If I was a member of Fine Gael…

Who would I vote as leader – Leo or Simon?

Fine Gael, the right-wing, conservative, Christian Democratic party that currently forms the government in Ireland albeit by the skin of their teeth, are currently in the midst of a leadership selection contest. The two contenders for the leader are Leo Varadker and Simon Coveney.

Varadker is the current Minister for Social Protection and Coveney is the Minister for Housing and Local Government. Both are relatively young men – Varadker in particular at 38 years of age. Coveney is 45 years of age.

I usually am not bothered by the inner workings of Fine Gael as it is not a party that I would ever support. Nevertheless, this contest is of importance for Ireland for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, Fine Gael form the government of Ireland so whoever will be elected leader of Fine Gael will be also elected Taoiseach. Secondly, if Leo Varadker wins the contest (it looks likely), it will be a very important generational change in Ireland and the strongest indication yet of the enormous changes that have happened in Irish society over the last three decades.

Leo – the standout candidate

Leo VaradkerLeo Varadker – his name alone says so much about him. Leo Varadker is Irish but his name is not. What is it so? His father Ashok Varadker is from India and is a doctor who met an Irish nurse, Miriam from Dún Garbhán, Port Láirge, while both of them worked in the health service in England.

Not only does Varadker have an unusual family name for Ireland (but so did Éamonn de Valera and Erskine Childers) but he made history in a very personal manner about something very private – his sexual orientation.

Varadker is not the first person in Irish politics to be homosexual – Senator David Norris springs to mind for most Irish people – but he is the first government minister to announce it publicly and to broadcast it. Literally. He gave a radio interview on his 36th birthday in February 2015 in which he said openly that he was a gay man. I heard the interview and he announced it with slight hesitation but once he said it, he was able to talk about it freely and openly. He deserves praise for having the courage to announce to the Irish people that he is homosexual. He did not need to do it but, as he said himself, he did not want people to think that he had any secret agenda when he was making decisions as Minister for Health and when campaigning for the marriage equality referendum in May 2015. His announcement, as a government minister, certainly strenghtened the Yes campaign. Weeks later Pat Carey, a former government minister in the previous government, also announced that he is gay. He said that having listened to Leo Varadker´s interview, he, Carey, wished that he had had the courage to tell the world about his sexuality while he was a minister. Since Varadker had the courage to do it, Carey also wanted to do it – again to reinforce the Yes side in the marriage equality campaign.

Until the present, that interview is what Varadker is most remembered for. Even if he does not win the leadership election, he will be remembered and admired for that interview as it opened the gate for others to follow. It proved that one’s sexuality is not an impediment to reaching high office.

Varadker has said that if he were in Britain, he would certainly be in the Conservative party. This is not a big surprise as Fine Gael is a sister party to the Conservatives in Britain. That said, I like neither of them. I would never vote for Fine Gael or for Varadker if I was a voter in his constituency. Varadker may be socially liberal (which is a good thing) but his economic ideas would not appeal to me. He says that he is for “people who get up early in the morning”. This is a way of saying that he wants to support those people who run their own businesses, are ambitious, active and want to do well. It sounds good and why not? The truth is though that if taken too far, government policy will be for aiding more those who are involved in private business and against people who are poor. It is typical right-wing political thinking – help those who want to get ahead and forget about people who do not have many opportunities and who could do with some help from the state to have a decent life.

I am not saying that Varadker is a ruthless Margaret Thatcher in waiting, but he has political ideas that could chime with hers.

In the other corner – Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney at his campaign launch
Simon Coveney at his campaign launch

It is a pity that Fine Gael has two outstanding candidates for leader at the same time. Simon Coveney has been a Teachta Dála longer than Leo Varadker. He has even been a Member of the European Parliament. He was elected at a young age (25) following the tragic death of his father Hugh Coveney, who fell off a cliff trying to rescue a dog. Coveney has clear intelligence, gravitas and integrity.

He comes from a very well to do background. He attended Clongowes Wood College which is probably the top boys’ boarding school in Ireland. It is certainly the most expensive. It is a sign of one’s background to have attended Clongowes Wood. He was not an angel there though – he was more or less expelled whilst a tranisition year student. He had a stutter or speech impediment when he was young and this made him seem shy or taciturn whereas in reality, he found it difficult to speak for long so he had to rehearse his words and say them at a slow rate.

In terms of political philosophy, Coveney talks about wanting Fine Gael to be for everyone. His vision is more caring and inclusive than Varadker’s. Some say that his time as Minister for Housing has made him acutely aware of the need to help those in society who do not have the means to make it on their own. He says

“I believe passionately that Fine Gael must reach out to all of our citizens. That we should be a party for everyone which seeks to unite rather than divide. Our goal should be nothing less than the creation of a society in which everyone can participate, and an economy from which everyone can benefit.”

It is a different vision to Varadker’s who is keen to focus on people with ambition and who work hard. Simon talks about uniting Ireland and being a party for all.

So if I had a vote, who would I vote for?

Fine Gael are not a party that I support. There is much about them that I dislike – they are conservative, they are supporters of religion in politics, they are supported by the well-off who do not care for equality in society, they are not interested in the Irish language even though their name in English means the Family of the Gael, and they are sometimes very keen on Ireland being close to the UK.

So If I was a member of that party, who would I vote for? The answer is Leo Varadker.

Leaving aside my dislike of his political ideas, I think that he represents a new departure in Irish politics and Irish life.

Firstly, he is half-Irish, half-Indian. This international mix makes him somewhat exotic and it makes for more tolerance and diversity in Irish society if people see that the Taoiseach is half-Irish with a slightly swarthy complexion.

Secondly, he is openly gay. His sexuality is none of my business but if he becomes Taoiseach, Ireland will be one of only a few states in the world where the head of government or head of state is openly gay. It will be extremely significant and denotative of how changed and liberal Ireland is.

Lastly, and most importantly, he is young. He was born in 1979. He is the new generation of Irish people who were born after 1975 are far more liberal, more tolerant, more out-spoken, less religious, more international. The people born 70 to 50 years ago are in the main more conservative, more religious and less open to change. Leo is my generation – I was born in 1980. People my age, whether Generation X or Millennials, want an Ireland and a world that is more tolerant, more liberal, more open, more radical. The power of people my age and younger was most clearly seen two years ago when people travelled from all over the world to vote for same sex marriage. It was mostly young people who did it. Young people are accused of not being interested in politics but that is not true. They may not be interested in political parties but they are interested in issues that affect them and their friends. Young people, in Ireland and around the world, want an accepting society, want a cleaner world, want a less religion obsessed world. Leo Varadker is a leader of that generation, my generation. For too long people who were born 70 to 50 years ago have held power and formed opinions in Ireland. Those people are slowly retiring and dying. They held Ireland back. Now that Leo Varadker is on his way to the top, I expect that we will see a lot of things that were preserved by older generations will change or be removed. Expect to see change in the world of education, lifestyle, health care, broadcasting and culture.

OK. One last reason I would support Leo Varadker, for something very close to my heart. Leo went to Irish classes in Oideas Gael so that he could improve his knowledge of Irish. He speaks Irish occasionally. It may be more conversational Irish rather than fluent Irish but he is not afraid to use Irish. He used it on his campaign video – Is Mise Leo Varadker.

Unfortunately, I do not think that Simon Coveney speaks Irish.

The likelihood is Leo Varadker will win

To win the leadership election, a candidate needs the support of most of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. Leo Varadker has gained announcements from most of the parliamentary party. He will probably win a considerable number of votes from the members of Fine Gael and from the councillors.

One never knows. Simon Coveney may win but it seems unlikely at this point. The campaign will last another two weeks or less and then the winner will have to get appointed Taoiseach. This may not be so easy as it seems as Fine Gael are a minority in Dáil Éireann and they need the support of Fianna Fáil to allow them continue ruling.

Come what may, Leo Varadker will continue to rise and will undoubtedly continue to make an impact.