When Larry Gordon, a member of the progressive Dublin Food Co Op recently told a niqab-wearing Muslim woman that she has no right to come to shop for organic produce at the Co Op and refused to apologise for his racist and Islamophobic outburst, a white Co Op member told me, after I intervened, that ‘veiled women put all of us women in Europe in grave danger’ and protested when I told her Islamophobia comes in all shades. This racist incident, still to be resolved by the Co Op board, is an omen of the ‘I am not a racist but’ Ireland, particularly as we are facing an ethnic minority gay Taoiseach who however disavows racism and denigrates migrants, poor people and disabled people.
On the face of it, having supported immigration into Ireland and having been actively involved in resisting racism and discrimination of LGBT and disabled people for many years, why am I less that delighted that Ireland’s next Taoiseach is the son of an Indian migrant and an openly gay man? After all, Ireland’s record of electing ethnic minority politicians is very poor: apart from three Jewish TDs, a single Muslim TD and a couple of African and Traveller local politicians, Ireland has consistently upheld white supremacy, while protesting its non-racialism and continuing to incarcerate asylum seekers in direct provision hell holes and to treat migrants as mere economic commodities who must emulate ‘our culture’.
Examining Varadkar’s record of focusing on welfare fraud, calling to send home migrants who have become unemployed, not allowing gay parents to adopt children, calling to make mentally disabled people pay for their incarceration in the Central Mental Hospital, and calling upon migrants and refugees to accept ‘Irish culture’ explains why I am so opposed to this (unelected, remember) gay son of an Indian doctor becoming Taoiseach, well beyond my general distaste for Fine Gael’s reactionary conservatism.
Although for many migrants Varadkar’s rise sounds like the immigrant’s dream come true, according to Dublin born half-Asian Dean van Nguyen writing in the Irish Times, there is no reason to get excited by Varadkar, who has shown little interest in migrants or in Ireland’s racial issues. Indeed, while saying ‘I’m somebody who thinks immigration is beneficial. I’m in charge of a health service that is heavily influenced and dependent on migrants, doctors and nurses form overseas. So I’m somebody who believes it is good for our economy and society,’ he called for the deportation of unemployed ‘foreign nationals’ who should be offered three or four months benefits if they agree to go home and forego benefits beyond that. The suggestions, Van Nguyen argues, ‘fed into the trite typecasting that people come to Ireland only to claim benefits, while also undermining all immigrants’ hopes of being accepted in their new homes’. While Varadkar did support accepting a small number of refugees from Syria (in fact only 760 out of the promised 4,000 Syrian and other refugees arrived in Ireland in 2016), he see immigration merely as ‘beneficial’ to Irish state and society and has warned about cultural differences, claiming that ‘people will come to Ireland to work but will actually look down on our culture and look down on our freedoms and liberalisms and think they are wrong’.
For me, Leo Varadkar’s insistence that being the son of a migrant is meaningless signifies what Alana Lentin calls ‘post racialism’: ‘declarations of the end of race ignores the continuing impact of racism upon socio-economic inequality in racial states.’ Post-racialism, closely linked to culturalist solutions to problems seen as originating from excessive cultural diversity, she argues, is firmly set within the history of modern racism, even though most people in Ireland prefer to ignore it, insisting, despite evidence to the contrary, that they are not racist, but that ‘Irish culture’ is endangered by all those immigrants and foreigners.
Varadkar will thus be the first post-racial Taoiseach, whose ‘drawbridge’ mentality insists that while his own migrant father had worked so hard during the ‘tough’ 1980s, today’s migrants should work just as hard and emulate ‘our’ culture, and when becoming unemployed should go back home, because, as he proudly stated in his election campaign video: ‘It’s all about hard work and ambition…’