Wednesday 24 July 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Judge Leo on his record, not his race or sexuality'

Candidates for high office should get to the top based on their character and achievements, not on how they identify, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Leo Varadkar says he is happy to carry on being Taoiseach, but if he did ever become president of the EU, his sexuality and ethnicity should be irrelevant. Photo: Getty Images
Leo Varadkar says he is happy to carry on being Taoiseach, but if he did ever become president of the EU, his sexuality and ethnicity should be irrelevant. Photo: Getty Images

Eilis O'Hanlon

Leo Varadkar says he's "flattered" to be touted for the role of next European Commission president. He shouldn't be. If anything, he ought to be insulted.

Not because being EC president isn't an eminently desirable position. The annual salary of €306.654,96 is significantly up from a Taoiseach's remuneration of €185,350, and that's before all the usual generous perks.

Never mind seeing Kylie at the 3Arena. With that kind of money, Leo could follow the Australian pop star on a whole world tour.

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Eurosceptics have denounced the EU for granting such "absurd privilege to politicians while imposing sacrifices on citizens in the name of budget constraints", but it's not as if turning down the job would change that. The other candidates being put forward to replace Jean-Claude Juncker when his term comes to an end in November include a vice president of the European Investment Bank, the chief executive of the World Bank, and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

There's even an argument that Leo should take the job if he has a chance of getting it. Brussels is where the greatest political influence lies. When Independents 4 Change TD Clare Daly was asked why she wanted to stand for election as an MEP, her answer was: "Increasingly what we deal with in the Irish parliament either comes from Europe directly or Europe is being used as an excuse why we can't do things that benefit Irish people." As Commission president, Leo would be well placed to make that work to Ireland's advantage.

Being Taoiseach still ought to be the greatest honour for any Irish politician, and, to his credit, Leo appears to agree, insisting that "I'm loving the job and am only getting started... so I have no plans for a career change at this stage"; but we're constantly being told that we live in a post-nationalist world, in which attachment to one's country is old hat, even regressive, so that shouldn't be a worry to europhiles.

No, the real reason he ought to be insulted is because of the reasons that were given by international observers for why he would make a good fit, now that the campaign of centre right front runner, German Manfred Weber, has apparently hit the buffers. While admitting that he is "socially awkward" and has never won an election, the Financial Times suggested that Varadkar would make a "true generational change" on the grounds that he is "40 years old, half-Indian and proudly gay".

What has that got to do with being a good European Commission president? Juncker is 64, comes from Luxembourg, and is heterosexual, but his supporters still seem to think he's done a good job, even getting a deal with President Trump not to impose tariffs on cars imported into the US from the EU.

Surely nothing is less relevant to the question of who should take over from him than being gay and half Indian? It's weird how social attitudes shift. A few decades ago, the progressive position would have been that one's sexual orientation or ethnic origin was immaterial, and all that should matter was an ability to do the job. Now it's declared with equal fervour that being gay or of ethnic origin does make a difference, and should count in a candidate's favour.

Leo Varadkar deserves credit for being open about his sexuality since coming out on RTE on his 36th birthday in 2015, but not for his sexual preferences, and certainly not for his father's nationality. Saying otherwise is just another triumph of style over substance.

A similar nagging doubt about tokenism hangs over the decision to fly the rainbow flag over Leinster House yesterday during the annual Pride parade in Dublin, which also coincided with the establishment of the first LGBT support group in the Oireachtas.

There's nothing innately wrong with the Dail making a positive statement about gay rights. It's irritating when giant corporations use the LGBT banner as a way of gaining brownie points or flogging their products; but the Government has a duty to champion diversity and inclusivity. More than a quarter of a century on from the decriminalisation of homosexuality, it could even be argued that flying the Pride flag is long overdue.

Belfast City Hall will do the same when the city's Pride parade takes place in August, despite some complaints that it will upset those in the North who "believe that homosexuality is not right".

It's just too easy, that's all. It costs TDs literally nothing to pay lip service to the Pride cause, and, if something does cost one nothing politically, then why expect to gain any credit from it? Being in favour of LGBT rights couldn't be safer for a career politician.

Look at the media coverage of the Pride flag at Leinster House. There were a few negative comments online, but they were comfortably outnumbered by others saying it was worth it just to give the Iona Institute an attack of the vapours, as if that was a sufficient reason in itself to do anything.

What's more interesting is that this effort to get a piece of the credit for Pride has faced some pushback from within the gay community. The decision to invite gardai to march at yesterday's parade led to the withdrawal of one of the founding members of Dublin Pride, Queer Action Ireland, over concerns that the real meaning of Pride was being appropriated. They hosted an alternative parade instead. Tension has always existed between the desire to stay faithful to radical ideals and the competing need to increase the respectability of marginalised identities.

How to we achieve the latter without undermining the former, especially once it becomes commercially and politically expedient to adopt certain causes?

Sometimes the purists give the impression that they'd rather go back to the days of exclusion rather than lose themselves in the mainstream, with some activists even claiming that Pride is now just for "white, settled, rich Irish guys". Thrust into this ideological hothouse, where what seem like petty differences can take on huge emotive significance, those who don't belong to the LGBT community can feel as if they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't, show support. Surely the willingness of corporations and centrist and even conservative politicians to associate themselves with gay causes, for whatever reason, is a positive symbol of how far society has come, and more than makes up for any dilution of radicalism?

Gay rights campaigners can't just pitch themselves at the usual suspects on the anti-capitalist left, or they'll soon end up in a different ghetto, one defined by idiot student politics rather than sexuality.

It's still possible to make that case while acknowledging that the cynical appropriation of gay iconography by ambitious politicians and businesses in order to detract attention from less palatable parts of their agenda can be frustrating.

It's hard, though, to argue that, at a time when Donald Trump himself is tweeting to "celebrate LGBT Pride month" and the "outstanding contribution" gay people have made to the world, there's anything revolutionary about flying the rainbow flag above Leinster House, or, for that matter, having a gay, half-Indian Irishman tipped as next European Commission president. If Leo Varadkar ever does in the future bag a key role in the EU, let it be for the qualities and qualifications that he would bring to the job, rather than because of who shares his bed or his genes.

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