When Leo Varadkar is hailed as ‘refreshing’ and ‘straight-talking’ by commentators and journalists, it is because he’s saying things that they wish they could say, but are hampered in doing so, whether by polite convention or broader public opinion. It comes as a minor thrill, in these quarters, for the reactionary character of elite Irish opinion to be properly let off the leash from time to time.
Varadkar’s elevation to Taoiseach, elected only by a set of reactionary TDs, has brought with it a repackaging of the most regressive aspects of establishment politics -class condescension and contempt, entitled arrogance, and smug vindictiveness- as shiny, enlightened centrism.
Whereas his predecessors in the role of Taoiseach, at least as far back as I can remember, were able to reconcile, to some extent, the task of serving ruling class interests with that of appealing to a wide cross-section of Irish society*, Varadkar embodies little more than the sneering insouciance of Dublin’s business elites and technocrats.
This is an individual who won over the TDs of his own party by squandering public money on a campaign to demonise recipients of social welfare, based on the fraudulent premise that welfare fraud is a burning issue, when the real burning issue is the class hatred that drives Fine Gael TDs and its wider membership. This is someone we can really get behind, they concluded.
Varadkar’s Dáil appearances since his appointment have been characteristically hollow and obnoxious, a Trinity debating chamber equivalent of the Golden Cleric award. It came as no surprise that yesterday he was dismissive of Paul Murphy’s call for a public inquiry into the plain evidence that multiple Gardaí provided identical false evidence for the Jobstown prosecution, and sought to upbraid Murphy for conduct ‘unbecoming’ for a TD. For Varadkar, as for the rest of his party, undermining the left is a national duty: where’s the problem? Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, ever anxious to show how his party loves cops even more than Fine Gael, requested that Murphy be referred to the Dáil disciplinary committee for his remarks.
The other day, Varadkar defended his successor at the Department of Social Protection, Regina Doherty. The latter had complained to An Garda Síochána about an individual who was tweeting information -already available in the public domain- about Doherty’s business dealings. As a consequence, the individual, Catherine Kelly, a US-based academic, was approached by plain-clothes gardaí at Dublin Airport. This was a “private matter, not one of public policy”, Varadkar said.
Bollocks. Varadkar’s high-minded distinction between the public and the private was nowhere to be seen yesterday when he conducted a character assassination on NUI academic Rory Hearne, who had co-authored a report on family homelessness in Ireland, after the report, and the claim that newly established family hubs supposed to address homelessness might become become a new instance of Direct Provision-style incarceration, were raised at Dáil questions by Joan Collins TD.
Instead of addressing the implications of the report, Varadkar spoke about how Hearne had been an election candidate for “one of the left-wing groups” and recounted how he had found him “less than pleasant” at a running event in the Phoenix Park, and how the encounter was “not the kind of polite conversation I would expect from a university academic”.
Whatever the content of the conversation cited, no-one is obliged to be pleasant to Leo Varadkar or give him the polite conversation he expects, whether in private or in his public role as head of government. What was striking here is how Varadkar dispensed with the polite fiction that the head of government is first and foremost a public servant and hence not entitled to use the Dáil to engage in attacks on members of the public. There will be no referral to the disciplinary committee, of course, since attacks on the left, and attacks on ideas appearing to come from the left, have carte blanche. Here that we find the truth of the ‘centrism’ in which Varadkar cloaks himself and that cheers the hearts of official Ireland: behind its proclamation that there is ‘no longer left nor right’ is a signal that it is open season on the left, and, by extension, on any vestige of social equality, democratic accountability, and any intellectual work that does not serve the ends of power.
*Clearly I had repressed all memory of John Bruton at the time of writing.