Though the international press story of ‘a gay son of an immigrant‘ will be viewed primarily through the lens of LGBT rights, it is important to point out that Leo Varadkar’s election as Fine Gael leader, and his elevation to Taoiseach, does not mark any kind of progress for immigrants to Ireland.
As minister at the Department of Social Protection, Leo Varadkar called for parents working in Ireland whose children are living overseas to be paid less than those whose children are living in Ireland.
He did this to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment. The amount of money ‘saved’ by doing so, even if it were not a violation of any commitment to equality, is trivial. He openly admitted he was doing so in response to public resentment towards ‘Europe’.
The Department of Social Protection is rife with arbitrary bureaucratic measures that target people on the basis of their nationality. For him to do such a thing as minister amounted to a vicious attack on some of the most marginalised people in Irish society. It is worth stressing, however, that in doing so he was continuing along the path set out by his predecessor at the department, the then Labour Party leader Joan Burton. Burton’s former advisor, Ed Brophy, recently wrote in the Sunday Independent that
‘a standing joke among Labour ministers and advisers in the last government was that one of our under-appreciated achievements was to make a social democrat of Leo. While this was facetious, his liberalism is for real’.
Varadkar’s ascent to Taoiseach will bring no small amount of self-congratulation in elite political and media circles in Ireland. They will see it, and present it, as one more chapter in the story of a new, outward-looking and tolerant country with equality of opportunity, and treat it as yet more cause for glorification of a State that, by their lights, cannot be racist.
But this story excludes, for example, the Citizenship Referendum of 2004. Its function was to strip certain people of rights and the formal status of citizen, on the basis of their parents’ nationality. The son or daughter of two immigrants to Ireland, born in Ireland in the present day, has no automatic right to citizenship. Hence they have very poor prospects of ascent to the pinnacle of political life in Ireland, even if luck has it that they or their parents do not get deported.