Varadkar: new figurehead, but the same old policies

Seán Egan writes: Leo Varadkar’s election as the head of Fine Gael and summary coronation as Taoiseach, facilitated by Fianna Fáil signals a continuation of the worst aspects of Fine Gael policy as well as a renewed attack on workers’ conditions and on ordinary people in general.

Socialist Worker

Varadkar: new figurehead, but the same old policies

While Varadkar spouts platitudes about ‘opportunity’ and being ‘neither left nor right’ his less guarded moments and his political past reveal that he is a free market fundamentalist determined to enrich the privileged at the expense of the rest of us.
Varadkar gained prominence in large part due to his impassioned critiques of Fianna Fáil corruption during Fine Gael’s last stint in opposition.
His youth, take no prisoners approach and vigorous demands for transparency made him an attractive prospect for middle class voters wedded to right wing politics but frustrated by chronic FF incompetence and back room dealing.
This forthrightness did not extend past 2011 when he was appointed to the FG-Labour cabinet first as Minister for Transport and then talking over James Reilly’s Health portfolio, continuing the coalition’s policy of inhuman cuts to essential services.
Unpleasant
A particularly unpleasant episode in his tenure as Minister for Health involved a €12m cut to the €35m allocated to mental health in the 2016 budget.
This was undertaken despite the fake concern for mental health issues and stigma routinely and robotically expressed by Varadkar and others in the media and on the Dáil floor.
One of Vardkar’s latest stunts and what defined his brief tenure as Minister for Social Protection is his nasty, welfare fraud witch-hunt.
The ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat us all’ campaign laid out a hateful, miserable and incorrect vison that vastly overestimated the amount of funds lost to welfare fraud and encouraged people to turn in their neighbours they suspected of fraud.
Worse still, roughly €200,000 was spent on what amounted to a public relations campaign for Varadkar himself, endearing him to the hardened reactionaries at the core of Fine Gael ahead of the party’s leadership election.
Varadkar’s campaign though vicious is the natural outgrowth of the criminalisation of welfare that was enacted by Joan Burton as Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection. Under the FG-Labour coalition hundreds of welfare claimants suspected of fraud were dragged into garda stations and humiliated.
This served the sole purpose of the appeasement of nasty right wingers by an uncaring government.
Much has been made of Leo Varadkar’s ethnic identity, his youth and his sexuality – especially in the foreign press.
Varadkar himself has used his age to project an image of himself as a reformer and distinct from the dusty, corrupt old boys club of Irish politics.
It has been said that he is representative of a young, increasingly progressive and diverse population.
The contradiction at the heart of this depiction is Varadkar’s backward ideology and his wrong side of history political past. Despite resembling a changing Ireland, he has stood squarely in the way of progress.
Lauded
Varadkar was much lauded for his role in the Marriage Equality referendum, coming out of the closet and in doing so becoming the first out government minister.
However, just six years before when speaking on the issue of Civil Partnerships (a bureaucratic, half step towards marriage equality introduced under the FF-Green coalition) a then closeted Varadkar spouted tired, ugly rhetoric about the unsuitability of gay parents and opposed the legislation.
Similarly he has parroted conservative and glib attitudes to women’s reproductive health even comparing the plight of the 12 women who daily leave the country to access abortion with a holiday to Amsterdam to smoke cannabis.
While Varadkar has bent to popular pressure and has scheduled a referendum on the 8th amendment for next year he will certainly favour a restrictive regime that will continue to undermine women’s right to choose.
Just as Marine Le Pen attempted to provide a softer, feminised version of her father’s fascist politics, Varadkar attempts to provide a trendy, palatable veneer for the backward ideas that have always animated Ireland’s Blueshirts.
Thankfully an emerging youth movement politicised by the marriage equality campaign, the repeal movement and austerity conditions won’t tolerate Varadkar’s conservative, ‘politics-as-usual’ style, even if it is clouded in shallow identity politics.
Varadkar’s come out swinging in his attempt to silence dissenting forces in the Dáil, in the latest chapter of their marriage of convenience FG and FF are attempting to limit the input of smaller in political debates.
The major parties of Irish capitalism were shaken by their weak results in last year’s elections and are increasingly unable to stand up under vigorous opposition scrutiny as evidenced by the endless saga of state corruption revelations.
Regardless, Varadkar’s vicious agenda will be resisted both inside the Dáil and outside on the streets by socialists, trade unionists, feminists and young people who demand real change in Irish society not a cosmetic renovation of the same old right-wing politics conducted by a vain, insipid leader with an axe to grind.

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