Wednesday 22 January 2020

Leo is more Fine Gael than Fine Gael itself

Leo Varadkar is not really an outsider, says Brendan O'Connor. In many ways, for our generation, he is the first political leader who actually feels like one of us

Leo Varadkar newly elected leader of Fine Gael
Leo Varadkar newly elected leader of Fine Gael

Mine is a generation that grew up between two Irelands. There was the formal Ireland of our parents and the newer Ireland we inhabited. It was a duality we took for granted. The formal instruments of the State - politicians, people on the news, you could even include the Church as an instrument of the State - didn't speak like us, didn't share the same reference points, didn't have the same cultural hinterland as us. We took for granted that our generation was a huge counter-culture that existed within the prevailing old culture.

Largely they coexisted side by side. We didn't tend to trouble our parents too much by challenging them with the new world we lived in. The Church was not as all-powerful as it had been, and we tended to ignore it rather than rebel too much, as our immediate predecessors had to. We largely looked abroad for our cultural touchpoints. We just got on with it. There was us, and then there were the old men who ran everything, and we co-existed reasonably well, us in our state of what Fintan O'Toole has called 'internal exile'.

In recent years, things started to change. People of our generation started to take over the world of business, a new culture developed here driven more by the newer generation, by RTE, by music, by theatre. We had a few awkward conversations with our parents about things like homosexuality, and it turned out they knew a lot more than we gave them credit for and were more easygoing about things than we thought they might have been. Before we knew it, we had become the mainstream in many ways. And that's how it goes.

But politics, in a strange way, was the last institution to fall. It remained the preserve of old men who were not like us, old men who came from a different generation. Until recently we took for granted that we were led by a man who grew up in 1950s Ireland, whose modern cultural touchstone was Riverdance. Part of our tolerance of this situation was perhaps my generation's well-documented unwillingness to truly be the adults. In many ways, we were happy enough to let the old men, the adults, do the boring, thankless work of politics. Young men and women who got involved in politics tended to be oddballs, uncool, old-fashioned. They still carried on in a way that was alien to us. They yahooed and hoisted fellas on their shoulders at count centres. They went around calling to the doors of people they didn't know. They went ostentatiously to the funerals of people they didn't know. These were, to many of us, shameless, old redneck ways of doing things.

Leo Varadkar signalled early on in his political career that he was not like this. People in Dublin, he said, would think it was odd if you went to the funeral of someone you didn't know. People talk a lot about Leo Varadkar's lack of social skills, but for many of us it marked him out as normal, that he didn't go around shaking hands furiously with people he didn't know, that he felt a bit odd about turning up at the funerals of strangers.

And soon we will have a Taoiseach who actually feels like one of us, who feels like he grew up in the same Ireland that we did. Indeed, for me, the Taoiseach has gone from being a man of my parents' type and generation to being virtually a younger generation - nine years younger than I am.

It is odd but pleasing and possibly even a little bit scary that we are now led by a man who likes Blur, who goes to the Electric Picnic rather than Riverdance. But while this is refreshing, the truth about the under fifties is that we still found it comforting in a way to leave the old men in charge. This is the first real test of Generation X in Ireland. We are the adults now. But then, it's about time.

The election of Leo is also flattering. One of the things we delighted in most over the last 48 hours was how the world sees us now. It is an obsession in Ireland. What do people think of us? And on this one we're pretty pleased with ourselves, electing the son of an immigrant, gay at that, without batting an eyelid. It was the centrepoint of Leo's speech, what his elevation told us about ourselves: "Prejudice has no hold in this Republic." Aren't we great altogether? But then, Leo Varadkar was not elected Taoiseach by us. That is a test that is yet to come.

Not to be cynical but the most we can say about this victory is that pragmatism trumped any prejudice there might be among 50 members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. The party grassroots did not vote to make Leo Taoiseach, councillors just about did, and again they were probably voting on pragmatic grounds rather than considering matters as esoteric as prejudice or sexuality. Then again, they voted for Leo because they trust that he, in turn, will get them the votes. So it is, in some way, an implicit vote of confidence in Irish people that we would judge Leo "by his actions and character and not his origins or identity".

Which is nice. Varadkar's phrasing here, the use of the word identity, not to read too much into it, could be seen as double-edged. As well as saying that this was a triumph for identity politics, in that identity didn't matter, Varadkar may also have been having a casual swipe at the kind of victim-posturing that characterises identity politics. Gay and ethnic and the son of an immigrant but not a victim, rather a triumphant victor. Perhaps the Tory in Leo was subtly saying that all minorities, of which he represents two, need not be victims if they just get up early in the morning.

But before we slap ourselves on the back too much, we should remember that this is not always strictly true in Ireland. Certainly Leo is not just a gay man, and he is not just half Indian. And we, in our enlightenment, were able to see that. But we need to consider, too, the notion of intersectionality - the idea that multiple identities, including gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, age, disability and other things, intersect to create a whole that is different from its component identities. So, for example, a woman of colour cannot be classified as suffering the same prejudice as "just" a black man, or "just" a white woman. They suffer a different kind of prejudice based on the intersection of two aspects of their identity.

When we look at Leo's identity, we cannot compare his first-generation immigrant status with that of someone trapped in Mosney. Neither can we equate his experience of being gay with that of someone growing up on a farm in a small village in Ireland. Leo is gay and the son of an immigrant, yes. But there are other identities intersecting in him, too. He is a privileged man who went to Trinity, a qualified doctor, the son of a doctor, eminently middle class. All of this acts to temper anything in his sexuality or ethnicity that might threaten conservatives. The fact that he is also politically conservative helps, too. White, straight, privileged Paul Murphy is more threatening to the average conservative older Irish person than Leo is.

And maybe this is a triumph, the fact that two aspects of Leo's intersectional identity didn't matter because of all the other aspects of it that made him familiar to us. Leo is quintessentially Fine Gael, ultimately, not that different from his predecessor who grew up in the 1950s. He won the leadership with old-fashioned politicking, proving better at it than a man who allegedly grew up steeped in it. And don't forget he still allowed himself to be hoisted on the shoulders on Friday, even if he did have the grace to look a bit mortified by it.

For many of us, Leo's election is not some triumph of the outsider at all, in fact it's the opposite. There has never been a politician in Ireland who was more like us. And that is exciting. But for those of you who are expecting a whole new Ireland now, with a rainbow flag flying over the country, temper your expectations. Leo is more like the traditional Fine Gaeler than you imagine.

Sunday Independent

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