Gay politicians and preferring the hetero status quo as before with only white heteros in political office and a return to the closet. What are you doing to promote and develop a LGBT leadership alternative that embraces and understands Class issues, to challenge the fake leaders such as Varadkar, who serves the capitalist exploiters?

    • You are making some big assumptions there about the author of the article John. In Ireland, the far left has campaigned consistently for LGBT rights for years. And, of course, the recent victory for gay marriage was through a *referendum*.

      The biggest majorities were in seats with large hard core working class voting blocs. Loads of straight white males voted for the right of gay women and men to marry. They were crucial to the victory.

      These days the south of Ireland is one of the most liberal/progressive places in the world in terms of gay rights. Even the police association called for people to vote *for* gay marriage. Hundreds of GAA players did the same. Police stations in the south of ireland even fly rainbow flags these days.

      The kinds of abuse you mentioned seem oddly antiquated to raise in an article which is about *the south of Ireland today*.

      And trying to link Redline and Varadkar is odd too. As the article notes, Varadkar doesn’t have a record of championing gay rights; quite the contrary.

      The article was produced by an Irish marxist group which has a long record of support for LGBT liberation.

      Redline isn’t trying to promote and develop an alternative to Varadkar because it is in New Zealand and he is in Dublin! But, at a more basic level, marxists argue for the working class as a whole to support liberation for all the oppressed – in the south of Ireland the working class has done *quite well* along those lines.

      Here’s something useful on the changes in the south of Ireland:

      • Sean Kearns implies that I am unaware of Irish LGBT history and the role of the Left. But it clearly is Sean Kearns who does not know or understand – and typical instead of trying to understand my points, prefers to reject and avoid answering them directly. My parents were Irish Republicans and I have identified as a Marxist since a young teenager for over half a century. I have been also a Gay activist since early 1969. And I am very aware of the Ireland Left history on LGBT. My original reply was for the world Left in general and not just Ireland, since I hold a world view politically. First a very quick history for comrade Kearns. When the Irish born writer Oscar Wilde was brought to trial, except for some anarchists and social democrats, the Left in Ireland (and elsewhere) did not defend him That Padraic Pearse, Michael Collins and others in the Great Easter Rebellion could not be open about their sexuality, shows how little support there was then for LGBT people and concerns. The Irish Left did not advocate then for LGBT rights.Where was the defense of Casement’s homosexuality? It was not until LGBT people organized in Ireland (and all other nations) as an identity group and began their efforts to obtain rights and respect – and to continue as I write this, that gains were made – but yet much remains. Incredibly Sean Kearns response to my raising the plight of poor working LGBT people in Ireland (and elsewhere) with specific examples of elderly, youth and those incarcerated, instead of recognizing that discrimination and harm, responds by denying such exists and how supportive the Irish Republic police are of LGBT people!!! The state repressive forces to enforce the inequality of the leisure class from the working class appears something that comrade Sean Kearns should learn more about, than in the rush of denial of these serious problems that I raised. But to recognize the real conditions of many poor and working class LGBT people,would then have comrade Kearns understand why the need for identity politics. That Kearns has no real specifics on how to end patriarchy, heterosexism and the ongoing current homophobia, except to basically say – “you can wait for the revolution to address these issues”. Another words – ignore these issues and work on only the important issues that Sean Kearns wants LGBT people and their allies to work for – and to not involve themselves in the LGBT rights movement. I guess according to Sean Kearns that in the U. S.there is no more need to challenge racism since Barack Obama was the president? Or that women in England have no need to challenge the patriarchy, with the current prime minister there? This article was not an effort to reveal that Varadkar was not going to help LGBT working people become empowered and build the LGBT Rights Movement, it was to advocate for not supporting an independent LGBT Movement. It is no surprise that there are heteros who are not interested in ending heterosexism. Many Left heteros have failed to support or even understand the issues of sexual politics. They prefer to have no mention of such, but when “pushed” are willing to have a line or two in their group’s program stating they are against discrimination – for the intent to not have to further address such – and can focus instead on the “real concerns”. Any LGBT person or honest ally who believes in just “trust” that these issues will be addressed eventually by the leaders, does not understand how change occurs and how to defend one’s rights and have respect. It seems Varadkar has little concern or self-respect as a Gay man, but I can assure Sean Kearns and others that want “identity politics” and “political correctness” to go away and no longer challenge those comfortable and accepting of disrespect, that the identity politics and those in such movements to challenge wrong and privilege, will continue as an independent force. LGBT people have a historical record of injustice to go by and many will not accept efforts to end speaking out and organizing around to end heterosexism, patriarchy, racism, etc While I believe that we must end capitalist rule, it is not enough to address discrimination “at some later time”. History shows that waiting and not addressing discrimination, only benefits those in privilege carrying out discrimination. The question is – not whether one should be active in identity politics, but to offer a leadership to win those issues. The 1931 song composed by Florence Reece “Which Side Are You On?” seems always appropriate to consider, when clever people are promoting excuses for their not being involved in struggles they do not identify with. That is their real “identity politics” concerns, to not identify keeping their privileges, and for the oppressed to “just wait”. We should all actively support the empowerment of poor and working people to challenge and end discrimination, which often has a material basis of privilege.

  2. I am very sympathetic to the general aim of this article. But, I think that it is important to recognize that what the article does is to construct an identity for Varadkar. He emerges as a neoliberal rightist who happens to be ethnically different from most Irish people and who is also openly gay.

    So there are three elements to this identity and the article argues that the first (neoliberal rightist) is the most important. I agree totally but the other elements are not insignificant for gay people in Ireland.

    The point I wish to stress, however, is that we all do identity politics. When we are born we are thrown into an identity. Our aim should not be to join the Right in attempting to discredit “identity politics”. We should do identity politics in a more principled way, which by and large this article succeeds in doing.

    • These days a lot of the right actually do identity politics, rather than opposing them. The thing about the working class is NOT that it is some form of identity but that it is the section of society whose interests collectively are, or certainly coincide with, the interests of humanity as a whole. That is not true of ant other section of society. That is why identity politics are a dead end and why they so easily fit in with a ‘more market’ capitalism.

      See the following:

    • Gary, I think the fact that he is taoiseach indicates just how much attitudes have changed. But it’s not people like him – ie people with his politics – that fought for this. It was, above all, the far left and radical gay men and women.

      He has been a beneficiary of these changes, without doing a thing to bring them about.

      Like Condoleeza Rice was a beneficiary of the civil rights movement and left-wing anti-racism without doing anything for anyone’s rights herself; indeed she was/is an opponent of the rights of the oppressed all over the world.

      Or Thatcher was a beneficiary of the work by the left, progressive sections of the unions, and the women’s liberation movement, yet was staunchly opposed to all three.

      And this is one of the big problems with identity politics.

      • To: John O’Brien.

        John, patronising me with a little lesson in Irish history doesn’t strengthen your case. Nor does flagrantly misrepresenting my views. Irish leftists have supported gay rights for decades and campaigned for repeal of anti-gay laws, for marriage equality etc. Going back to 1916 is just being silly. No-one, including gay people, was fighting for gay rights then, so you are being completely ahistorical.

        The suggestion that the author of the article may now think there is no need to struggle against racism in the US because a black male has been elected president is really not worthy of you and I am not interested in replying to this sort of silliness. And claims that LGBT people are being told to wait have no connection with what the article is about. It’s like you read a whole different article. And, as I said, you are decades behind in your understanding of Irish politics and the position of LGBT people in Irish society.

        You also claim that you gave specific examples of the abuse of LGBT people in institutions of the southern Irish state and claim that I ignored what you said about this. But you gave no such *specific case* examples. Not one. I’m talking about southern Ireland in 2017. Not 1916. Not 1969. 2017. The south of Ireland is one of the most gay-friendly places in the world. Not only did the cops’ own association publicly support a ‘yes’ vote in the marriage equality referendum, so did all the parliamentary parties. ‘Yes’ achieved a majority in *every constituency* bar one – and even there the vote was really close.

        You’re talking about an Ireland that no longer exists.

        I gather that you had a very bad experience with the US Socialist Workers Party, which seems to have been notoriously backward on gay liberation during your early years of activism. And, from things I’ve been told about them, remain so. Fair enough. But it is not fair to then extrapolate from that to the Irish far left of today. Unfortunately, you just seem to want to lash out every which way, which makes this discussion fruitless. I really do find it strange that you find an article which attacks a bourgeois politician so offensive and read into it all kinds of things which are not there.

        By the way, while Casement was pretty openly gay and Pearse may have been gay, there’s precious little evidence that Collins was. I think it’s a lot more likely that this counter-revolutionary was straight.

        I wish you well in fighting the *real enemies* of human liberation, which are not the people you are attacking in your posts here.

  3. Sean Kearns stating that there were no people fighting for Gay rights in 1916, shows a lack of knowledge on LGBT history. My concrete mention of Oscar Wilde’s trial and lack of caring then by much of the Left, is ignored as well as my specific concerns about today’s current conditions for youth and elderly and those incarcerated. My political focus and objection to the article was the open political attack on “identity politics” and thus challenging having independent movements against racism, sexism, heterosexism and ablebodyism. Instead of recognizing the valid concerns of those who need independent movements to address issues and harms, instead of just something written about in a program but not seriously addressed – is not all that is now needed. Marriage equality is not the only issue on homophobia and heterosexism – and instead of lecturing me – you might want to instead learn. When I was referring to the Left, I was not referring to one small U. S. cult group that I and others were politically involved in many decades ago. I was referring to the worldwide Left that with exceptions, has been awful on LGBT issues historically. I truly regret that because I identify with that worldwide Left and am familiar with its history. And that your specific stating I was “attacking” the people of Redline is totally wrong and shows your defensiveness. I assume you are not Stalinists and do welcome different views. Besides not knowing LGBT history (Collins was Gay) perhaps you might review and recognize what the Left (in Ireland, England, and elsewhere) response was to the British release of the Casement Diaries – in their all denying that Casement was Gay. (Casement was not open as you state but closeted) Stalinists rewrite history and those in cults. The Left has a long history of much struggle and sacrifice against the injustice and exploitation of those in power. I honor that – but I will not accept homophobia or heterosexism – or accept racism, sexism or ablebodyism . I never have – and never will. We agree on ending capitalism but not on having a truly free society and the need for independent movements. That is what the critique you posted against “identity politics” is – and why I objected. People can do good efforts without belonging to a narrow vanguard group that demands working on only what the majority cares about. It is how and why there are these independent movements addressing racism, sexism, heterosexism and ablebodyism – and they are not going to go away because they raise “uncomfortable issues”. Minority groups should be respected and represented and not dismissed because one is not of that minority. Finally to state and imply that the Republic of Ireland has no serious problems around homophobia and heterosexism and to throw in some not so subtle ageism – is a discredit to the politics I assumed that Redline has. Sean has not noticed that many in the Republic of Ireland voted No against Marriage Equality. To believe these forces are not in the administration and staff of the places overseeing youth, the elderly and the incarcerated – just reflects why an independent movement is needed. And to not understand my comparing that a Black U. S. president or a Gay Irish prime minister does not fully end discrimination in either nation, seems obvious. But not one point I made can be “accepted” since it is more a religious view being defended, than a difference and discussion among marxists, who should be historical materialists! Being more humble and less arrogant and recognizing one does not know everything, would be better. We all want an end to capitalism, but that is not enough if we want to have a cooperative world of peace and justice. Don’t lose your humanity and values for some “talking points” that mean little in the long run. Just be principled and always a defender of the oppressed – period! In 1985, I was active in opposing the U.S. backed Salvation Army efforts in New Zealand with a referendum trying to quarantine People With AIDS on an atol then, in an effort to topple that government then who opposed U. S. nuclear warships in that nation’s ports and why the U.S. government gave three million dollars to the New Zealand Salvation Army then. Were you active in that struggle Sean, as I was? Or other New Zealand efforts against homophobia? Have a little respect for those who have as myself been active and giving for well over 50 years – as I do for others who have struggled and endured injustice in world history. Best wishes in your efforts.

  4. As I pointed out, there were no people fighting for gay rights in 1916 in Ireland. That is simply true.

    Oscar Wilde died in 1900. Casement was quite openly gay in terms of immediate social circles. People who knew him well were not really all that surprised by his diaries. if you knew as much abut LGBT history in Ireland as you claim, you would know this.

    I never accused you of attacking people in Redline; I accused you of attacking Irish leftists, whose record on gay rights has been to support them ever since *the modern revolutionary left* came into existence in Ireland and ever since the gay movement emerged there. The left in Ireland played a very important role in putting gay rights on the political agenda – so much so that much of the right now support legal equality.

    Yet again you talk about anti-gay abuse in Irish institutions *today* without giving a single case example. You just insist that there must be such abuse because *some people* in Ireland are opposed to gay rights. This is like your evidence-free assertion that Collins was gay, as well as being wildly out of date.

    You just state things, as if they must be true. . . *because you seem to want them to be true*.

    As I pointed out, support for gay marriage was huge in Ireland and reached into every institution in society, including repressive ones like the cops. All the parliamentary parties supported a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. In terms of class, hardcore working class areas were the staunchest in support of gay rights, especially areas in which the substantial far left is strongest (in the south of Ireland, the far left has more members of parliament than the Labour Party). Hundreds of GAA players publicly called for people to vote ‘yes’. Even the Catholic Church was heavily split.

    As I said before, you are talking about an Ireland that doesn’t exist anymore – although, you seem to wish it did!

    You seem confused about New Zealand as well as Ireland. Your knowledge of New Zealand is certainly no better. For instance, there was no Salvation Army-imposed referendum about quarantining people with HIV/AIDS on any atolls!!! And the notion that the US government provided the Salvation Army with several million dollars to bring down the Labour government is simply bizarre. The Salvation Army certainly was an important force campaigning against homosexual law reform in 1986 – ie 31 years ago! – so maybe you are confusing this with your imaginary referendum. In any case, the Salvation Army has long since moved away from its original opposition to the decriminalisation of male homsexuaity. Today there are openly gay Salvation Army members and the Salvation Army now participates in gay pride activities.

    Even evangelical Christians in New Zealand have abandoned trying to push the clock back on gay rights and openly state they no longer favour the recriminalisation of homosexuality. There is no political force of any significance whatsoever in either Ireland or New Zealand which wants to turn the clock back. This is a good thing, this is progress.

    But rather than welcoming this progress, these victories, your posts here just come across as tirades that are about 30 years (or more) out of date, certainly in terms of Ireland and New Zealand. Plus you say strange things like you have never accepted homophobia and never will, as if someone is asking you to.

    This discussion has reached a point where there is no point.

Comments are closed.