Leo Varadkar vs the people

Good riddance to the man who turned Ireland into a laboratory of the new illiberalism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics World

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‘I am no longer best man to be Irish PM’, said a BBC headline this week, summarising Leo Varadkar’s resignation speech. The truth, Leo, is that you were never the best man to be Irish PM. He was never elected by the people to be taoiseach, instead securing that seat of power by appointment and backroom dealing. And once there, once he’d been gifted the highest office in the land by his allies in Dublin 4, he wielded government not for the people, but against them. He bent Ireland to what was essentially a vast real-time experiment in social re-engineering and thought control.

An unelected ruler using his power and clout to correct the country and improve the people? There’s a word for that. And it isn’t ‘democracy’.

Varadkar announced his resignation on Wednesday. In an emotional speech he said he was stepping down as leader of Fine Gael immediately and will step down as taoiseach once his successor has been chosen. His ‘shock departure’ followed the people’s crushing defeat of the twin referendum he put forward. Overwhelming majorities rejected his proposals to alter the Irish constitution to update its definition of ‘family’ and to fix what Varadkar damned as its ‘very sexist’ reference to a woman’s ‘duties’ in the home. No thanks, said the electorate, in the biggest ever referendum loss by an Irish government.

Even the fact that Varadkar’s stepping down is widely seen as a ‘shock move’ speaks to the haughtiness, the outright unworldliness, of his political kind. To many of us it makes perfect sense that a PM would bugger off after suffering a historically unprecedented bloody nose from voters. But it seems the Varadkar clique thought they could ride it out. ‘No biggie’ was their view. Until his ‘shock departure’ on Wednesday, reports the Guardian, ‘the political fallout from the [referendum] debacle had widely been expected to be limited’.

Who expected that? I’m sure those voters who gleefully seized the opportunity of the referendum to give the middle finger to Varadkar and the rest of the establishment didn’t expect the impact of their discontent to be ‘limited’. It is a testament to the arrogance of technocracy, to the chasm that has emerged between Ireland’s rulers and Ireland’s ruled, that the Dublin establishment thought it could shrug off the largest drubbing it has ever received from voters.

In the end, tellingly, it seems it was disgruntlement from within his own party ranks, rather than the disgruntlement of the oiks, that convinced Varadkar to go. He was facing ‘increasing discontent within Fine Gael’, with some party bigwigs worried he’s an ‘electoral liability’. Everything you need to know about the man is contained in the fact that he essentially shrugged when the masses rose up against him but bolted when his fellow clerisy members criticised him. To the technocrat, the disapproval of their dinner-party circle carries far more weight than the discontent of ordinary people.

If Varadkar was edged out by the tut-tutting of movers and shakers, it would be a fitting end to a career that always owed more to the intrigue of political insiders than to the enthusiasm of the electorate. It is an unremarked upon truth that Varadkar was never installed into power by the people. He first became taoiseach in 2017 when then taoiseach Enda Kenny resigned as leader of Fine Gael. Varadkar was elected new party leader and became taoiseach on the back of it. So he became PM of Ireland on the back of the deliberations of 25,000 party members, not the ballots of the people.

Actually, even members of Fine Gael weren’t especially enthused by him. Varadkar’s opponent in the 2017 leadership contest – Simon Coveney – won almost twice as many votes from party members: 7,051 to Varadkar’s 3,772. But Varadkar won more votes from members of the parliamentary party – 51 to Coveney’s 22 – which meant Fine Gael’s weighted electoral college ruled in his favour rather than Coveney’s. From the get-go, Varadkar’s rule of Ireland was more an accomplishment of elite patronage than democratic keenness.

His second stint as taoiseach wasn’t very democratic, either. At the 2020 General Election, the first that Varadkar fought following his appointment as PM, Fine Gael lost seats. Fifteen in total. That’s a lot in Ireland, where Dáil Éireann has just 160 members (TDs). Fine Gael suffered its worst showing at the ballot box since 1948, winning just over 20 per cent of the vote. How did Varadkar become taoiseach again after overseeing his party’s worst demise in seven decades? After essentially losing an election? Intrigue, naturally. Court-like machinations restored him to the throne.

Following the election, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, together with the Green Party, formed a coalition government. And in a move that would make Machiavelli blush, Varadkar and the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, agreed to share the prime ministership. The public didn’t want either of them but ended up with both. Varadkar got a historic thrashing at the polling booth yet still got to run the country.

The unusualness of the coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil cannot be overstated. These were Ireland’s great rival parties, both having emerged from the Civil War of the 1920s. Each embodying a particular worldview, each speaking for a certain social stratum. And yet here they were conspiring to rule together. Imagine Trump and Biden hot-desking together in the Oval Office, or the Tories and Labour waltzing hand in hand into Downing Street, and you’ll have a sense of the strange outrage that is Ireland’s coalition government. Its existence speaks to the exhaustion of Ireland’s old politics and its replacement by a wholly post-ideological, post-history, technocratic form of governance. And its chief beneficiary, until Wednesday, was Varadkar. Unpopular with the people, loved by the overclass, he built his political brand on the rubble of Ireland’s old public life.

And what did he do from his lofty, unearned perch of power? Nothing good. All his big initiatives seemed designed less to improve people’s lives than to improve the people themselves. To fix their backward thinking, wash away their sinful thoughts. To drag them – screaming if necessary – into a New Ireland cleansed of its problematic past and all problematic beliefs and remade in the woke image of King Leo. As befits a taoiseach canonised by the establishment rather than backed by the people, Varadkar pursued a low-level war of attrition on Irish society and its disappointing citizens.

Consider his infamous hate-speech bill. Across the world people have expressed alarm at the tyranny that would flow from it. Its promise to punish, severely, ‘incitement to hatred’ on account of a person’s race, gender or religion could easily give rise to the criminalisation of opinion. The opinion that a person’s assumed gender is bullshit, for example. Or a feminist refusing to say she / her about a he / him. Or an individual floridly bristling at mass immigration. All might be judged hateful by the state and fined, even jailed. Indeed, following the rioting by mobs ticked off about Ireland’s immigration levels, Varadkar said he would punish not only the rioters – as one would expect – but also ‘online promoters of hate’. That is, people who said things, on the internet, about immigration or Islam or whatever else it might be.

His dream was nothing less than thoughtpolicing, state oversight of belief. He wanted to empower the police and courts to punish the utterance of certain ideas – an empowerment the coalition will continue to pursue following his resignation. If a Third World country had an essentially unelected leader who was passing laws to punish the eccentric and the dissenting, we’d call it despotic. What should we call Varadkar’s Ireland?

Or consider his stance on immigration. Under Varadkar immigration and asylum rose hugely and his clique looked down upon anyone who raised concerns as racist. Country people and working people who worried out loud about immigration’s impact on smalltown life or public services or jobs risked being sneered at by their distant overlords in Dublin. You’re xenophobic, would come the rebuke. Varadkar made it clear that local communities would have no veto over who can live among them.

Under Varadkar, immigration policy wasn’t just about securing cheap labour from abroad or pleasing Brussels by bowing to the Single Market’s insistence on ‘freedom of movement’. It became an imperious crusade, a means through which Dublin’s elites might extend their cultural dominion over the country. Migrants were made into vessels of the ideology of multiculturalism, the elites hoping their arrival in some small town might modernise and improve it.

If, as Varadkar himself said this month, immigration has become a ‘top-tier’ issue, it’s not because race hate has exploded on the Emerald Isle. It’s because Ireland’s immigration policy is increasingly a social re-engineering project swaddled in liberal-speak, and people don’t like it. It’s not immigrants they hate so much as an elite so arrogant that it has granted itself the kingly right to re-engineer the nation itself so that it better reflects the multicultural worldview of Dublin and better serves the economic requirements of global capital.

The Varadkar clique signed up to the gender cult too, leading to the imprisonment of violent men in women’s prisons. He was a Net Zero apostle, once calling on Ireland’s farmers to become ‘more sustainable’, to ‘reduce greenhouse gas emissions’ and ‘improve biodiversity’. Who cares that such demands threaten the livelihoods of farmers and the future of dairy farming – in Varadkar’s Ireland, even food production played second fiddle to the re-engineering of the nation as woke, open and green. And then came his proposal to rewrite the constitution itself, to cleanse it of its ‘very old-fashioned’ terminology and reword it to the Varadkar set’s tastes. It seems that, for many, that was an act of elite arrogance too far.

Varadkar’s rule was government of the elite, by the elite, for the elite. His government against the people added up to an attempted reordering of how people think, what they may say, what their communities should look like and even how they should relate to the constitution. All had to be bent to the fanatical whims of a taoiseach who was never even called upon by the people to govern. I won’t mourn the absence of this man who turned Ireland into a laboratory of the new illiberalism, a testing ground for globalist ideas that are alien to millions. Let him go to Brussels or Davos and mingle with like-minded snobs.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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