To many Irish people (innocents that they are) it may seem unthinkable that people who voted for Barack Obama would, several years later, vote for Donald Trump. This is not so much a comment on what Obama or Trump have amounted to, as what they seem or seemed to represent. The fact is that many people who voted for Obama’s “Yes We Can” also voted for Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. And the more of these people one encounters, the more sense the modern world seems to make.
The defining significance of Obama’s two term Presidency was the failure to unify the United States across ethnic and racial lines. The post-racial America he seemed to represent did not materialise. Over the course of eight years it in fact disintegrated. Today, nobody believes in the idea anymore. Nobody believes that an idea can unify the people of the so called United States. The shock of this realisation has not been properly appreciated on this side of the Atlantic.
But what has any of that got to do with Leo Varadkar? Leo Varadkar has told us that “prejudice has no hold on this Republic”, a statement of which he is assumed to be the evidence. An “openly gay, half-Indian man” as Zainab Boladale described him last week, has ascended to the summit of political power in Ireland. Or just about. But the statement carries a second assumption, which is that prejudice is a stage in society which one gets beyond. We are to believe that prejudice in the second decade of the twenty-first century has been overcome or even transcended. What Varadkar means by this in a way is that our society is no longer prepared to make hard (or even soft) ingroup distinctions. Irish people are no longer prepared to make claims of exclusivity in relation to identity or culture or ethnicity or territory. Indeed they are told outright, that to do so would be prejudiced.
Since the European Convention on Human Rights was drafted and brought into force in the early 1950s, we have had this curious phenomenon of minority politics coming to slowly dominate European nation states. As a rule, minorities become larger, they become more numerous, they become more organised, people defect from the majority and form new minorities etc. And slowly one sees in European nations that the moral claims of the core culture give way. Often without a fight. As in other countries where this experiment has been applied, the designated majority native population are discouraged from being self-interested whereas everyone else is not. Everyone else continues to play the game of identity and to make ingroup/ outgroup distinctions.
Irish people are innocent. Perhaps the most innocent people in the multicultural age. Everyone else has matured or is in adolescence. It is only the Irish who are so totally serene and innocent. For a great many Irish people today, the transition from Enda Kenny to Leo Varadkar is merely a changing of governance. Nothing to get too excited about. Varadkar’s ethnicity and his sexuality are minor points. Varadkar is simply an individual with individual thoughts and wants. There is nothing of any more significance to it.
The problem, and this is what other nations are re-learning, is that people are not simply individuals, with individual interests and individual desires. We are born each of us into a web of interests and obligations and territories. We are not born outside history. One would think that Irish people might understand that. Many an Irish person knows the feeling of being in a foreign place and recognising the thrill of recognition at the sound of a native voice or even the sight of a fellow countryman. The feeling of sudden belonging, the feeling of being at home with them, of sharing a common understanding.
All of these things we take for granted, for most of us over the age of twenty have grown up in a relatively homogeneous society. That is, regardless of the many failings of the Irish State, we have benefited from a sense of fraternity. Indeed we are famous around the world for this sense of fraternity. One finds it on every continent where Irish people congregate.
Whether we like it or not, this fraternity evolves from a sense of being the same people, of sharing a common culture and a common identity, of even looking as though we come from the same place, the same part of the world, shaped by it. We are not unique in this. For anybody who has spent time with people of other cultures and ethnicities, particularly anyone who has ventured beyond the superficiality of expat communities, understands this. They understand that in aggregate, people are more comfortable with people who are similar to them. Similar on a variety of scales. Diversity may work very well in a small expat community, where people make up for their ethnic differences on other variables. Generally these groups are cosmopolitan and liberal. But an expat community is not scalable to a society. Societies have far too many variables.
In a large complex society, aggregate factors ensure that group interests express themselves. It is quite acceptable nowadays to talk in general terms about class interests. But ethnic and religious interests are just as significant. People have interests whether they acknowledge them or not. So it doesn’t matter how innocent Irish people are or pretend to be. It doesn’t matter whether or not they view Varadkar’s election as just another transition of power, a change of management. Because others will view it differently. And in the very activity of viewing it differently, group interests will exist and be expressed.
Take as an example the article published in the Irish Independent on the 3rd of June, 2017, “Varadkar’s victory is ‘a great step’ for multicultural Ireland”. The title itself in instructive. For what is “multicultural Ireland” and what is it being set up in binary to? The article features several extended quotes from Dr. Moosajee Bhamjee “who was once Ireland’s most high-profile non-Irish born politician”. He is clearly very pleased with Varadkar’s election, not because Varadkar is a good man or because he is a skilled politician but because he represents a step towards an ever more diverse Irish society. To put it another way, diversity is an end in itself.
The election of Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader represents “a great step for Ireland but an even greater thing for the world” in terms of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity.
Dr Moosajee Bhamjee (69), who was once Ireland’s most high-profile non-Irish born politician, said he believed Mr Varadkar (38) could, both as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, deliver “a positive shock” in terms of modern Irish society.
Dr. Bhamjee is of course partial in his observations, having been perceived for so long as a foreigner. It is not surprising that he prefers Ireland to become more globalised, to become more diverse, because that is the Ireland he will feel less alienated in. And the one his children will feel less alienated in. To put it colloquially, Dr. Bhamjee has a dog in the fight. He has interests which go far beyond plain liberal individualism and which concern groups. Whether or not Irish people come to feel alienated in a very diverse society, is not really his concern.
Dr Bhamjee, a Clare-based doctor, was born in South Africa but his father hailed from India.
Mr Varadkar was born in Dublin to an Indian-born doctor and a Waterford-born mother.
“This is a great step for Ireland but an even greater thing for the world,” Dr Bhamjee said.
“Ireland has come a long, long way in the past 15 or 20 years”.
It is interesting that the Centre in Irish politics view Varadkar as a kind of slick, Macron-type figure whereas the far-left view him as some kind of “hard-right” Thatcherite figure. Though perhaps those two things are not so different. But everyone seems in agreement that he represents a new Ireland. As an open homosexual and the son of an Indian man, he embodies the ideal of a multi-polar, multi-ethnic society. The liberal, open, tolerant ideal.
The socialist Left, or the sections of the Left which still consider themselves primarily socialist, will downplay the identity aspects. But really it is the identity aspects that matter. The Left in the West sold out their socialist ideals long ago for the minutiae of identity and minority politics. They may pretend otherwise, but it is merely pretending.
To the media, especially the foreign media, the significance of Varadkar is in the first instance his ethnicity and in the second instance his sexuality. This is where the foreign media in particular are focusing their attention. It is counted as a positive step forward that Ireland would accept as leader a person like Varadkar. It brings Ireland into line with the so called progressive forces in the world.
We had an even clearer example recently in Zainab Boladale’s article “Opinion: I don’t support Varadkar but I support the future he represents”, published on the 30th of May 2017. In it Boladale states very plainly that though she disagrees with Varadkar’s politics she views him as being representative of a new Ireland. As an “openly gay, half-Indian man” he represents her in a way Enda Kenny presumably could not.
The implication is of course that, being a black woman in Ireland, she might very well vote for a black candidate on the basis that he or she is black. And further that she would do so regardless of, even despite of, his or her political positions. Identity might simply trump economics. Even so, she goes out of her way to criticise Varadkar’s economic views, which incidentally she associates with “straight white men”. One can only assume Varadkar has been spending too much time in the wrong company.
Despite the historical significance of Leo Varadkar’s candidacy and the fact that he checks the diversity boxes for many of the minority groups in Ireland, his conservative political ideology and public stance on social issues over the years are still reminiscent of the many traditional straight white men that have saturated Irish politics.
I’ve never heard someone who is LGBT+, a dual nationality citizen, a non-national or a person of colour say that if Varadkar gets elected, he’s going to make things better for this country.
It is ironic perhaps that the Irish, a people so synonymous with tribalism should seem so quickly to have dispensed with it. Indeed, many Irish people now seem confused when one brings it up. That the people who we are allowing into our society will have interests and that these interests will manifest in group allegiances and that these allegiances may give rise to tensions, anomalies, parallel societies, alienation of any kind, this seems of absolutely no concern to anyone in power or close to power. Certainly no journalist or politician.
Varadkar the man is less important now than what he represents or how he identifies. It doesn’t matter all that much whether he succeeds or fails, or whether he drifts Left or Right on economics. The first line of his obituary will read “gay son of an Indian immigrant who became Taoiseach” or “Varadkar represented the triumph of a new multicultural era”, because those are the only details that matter now. And like all minority politics, they matter in a tribal way. Like Obama, who we mentioned earlier, Varadkar represents an ideal which, sadly or happily, can never materialise. That ideal being the post-tribal society.
The general reaction to Varadkar’s victory is a measure of how uprooted Irish society has become, which has little to do with Varadkar and everything to do with the age we live in. The fanfare in certain quarters and the silence in certain quarters, both speak of a shifting, rootless society. The need to be open seems to have replaced, in the minds of Irish people, the necessity to be in any way guarded. “Openness” in and of itself has no moral value, of course. Though we are treated constantly with claims that it does. It is the degree of “openness”, it is the type of “openness”, that has to be assessed and judged. Leo I will not be Leo the Last. Diversity has no designated finishing line but is an end in and of itself. The people coming to live in Ireland understand this very well. And do not need to be told it.