Last week, I was in my local hardware store in Dublin, getting some keys cut by the elderly gentlemen who owns the shop, and we were both half-listening to the rolling news was crackling out of the radio.
The excitement was owing to the resignation of Enda Kenny, Ireland’s longest serving Taoiseach, as the Prime Minister of Ireland is known, the word coming from the Gaelic for “chieftain” or “leader.”
This event had been impatiently anticipated for well over a year, and immediately the two leading pretenders for the leadership—Leo Varadkar, the current health minister, and Simon Coveney, the housing minister—threw their hats in the ring.
Within hours, it seemed, almost every elected politician of the ruling Fine Gael party had declared for Varadkar and, under the party’s voting rules, which give significantly more weight to the party’s elected politicians than to its members, it seemed the race was all but sewn up.
As we listened to the declarations rolling in on the radio, between the keening of the key machine, another customer came bounding into the store.
“Well,” he said disingenuously, “What do you think of that then? Varadkar for Taoiseach! It’ll be interesting when he brings his partner on foreign visits, won’t it?”
The sly emphasis was due to the fact that Varadkar has confounded traditional expectations of what makes a Taoiseach not only by being 38, not only by being the son of an Indian immigrant and his Irish wife, but also by being Ireland’s most prominent out, gay elected politician.
I sighed, braced myself for a storm of homophobic ranting, and hoped my keys would be ready soon.
I would never in a hundred years have predicted how the shop owner—who must have been at least 75—would reply as he did: “Oh, I think it will be great for us,” he shot back, “A bit of a novelty. A great example.”
Crestfallen that he hadn’t succeeded in his trolling, the newcomer fell silent and quietly browsed the shelves of mousetraps, super glue, and sandpaper while I got my keys finished up.
Up and down the country, across all ages and classes, conversations like this have been taking place.
The general reaction to Ireland being on the point of having its first gay premier—joining an exclusive club that has only ever included only Luxembourg, Belgium, and Iceland—has been remarkably unremarkable.
It’s in stark contrast to the situation just six years ago, when a gay senator, David Norris, stood for the position of president.
Norris was the victim of a series of disgusting, homophobic attacks by the Irish press. The Sun newspaper’s Irish franchise took great delight in decorating its front page with a series of puns on the Irish word for the president’s house, the Arras.
Norris, a lifelong campaigner for gay rights in Ireland, with an extraordinary record of public service, even saw himself accused of being an apologist for pedophilia.
It wasn’t just the tabloids that rounded on him; he won multiple libel cases including one against RTE, the state broadcaster, which allowed a contributor to a radio show to say repeatedly that he had suggested parents should be allowed to have sex with their children.
Speaking to The Daily Beast this week, Norris said that the potential coronation of Varadkar as Taoiseach is indeed “a very significant moment.”
Norris said: “Gay people of my generation—I am 73—had no role models at all. There was not even discussion of it unless it was in the context of a police trial. So to have someone young, fit, good-looking, and gay is a great thing for young people. They can see a headline and know that they can be successful. It signals to a young gay man or woman that they can seriously consider going into politics.”
Norris said that the rise of Varadkar is a sign that “people are thinking things out for themselves, not dong bidding of church or state any more.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the rise of Varadkar and LGBT rights more generally in Ireland without the concomitant decline of the Catholic Church, which campaigned against equality in the marriage referendum.
The church has lost influence following a series of horrific scandals which revealed that the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of children by priests, monks, and nuns (and its cover-up) was endemic in the organizations they controlled which extended into every area of Irish life.
Tens of thousands of children are thought to have been abused. Just this year another gruesome chapter was added to the story when it was confirmed that hundreds of illegitimate babies were buried in shoeboxes and rags by an order of nuns who ran a so-called Mother and Baby home.
Like many Irish people, Norris also believes the 2015 equality in marriage referendum, which was won by the pro-equality side by a huge margin of 62-38, has been pivotal in changing attitudes across Irish society. Indeed Varadkar, who dates a Dublin doctor and trained as a medic himself, came out as gay during the referendum campaign.
The Catholic Church vigorously opposed the marriage equality referendum, and voting yes was also seen as a powerful demonstration of the fact that Irish people were no longer in thrall to the church.
Norris said: “It played a significant role. People talked to their families and work colleagues told them they were gay. It opened up a real national dialogue, and put a human face on the idea of being gay.”
Norris points out that Ireland is not “that politically backward” and that Ireland had the first woman cabinet minister and that he himself was “the first person elected to a national parliament as a gay man in 1987” when he was elected to the Senate (albeit that his electorate was a limited franchise, 65,000 graduates of Trinity College, a prominent Dublin University).
The current minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zeppone, is gay.
Another influential commentator, Tonie Walsh, the co-founder of Gay Community News and curator of the Irish Queer Archive, now held at the National Library of Ireland told The Daily Beast: “I suppose it’s a measure of how much has changed in Ireland within a generation that I find it quite unremarkable that we might end up with a Taoiseach who is gay.”
Like many others, Walsh is concerned that Varadkar’s sexual identity is obscuring his right-wing ideology—Varadkar has been compared by his critics to Margaret Thatcher—but he still says the installation of a gay prime minister is an important sign of how “Ireland has been growing up in terms of attitudes to sexual minorities.”
Much credit, he says, must go to the EU which encouraged Ireland to embrace “notions of social inclusion and cultural diversity. Given what is happening in Britain at moment [with Brexit] it is hugely important to remember that. The EU has allowed a conversation about the type of rights and social justice we want in Ireland to take place and Leo Varadkar is a beneficiary of that. He can campaign without having any obvious concern about his sexual orientation.
“The marriage referendum became a much larger question of the type of society we wanted our children and grandchildren to grow up in. It seems the majority in Ireland have signed up to a liberal, progressive, empathic future.”