It’s a Friday evening in Nottingham, humid and dark, as my partner and I pack our bags ahead of our flight to Dublin for a weekend trip home. Meanwhile, BBC News has been covering the latest twist in the saga that is the 2017 UK General Election, alongside global reaction to Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the two most recent episodes from the new political satire series that feels too bizarre to be real.
The newsreader’s tone of voice perks up as she begins to announce the latest piece of breaking news for the day. It’s neither about Theresa May’s latest gaffe, nor is it about Nigel Farage’s daily soundbite about Brexit. It’s about the UK’s neighbours across the Irish Sea; an openly gay politician, the son of an Indian immigrant, has been voted to be the leader of a political party, currently the big brother in a coalition. With that, he is on his way to becoming – pronounced in as best an effort as a Briton can use an Irish word – the next Taoiseach.
Scrolling through Twitter as my partner drives us to East Midlands Airport, I notice a strange fragmentation in reactions to the news that Leo Varadkar is going to be our next Taoiseach. On one side are supporters of Leo at home, alongside foreign media, who are in awe of what he – and Ireland as a whole – has achieved. On the other side, there are people who are genuinely worried, annoyed, or simply angry at Leo’s record as a politician, and his rise to power. Some reasons for the colder welcome are legitimate, others are a little baffling; neither Leo Varadkar nor Simon Coveney were going to turn into left-leaning Labour/Green types, why assume otherwise when they’re in a centre-right party?
On both sides of the opinionated divide, however, there was an air of cynicism amongst both digital crowds in Ireland, as they noticed foreign media – from the New York Times to the Hindustan Times – reporting on how ‘traditionally Catholic Ireland’ had gone on to elect an openly gay man of Irish/Indian descent as its new ‘Prime Minister’ (as if teaching their readers the Gaelic word, ‘Taoiseach’, was too difficult. Still, I digress). While the world’s newsrooms practically gasped at the arrival of Ireland’s Varadkarian era, the Irish themselves regarded those journalists’ reactions as superficial, and missing the real essence of the news story.
And yet, no-one was fully right, and no-one was wrong.
Let’s leave aside any political opinions you may have for a moment, for we can come back to them later. In 1982, almost 35 years ago, a man called Declan Flynn was killed in a horrific homophobic attack in Fairview Park on Dublin’s northside. His death led to the Irish capital’s first gay pride parade the following March. Some ten years after Flynn’s murder, in 1992-93, homosexuality was decriminalised, 35 years after decriminalisation in England and Wales. Of course, many of us are now fully aware of Ireland’s referendum on marriage equality in 2015, only 23 years after decriminalisation.
I don’t use ‘only’ lightly, there. In a country plagued with Catholic Church scandals, from the Magdalene Laundries to all levels of abuse in schools, Ireland has not had an easy time of social revolution. Indeed, we still see massive struggles to shake off those ‘traditional’ pockets of national shame, as the public cry to legalise abortion grows stronger. So, to go from an era of gay men being criminals to a gay man running the country within fifty years, is – regardless of his politics – astounding.
Then, we come to his politics. It has been well documented that Leo Varadkar is quite a conservative politician, which is why he’s well placed within the centre-right Fine Gael, although likening him to Thatcher is probably a bitter overreaction. His track record is mixed at best, and he definitely hasn’t been the people’s favourite over the years. Even within his own party, the majority of Fine Gael members voted for Simon Coveney, but it was the votes of the elected Fine Gael members of the Oireachtas who pushed Leo past the finish line in the leadership race. This patchwork of public opinion means that despite the social and cultural implications of a gay man being Taoiseach, he still needs to prove his worth to the public, just like any straight Taoiseach, Tánaiste, TD or Senator has done (or failed to do) in the past.
This is the bittersweet reality of a 21st Century Ireland: Your background, including your sexual orientation or identity, doesn’t matter anymore within the halls of Leinster House, or to many voters. What does matter, is how human you are, because if the Irish hate one thing, it’s being clearly false. The world’s media may not recognise that nuance of our culture, which is why they’re focusing on Leo’s sexuality and ethnic background. For us, with our innate understanding that we won’t tolerate someone having ‘notions’, we can see past the ‘big news’ and focus on what is important to us in our national politics: What Leo does next is how he will be judged.
May he choose his steps wisely, because now, the entire world will be watching.
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