Thursday 17 October 2019

Donal Lynch: Leo's the man to preach to Pence: he once spoke his language

Exchanging shamrock is fine but there are many ways to make an impact on your hosts in Washington, writes Donal Lynch

Not so different: Leo Varadkar (left) arrives with partner Matt Barrett for a breakfast meeting with Mike Pence
Not so different: Leo Varadkar (left) arrives with partner Matt Barrett for a breakfast meeting with Mike Pence

In the smouldering bin-fire that is international relations in 2019, one small consolation is Ireland's sudden, unlikely moral authority.

Our politicians now get to talk down to the Brits about the mess they've made of Brexit and, in the era of Trump, Leo Varadkar gets to lecture Americans on the importance of plurality and tolerance.

Last week he brought his boyfriend, Matt Barrett, to meet US Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative Christian once dubbed "the face of anti-LGBT hate in America". Pence's wife, Karen, teaches at a school that bans gay pupils and staff. But, of course, just as a certain brand of racist would still be excited to meet Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama, the Pences appeared to be fine with hosting one of the world's openly gay leaders.

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Leo, too, seized the moment with aplomb, crossing the aisle, as the Americans say, while also playing to the gallery back home. After a Paddy's Day breakfast at Pence's official residence, Varadkar tweeted that he and Barrett had received a "warm reception", but in pointed remarks to Pence and gathered media, he spoke out against various types of discrimination.

"I lived in a country where if I'd tried to be myself at the time, it would have ended up breaking laws," Leo said.

"But today, that is all changed. I stand here, leader of my country, flawed and human, but judged by my political actions, and not by my sexual orientation, my skin tone, gender or religious beliefs."

The values in these remarks seem so right, so true, and they made Leo sound like a gay Martin Luther King, which is pretty much how the US press perceived him. But, of course, Leo is not that and he never was.

The narrative of his speech was also a little self-serving. He was only 13 when homosexuality was decriminalised in this country, so it's doubtful that the law, per se, was preventing him "being myself". As a young politician he did not come out publicly and had conservative positions on a range of social issues.

He was ambivalent at best about abortion and in 2009, he spoke in the Dail against gay adoption.

In a speech that could have been written by Mike Pence, he said: "Two men cannot have a child, two women cannot have a child… That is a fact, nobody can deny otherwise. Every child has a right to a mother and father, and as much as possible, the State should try and vindicate that right, and that the right of a child to have a mother and father is much more important than the right of two men, or two women, to have a family."

By the time Varadkar did come out a number of years later, being gay had turned into a political and social asset. It gave this young fogey a whiff of cool and won him a huge new constituency of supporters, who admired his bravery, however belated.

Leo may plead that he wants to be judged "by my political actions and not my sexuality" but it was being gay that put his name on the cover of TIME Magazine and in the week he was elected Taoiseach. It was being gay that saw him feted all around the world.

By the time the marriage referendum came around, Leo was able to bask in the role of progressive superhero, even though it was others who did the heavy lifting of campaigning and being visible when the gay cause was less popular.

Ironically, though, all of this makes Leo just the man to have a word with Pence. He could start by putting it in bald vote-getting terms. Instead of appealing to Pence's morality, he could maybe explain what a great career move support for the gay cause can turn out to be.

It helps win elections. It wins support from young voters. In a newly progressive Ireland, it was a feather in Leo's cap and gave a hint of cool to this admitted young fogey. Pence could do with this kind of image overhaul. His approval rating is abysmal among young Americans, a huge majority of whom now support gay rights.

In his unwavering support for Donald Trump, Pence has shown he will sacrifice his Christian principles to stay in power. Perhaps he would also throw his church's teachings under the bus to keep his grip on the White House.

Leo's own innate conservatism also makes him the ideal person to preach to Pence. The American vice-president is assuredly used to being lectured on the toxicity of his social conservatism from progressives who never shared his views, but it can't be often that he has the opportunity to speak to someone who has gone on the kind of personal and political journey undertaken by Leo.

If, unlike Hillary Clinton and unlike Barack Obama, Leo owned that progression and explained why he changed his mind about some of the key social issues of our time, surely that would be more persuasive than the lofty, worthy sentiments in the remarks he made.

Part of the genius of the speech that Panti gave at the Abbey during the marriage referendum, was that she pointed out that we - gay people included - are all homophobic to greater or lesser extents.

Pence is just a little further along a spectrum on which Leo himself has moved, and failing to mention that when speaking on the subject opens the Taoiseach to charges of hypocrisy.

Exchanging shamrock is all well and good but letting your hosts know that, deep down, you're really not that much different from them is the ultimate diplomacy.

Sunday Independent

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