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Leo Varadker to become Irish Prime Minister

by Frank Schnittger Mon Jun 5th, 2017 at 10:42:27 AM EST

Leo Varadker, the son of an immigrant Indian Doctor and an Irish mother, has won the Fine Gael Leadership election and is set to become Taoiseach in the next week or so. To do so he needs to secure the agreement of Fianna Fail to a continuation of their "Confidence and Supply Arrangement" to abstain from votes of No Confidence in order to allow the minority Fine Gael government to remain in office. Several Independent ministers will also have to renew their agreement to support the Government.

The election was held using an electoral college system for the first time, whereby TDs, MEPs and Senators have 65% weighting, local county councillors 10% and general party members 25%. Varadker won the first group by 51 to 22 votes, won the councillor's votes by 123 to 100 votes, but lost the general membership vote by 3,772 to 7,051 votes - a 35-65% margin. Given the different weightings of the three parts of the electoral college, this was sufficient for an overall 60-40% win.

At 38, Varadker will become the youngest ever Taoiseach if one discounts the election of Michael Collins as Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State at the age of 31 in 1922. He will be the fourth openly gay leader of a European country to be elected Prime Minister following Jóhanna Sigurdardottir (Iceland 2009), Elio Di Rupo (Belgium 2011) and Xavier Bettel (Luxembourg 2013). While his sexuality was an issue for some older more conservative Fine Gael members, particularly from more rural areas, it was generally deemed to be no big deal by the media and the political establishment.

It is, however a big deal for the LGBT community given that it is only 25 years since homosexuality was formally decriminalised in Ireland, and given that an amendment to to Constitution to allow same sex marriage was only passed as recently as 2015 by a 62% majority in a referendum . It follows on from the near election of prominent gay right campaigner, David Norris, to the Irish Presidency in 2011, a campaign eventually won by Michael D. Higgins after a far superior campaign performance.

Nevertheless it is a victory that comes with some mixed feelings, because Varadker is one of the more conservative leaders of the most conservative party in the State. I had a little fun teasing him about his economic prognostication skills in the Irish Times today: Irish Times Letters to the Editor

Sir,- Writing on the letters page of your esteemed publication on January 12th, 2009, a certain young TD called Leo Varadkar stated: "There will be no global recession. The Minister for Finance really needs to understand this."

Given his recent elevation to the leadership of Fine Gael, and the expectation he will shortly become our Taoiseach, would he be so good as to share his predictions for the next few years? The world wants to know.

As a sometime fellow correspondent to the letters page of The Irish Times, I predict a great future for him. - Yours, etc,


Michael Noonan, long serving Finance Minister, will follow Enda Kenny into retirement so Varadker will have at least two senior cabinet portfolio jobs to fill, although he may take the opportunity to accentuate the sense of a generational change in Fine Gael by replacing some other older Ministers as well. His options are limited by Fine Gael having only 50 TDs; The pool of talent and experience at his disposal is not especially deep.

The key issues requiring his immediate attention on becoming Taoiseach will be Brexit, the future of the Northern Ireland Executive, public sector pay talks, and dealing with the ongoing scandals in An Garda Síochána, the Irish police service. The next budget in October could be contentious given below target tax receipts, expected pubic service pay increases and the as yet still uncertain impact of Brexit on the Irish economy and government finances.

Some commentators expect Varadker to take advantage of any bounce in the Fine Gael vote occasioned by his election to call an early general election. Like Theresa May, he has ruled out that possibility... However Fine Gael is unlikely to achieve a sufficient increase in their vote to be able to form a Government without the support of other parties, and that would be even more problematic than the last time around if he breaks the confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fail.

So, on balance, I would expect the current weak minority government consisting of just 50 Fine Gael seats out of 156 seats in Parliament supported by a few independents and the grudging abstention of Fianna Fail to survive for some time longer, and perhaps the two further budgets stipulated by the agreement. By that time the A50 period will have elapsed and we will all have a much clearer idea of what the post Brexit world will look like for Ireland.

Varadker has said he will hold a referendum to loosen the restrictions on abortion in Ireland but it is not clear he could secure a parliamentary majority for any particular wording. Some will oppose any compromise wording because it is too loose, and some will oppose it because it is too restrictive, and many will oppose it just because they are in opposition and the issue presents a golden opportunity to divide Fine Gael and weaken the Government and with it, Varadker's popularity and authority.

So the classic Irish political stratagem of "kicking the issue into the long grass" seems a likely outcome, together with procrastination on a whole range of other contentious issues. This will damage Varadker's carefully crafted public persona as a straight talker and probably result in much disillusion after his honeymoon period in office is over. But then, what do I know? My track record of prognostication, having gotten Trump's election wrong, is not all that much better than Varadker's...

Ironically Varadker was elected using an electoral college system he himself proposed.  The larger Irish political parties have traditionally elected their leaders (and prime Ministerial candidates) by a majority vote of the parliamentary party only. Varadker's predecessor, Enda Kenny, was elected under the old system which occasioned an outburst by Varadker on the letters page of the Irish Times at the time (June 3rd, 2002):
We are the two Young Fine Gael delegates who successfully proposed the new system for electing the Leader of Fine Gael. We feel shocked, appalled and betrayed at the decision of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party to elect a successor to Michael Noonan under the old, undemocratic system.

More than ever, Fine Gael needs to consult members and councillors across the country about the future of the party and its leadership. Clearly, the rump 31 TDs and the 14 unelectables from the fag-end of a Senate have learned nothing from Fine Gael's mauling at the polls.

As we write, candidates for the Leadership are already sowing the seeds of Fine Gael's next election defeat by trading votes for votes with senators determined to make it back to Leinster House at any cost. The decision of the parliamentary party to decide the future of Fine Gael alone and behind closed doors is a disgrace and demonstrates their contempt both for the loyal Fine Gael membership and the 400,000 or so electors who voted for them. Shame on you all. - Yours, etc.,

Lucinda Creighton, Vice-President, Young Fine Gael;

Leo Varadkar, Dublin West Constituency Organiser

So whatever you might think of the electoral college system, it is a big improvement on the old system which gave local councillors and party members no vote whatsoever. The larger electorate also ensured that the party was somewhat revitalised and dominated the media spotlight for a couple of weeks giving the party a bounce in the opinion polls.

Subsequent to co-signing the letter, Lucinda Creighton  became a Junior Minister for European Affairs and then left Fine Gael in an abortive attempt to form a new party to the right of Fine Gael - an attempt which failed miserably - proving that there is very little electoral space to the right of Fine Gael...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Jun 5th, 2017 at 07:15:26 PM EST
Nevertheless it is a victory that comes with some mixed feelings, because Varadker is one of the more conservative leaders of the most conservative party in the State.

There was a comment piece on that theme in the Guardian:

Left-leaning folk in Ireland are hoarse trying to explain to the faraways that, yes, we understand the optics - but this is Ireland, land of the topsy-turvy, where the election of a gay person of colour at the same time signals the entrenchment of anti-woman, anti-working-class austerity-as-usual. There have been understandably frustrated reactions, not only to the tone-deaf global coverage, but also to the ostensible "identity politics" signalled by LGBT rights groups welcoming Varadkar's election.

I am no fan of his. But I feel the following simple observation is necessary: we can celebrate the fact that Ireland's next leader will be a gay man of colour, even while we protest his politics. It's great that Ireland has socially evolved to the point that Varadkar's race and sexuality are not barriers to his leadership; but it's sad that the next taoiseach is a cardboard-cutout neoliberal.

by Gag Halfrunt on Tue Jun 6th, 2017 at 11:55:13 AM EST
Wouldn't it be more true to say "We'll even allow someone who is gay and not white to be PM - as long as he's a neoliberal"?

Gay and not white is fine. Left of centre is still unpossible.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Jun 6th, 2017 at 12:21:50 PM EST
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I think Varadker played to the Fine Gael party membership base (total membership: 20,000, mostly made up of families who took the pro-treaty side in the 1922 civil war) in order to increase his Fine Gael leadership election prospects, but now he has to play to an entirely different electorate (c. 3 Million) who are mostly to the left of Fine Gael.

I see him more as a relatively intelligent pragmatic politician rather than as a neo-liberal ideologue and so his focus will be on increasing Fine Gael's 25% of the vote at the last election - and most of the persuadable uncommitted votes there are to his left.

Given that Fine Gael only has 50 seats out of 158, and is reliant on a few independents (focused mostly on local issues) and on Fianna Fail abstention to stay in office his freedom of action is extremely circumscribed.

He will thus focus on a few low hanging fruit of achievable goals such as segregation of alcoholic drinks in supermarkets (already indicated), maybe a sugar tax, some health promotion initiatives, expansion of access to free GP (General Practitioner) care, some more money for public healthcare, expansion of non-religious schools patronage, increased job creation in more rural areas, a land tax on hoarded land zoned for development (already signalled by Michael Noonan) etc.  I.e. Mostly populist, marginally useful, nothing revolutionary, but nothing gratuitously neo-liberal either.

He doesn't have the votes to pursue a rabidly neo-liberal agenda even if he wanted to. It is possibly best to see him as Ireland's answer to Macron without French militaristic or foreign policy objectives. He may seek to dilute public sector monopolies in (say) public transport, but anything which provokes an extended strike would be extremely damaging for him and lose him the uncommitted vote he needs to win.

Ireland is growing rapidly at the moment, with 5% GDP growth, 3.5% employment growth (contrary to perceptions, disproportionately more in rural areas), and slowly rising wages.  Best not to upset the apple cart and hope to ride a wave of support for reasonable competence in keeping the recovery going....  a slogan that didn't work the last time because too few people had seen real benefits from the recovery in their lives - but which hopefully will apply to a lot more people next time around.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jun 6th, 2017 at 08:50:48 PM EST
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