Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrant, rises to power in a once conservative nation. It’s complicated
If you perused the international headlines last week, you might have heard that Ireland has its first openly gay prime minister, who also happens to be partly of Indian descent. (His father was an immigrant.) That this could happen in a once deeply religious and conservative society like Ireland — which remains overwhelmingly white and Roman Catholic — sounds like a huge win for progressives. Right?
Well, not exactly.
Two assumptions were underlying much of the international coverage of Leo Varadkar’s election as Taoiseach (as the prime minister is called in the Irish language). First, that he was elected by the people (which he wasn’t), and second, that because he’s the gay son of an Indian immigrant, he’s also what Americans would consider a a progressive (which he’s not).
Irish people were equal parts amused and confused by the foreign coverage of this event, because the way Varadkar ended up in the top job was less dramatic and exciting than it sounded in the headlines.
There was no general election. Ireland is a parliamentary democracy, and when former prime minister Enda Kenny resigned the governing party, Fine Gael, chose Varadkar to replace him as party leader. This in turn made him our new Taoiseach (pronounced TEE-shuck, more or less).
Fine Gael is a center-right party xwith a neoliberal economic agenda, and certainly not teeming with social progressives. Yes, it is undoubtedly a step forward that Varadkar was even elected by his party members — and that Irish people, by and large, are not even remotely bothered by or interested in his sexuality. But that’s about where the progressive character of this change begins and ends.
The reality is that Varadkar is a conservative and has made some highly questionable comments about things like abortion and LGBT rights.