Last night I watched the first TV interview given by Ireland’s new Taoiseach / Prime Minister Leo Varadkar since he took office.
I am quite behind on the subject of Irish politics – most of it since 2000 has passed me by. I was out of the country at the time the Celtic Tiger was sinking its rotten teeth into the country – promising wealth to people that was built on a foundation of lies. I missed the economic crash and its devastating impact. The recession – although it was certainly felt in the Netherlands, was less catastrophic there. That country seemed to operate much more prudently than Ireland did. I was lucky that until my return to Ireland in 2015, I was in gainful employment. I have been trying to play catch-up with all that has happened at home in my absence.
When I came back, I was how struck by how resigned people seemed to be to their situation. How Irish people sort of viewed ourselves as pawns with no power, in some international financial chess game.
The social unrest caused by the plan to privatise Ireland’s water supply through the establishment of an unwanted semi-state billing company called Irish Water was the exception that seemed to prove the rule. Meanwhile on the subject of being held liable for billions of euros of private banking debt, the response was very muted and fatalistic.
Leo Varadkar was the minister for something or other, at the time. He is a member of Fine Gael – Ireland’s version of the Tory Party – which had been in power since 2011, when the previous gang of chocolate teapots – Fianna Fail – were ousted. Fine Gael was guiding Ireland through a regime of the most brutal austerity ever seen in the country – the country was effectively bankrupt and liable for all that private banking debt, so in a sense there was little room for manoeuvre in terms of spending.
Ireland’s Taoiseach at the time was a grey functionary called Enda Kenny – a man with the charisma of a glass of flat, warm Diet Coke, and a lovely head of dyed ginger hair. Like so many in Irish politics, Enda inherited his Dad’s parliamentary seat when Daddy retired. Until he ascended – by default – to the position of Taoiseach, what was most remarkable about him was his breathtaking mediocrity. His refusal to give interviews once Taoiseach, I suspect, stems from his fear about being asked about his past habit of telling blatantly racist jokes.
Things seemed to be picking up for the nation. The economy was still precarious, but on the rise. Jobs were being created (the fact that hundreds of thousands had fled the country through emigration meant that the unemployment figure was always misleadingly low).
An election was held in early 2016 and was a failure for Fine Gael. They ran it on a moronic ‘Let’s keep the recovery going’ slogan.
When a putative recovery has a background of such economic disaster, people don’t actually feel it. Rural devastation, a homelessness crisis not seen since the Famine, a health service in ruins and a suicide epidemic ravaging the country, doesn’t feel like revival. It felt like clinging on by the skin of your teeth.
Fine Gael lost over a third of its seats at the election, but as the biggest party they remain running the country as a minority government (although its actually a coalition with Fianna Fail – the 2nd biggest party who are virtually indistinguishable from Fine Gael except for who they supported during the Civil War one hundred years ago). Fianna Fail don’t want to officially enter a coalition because like all parties it only sees as far as the next election – and an official coalition would simply drive home to the country that there is no need for Fianna Fail, when Fine Gael already exists (the reverse also being true).
Thanks to the election results, it was Adios Enda. Leo became the new leader. On outward appearances this looked promising – he is openly gay – having come out at the age of 36 in 2015. He is the son of an Indian father and an Irish mother.
The only problem is that he is so right wing and downright nasty. Being gay didn’t stop him from arguing against gay rights, while it was politically convenient for him to do so, while he was in the closet. Being of half Indian descent didn’t stop him advocating the payment of migrant workers to leave Ireland during the crash. People can evolve I know, but to me it just shows a troubling sense of political expedience and a chilling lack of personal integrity as a human being, to behave in such a manner. In the words of Irish sage, Andrea Corr, Leo’s past behaviour can be forgiven, but shouldn’t be forgotten.
His last scam before becoming the leader was a ‘Squeal on your neighbour’ campaign. Benefit fraud is a crime, I agree. But as a crime it just seems so much more minor than the banking and tax scams, the multinational companies are operating in Ireland with Leo’s full knowledge and approval. Ireland is one of the globe’s greatest money laundering factories. But the population doesn’t seem to benefit much from this scheme. In this race to the bottom Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar want to target a scapegoat – the poor. Benefit fraud costs the economy millions. Although it is loose change when compared to the billions laundered legally through Ireland
He’s glib – I’ll give him that. From watching him last night proudly claiming to represent the early rising, middle class (although he believes that people on the minimum wage, are middle class) I could sense his brain working like a calculator.
From watching him, it would appear that he wants the health service privatised like it is in the US. I know that he plans to leave the housing crisis to the whim of the market. Allowing corporations and banks to operate as they please seems to be our Leo’s outlook. Dolly help you if you ever fall on hard times or have health issues. That’s entirely your own responsibility.
It was quite chilling. He doesn’t seem like the leader of a country, a society or a culture. He’s like the chief accountant of an economy.
I’ve never liked Fine Gael (or Fianna Fail). After watching our glorious leader on TV last night my opinion hasn’t changed.