By Eamon Delaney – the Saturday Essay, Irish Daily Mail
The election of Leo Varadkar as leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach of our land is an incredibly exciting moment in the history of modern Ireland. It is up there with the election of President Mary Robinson in 1990 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
This is not an exaggeration. The torch finally passes to a new generation. Young, modern, well groomed – with an occasional foray as a radio DJ ! – Varadkar embodies the new Ireland. Born in 1979, he was elected to the Dail in 2007. By contrast, Enda Kenny has been there since 1975 and Bertie Ahern was elected to the Dail in 1977. Michael Martin has been there since 1989 and is 20 years older than his political opposite. Varadkar represents clear blue water, and a fresh chance.
But more than that, Ireland will have a gay Taoiseach. One cannot underestimate the huge international importance of that fact. It may be no big deal in Germany or Denmark, but in Ireland, once one of the most conservative Catholic countries in Europe, where homosexuality was illegal until 1993, it is an extraordinary achievement.
What’s even more amazing is that it’s not an issue for anyone here. International media have picked up on it, but frankly Fine Gael, and the Irish public, had made it clear they just don’t care about a politician’s sexuality : they care about whether he or she will do a good job or not. And it also shows that the public value honesty, in personal life as in politics. The days of pretence or dishonesty are over.
Ireland will also have a half-Indian Taoiseach – a fact which rightly has got even less attention, but is also an incredibly powerful statement about the Ireland of today. How many other countries like ours – still mainly white, largely Christian, where schools are still mostly run by the Catholic Church – would pick as their leader, a gay man of Indian origin?
This shows a country that is incredibly at ease with itself and tolerant ; all the more impressive in a Europe where for many ‘civilised’ nations such features would be political anathema and where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise. Varadkar openly supports globalisation and multi-ethnicity even when such principles are being attacked by xenophobes such as France’s Marine Le Pen or even US President Donald Trump.
The new Taoiseach will represent positivity and openness in an age of Brexit and exclusivist nationalism in Hungary, Austria and even in Scandinavia. And on this, he is in tune with the broader Irish public.
But there is another area in which Varadkar is in tune with the Irish public and on which his election offers the prospect of significant even revolutionary change : he will stand up for those who are working hard, raising families and paying high taxes to keep the country’s lights on.
And that is why his message of supporting those who ‘get up early in the morning’ has resonated so much – and irritated those who, for political reasons, would prefer the growing dependancy culture and an even bigger role for a high spending State.
Leo’s election is a rejection of the growing and outrageous champagne socialism message of certain politicians, whereby the State should give everything to everyone on a platter, and any social problem will be solved by throwing endless amounts of taxpayers money at it.
This entitlement creed is now one that is accepted lazily across the media, fed by the language of so-called experts and quangos (themselves State-dependent) as well as much of the rhetoric of the Irish water protests and so-called ‘radical’ political parties.
But it is not the opinion shared by the general public and Leo knows that. It is not supported by average worker, or small business owner, or working mum, or pub owner, or hairdresser. They know they have to work to get on but they also know they are paying more and more tax to sustain those who are not doing so.
And addressing this is not just Varadkar being a politician of conviction as opposed to being another populist. It is also Leo returning Fine Gael to its core values. Or indeed to Fianna Fail core values, if the party would only stop listening to quangos and listen more to its hard working voters. (Just look at the recent FF drop in the opinion polls!)
The reality is that everybody cares about the guy in the sleeping bag: but not everybody is facile enough to think that the answer is screwing working people for more tax money to throw at complex social problems.
Take, for example, last week the family who were “forced” to go to a Garda station to look for a bed: in fact, they had refused the State’s rent support scheme which would have given them €1,250 a month… because they’d lose their claim to a free council house down the line!
In truth, working people are sick of seeing the people who don’t get up early being cosseted and handed everything on a plate – which is why FG has rightly rejected that approach, recognising that it’s easy to be a socialist if you’ve never had to a) work or b) worry about money.
And the mainstream politicians know this – including Simon Coveney – but few of them are prepared to say it, so Varadkar deserves great credit for making it his platform. He could easily have gone the populist easy route of nice generalities and entitlement culture for everybody.
Instead, Fine Gael, under Varadkar, will now hopefully stand up for the people who do get up early in the morning – so that these people, which is most of our population, will be championed.
The message of being about ‘the people who get up early’ was one that every working person will buy in to: and at last those people – most of whom don’t have a militant union behind them, who can’t afford to march on the Dail, who are happy to get a job and work hard to make a success of life, who believe a house is something you work for rather than being given,
Let’s be frank. Despite our revived economy, Ireland continues to have one of the highest number of jobless households in the OECD, a situation that was still the case right through the boom years. And it is worse outside of the capital, with very high levels of long-term dependency. No wonder rural Ireland is in decline. Why would many people open a business or go to work in factory when they can get almost as much on State benefits, paid for, of course, by those who do open businesses or go to work in factories?
Meanwhile, child care costs are soaring and young couples cannot get on the property ladder. Stuck in traffic on the early mornings, and getting ready for a long workday, punters must be wondering what the incentive is to all of this. Especially when they see that our welfare system is unreformed and that the dole remains way above what it is in the UK and the rest of Europe – all of which the taxpayers pay for.
Opinion polls show that most people feel they’ve been paying too much in taxes to support those who are unemployed, and are simply fed up being squeezed by high taxes and charges. Interestingly, this has especially been the case among Fianna Fail and Fine Gael supporters.
This is not surprising, but the politicians need to wake up to it. The reality is that the austerity years have seen a growing tax burden on almost all workers, but especially those in the middle income bracket. After all, for years now, the marginal rate means that once you go over €33,800 per annum you hit a rate of almost 40%. This is crazy – and utterly unfair. No wonder we got a warning this week about the country’s competitiveness.
Meanwhile, workers watch more and more people piling on to the social housing list, with (free) housing being described as a ‘social right’. What about the rest of us who have to pay for this so-called right?
And bear in mind that, with the abandonment of water charges, we have seen a further penalising of law-abiding and hard-working people. Indeed, with the water cave-in, we saw the rewarding of the work shy and lawbreakers who believe that angry, often violent protest are the way to tackle polices put in place by elected governments.
And this is the explicit message of the far left parties who came to dominate those protests. And with water being paid for largely out of general taxation, only people who pay tax will actually pay for water. Once again, those who don’t – the unemployed – are expected to contribute nothing, regardless of how wasteful they are.
So it is left to the hard working classes to subsidise those in our growing dependancy culture – on top of everything else they get free from the state. And no politician wants to address that, or address the crushing tax and living cost burden on working people. Until Varadar that is- which is why his election offers such hope.
Up until now, working people feel abandoned. They feel that all the noise on radio and in the Dail, is about the ‘underprivileged’ and ‘maginalised’, whatever these terms even mean. The public doesn’t see politicians standing up for working families and the middle income tax payer, or supporting small businesses, retailers, entrepreneurs or the self employed. And it is time those people were heard.
So the election of Leo Varadkar not only sends out a strong signal about a modern tolerant and multi-faceted country. It is also an exciting imperative for those who want to work hard and help shape a prosperous, fair and progressive future. It is, indeed, the can-do spirit that would get all of us up early in the morning.