On 14th June 2017, Ireland elected its youngest ever Taoiseach and first openly homosexual Prime Minister in Leo Varadkar; the new leader of political party Fine Gael. On top of that, he’s the first ever, ethnic minority Taoiseach, reflecting the now multicultural face of the Irish people in the 21st century. A generation ago, a non-white, non-heterosexual, non-Christian leader in politics would seem unimaginable on these shores, but here we are- and this can only be seen as a positive.
Former doctor Leo Varadkar is Dublin born, and son to Irish born Miriam and Indian born Ashok. His parents met when Miriam worked, as a nurse in England and Ashok was a doctor there. They soon moved to Ireland and settled in Dublin’s middle class suburb of Castleknock.
Despite the recent economic recovery, Ireland today is a country facing many challenges. Homelessness, a housing and rent crisis, and an inefficient two-tiered healthcare system among the most pressing, but there are more subtle issues lurking beneath the surface. The marginalised in Ireland, both foreign and otherwise are becoming increasingly left behind. The gap between rich and poor is worryingly widening. If history has taught us anything, this if nothing else, creates tension that manifests itself in society through crime and racism.
The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Ireland figures for the second half of 2015, showed 25 assaults had been carried out in the last six months of that year.
Director of ENAR Ireland, Shane O’Curry then described the record numbers as “appalling” and said the report confirmed what minority groups already know from their own experiences.
“We also have still more confirmation about the impact of hate crimes on the victim and their behaviour, and also, through the ripple effects of secondary victimisation, on community relations which can deteriorate as a result.
“We are also reconfirming, yet again, the clear link between the use of racist language and violence against all groups. The number of serious offences and hate crimes is alarmingly high,” he explained.
Yet, Leo has expressed views in the past on foreign nationals that take a conservative and alarmingly almost xenophobic stance –
“People will come to Ireland to work but will actually look down on our culture and look down on our freedoms and liberalisms and think they’re wrong,” he said last year.
In 2008, Varadkar a then TD as a spokesperson on Enterprise Trade and Employment, even suggested the notion of encouraging foreign nationals to leave this country with a social welfare sweetener to help them do so – deportation by another word. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of a liberal multicultural vision for his country.
“Would there be a case at this stage for giving an offer to foreign nationals the opportunity to receive, say, three or four or six months of benefits, if they then agreed to repatriate to their country of origin and then forgo benefits beyond that?”
He has a point in one regard- social welfare fraud is a continual problem in Ireland, but then again so is the huge cost of living when you look simple things such as rent prices, motor and health insurance, not to mention childcare costs. Is it any wonder the marginalised try to cut corners?
But lets put things into perspective, since Varadkar has been in politics the country has experienced its worst recession in decades, something that will inherently bring social problems with it.
The planet has become a very tense place to live, especially for those in the western world. Terrorism and religious fundamentalism from ISIS has contributed to an unjustified ill feeling towards the wider foreign community both abroad and in Ireland. Brexit has been seen by many as an anti immigration vote.
Varadkar by contrast, deserves credit for his support of government pledges to accept refugees from Syria. He has stated that immigration is “beneficial” to the economy, and while Minister for Health, he exempted asylum seekers in direct provision from prescription charges.
Only time will tell on the impact of Leo Varadkar’s tenure as Taoiseach with regard to the multicultural community in Ireland. Who knows; his ministry may be short lived if there is a general election soon and Fine Gael loses power. But Leo Varadkar deserves this opportunity. In an era of renewed economic prosperity, I hope he has the courage to make this opportunity a lasting one for the good of all Irish citizens, not just Irish people.