Comment & Analysis

Leo offers no warm house for social conservatives
Children are noticeably absent from list of people the Taoiseach claims to fight for, writes Fr Andrew McMahon
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Belfast Pride Festival.

Fr Andrew McMahon

“I have no problem with civil partnership…I do think that marriage is separate…And I would be of the view that it doesn’t have to be the case for everyone, but the preferable construct in a society is the traditional family, and the State through its laws should protect that and promote that. And that doesn’t mean to say that other people can’t have a different form of relationship, or different choices in their lives, and lots of people do, and that’s fine. But I don’t think that the government should be neutral on that, and that the best thing for – and this would be backed up by evidence - that the best thing for children is to be brought up by their father and their mother, a man and a woman, in a stable relationship underwritten by marriage. And I think the State should support that.”

The above pretty much reflects my thinking, as a citizen, and why I believe same-sex marriage is both unnecessary and undesirable north of the border. I don’t see my approach as religiously-motivated in the main, but arising from a conviction that children deserve, where at all possible, the security and identity of a traditional family setting. 

Parade

Had I expressed such views publicly in Belfast, last Saturday, while the city’s Gay Pride parade was underway, I suspect I could have experienced a frosty reception. I might even have been brought to the attention of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and advised of the potential for ‘hate crime’. So concerned were the police to identify with the ethos of the LGBT event, they rather controversially allowed uniformed officers to participate in the parade and liveried up three patrol vehicles with the slogan ‘Policing with Pride’. 

My defence if challenged, however, would have been that the sentiments articulated above were not actually mine. 

I was merely repeating, verbatim, the opinion formerly expressed by the most high-profile visitor to the Belfast gay pride celebrations, namely Leo Varadkar. 

These opinions, significantly, don’t belong to Mr Varadkar’s distant past, before he had an opportunity to reflect on the responsibilities of public office or the challenges facing contemporary society. 

They were articulated in a Hot Press interview no further back than May 19, 2010, by which date Mr Varadkar was no political novice. He had already completed three years in the Dáil, was a Fine Gael front bench spokesperson and, moreover, had been contesting local government elections for more than ten years.

What’s more, Mr Varadkar had expressed similar views in the Dáil earlier that year. Speaking about the notion of adoption by same-sex couples, he told a debate on the second reading of the Civil Partnership Bill, on January 27, 2010: “My view on this is simple. Every child has a father and a mother. Two men cannot have a child. Two women cannot have a child…it should be the role of the State, where a child is an orphan, to try and replace their mother and father with an alternative mother and father…every child has a mother and a father and every child has a right to a mother and a father and, as much as possible, the State should try and vindicate that right. 

“And that right is much more important – the right of that child to have a father and mother – is much more important than the right of two men to have a family, or two women to have a family, and I think that should be the principle that underlies our laws in relation to children and adoption.”

Provision

Just five years later and, by early 2015, as Health Minister in Enda Kenny’s government, Mr Varadkar was campaigning for same-sex marriage provision and expressing what amounted to unqualified support for adoption by same-sex couples. 

A few commentators raised questions about what Senator Rónán Mullen termed Mr Varadkar’s ‘U-turn’ on these core principles. Senator Mullen told RTÉ radio, on January 23, 2015: “Leo Varadkar makes a great virtue of being someone who speaks his mind - now he must acknowledge that he has changed his mind.” In response, Mr Varadkar shrugged off the criticism, suggesting that any change in his opinion was really down to “a matter of emphasis”.

“I think, like a lot of people, my views have moved on in the past five years,” he explained.   

Two years on from the referendum on same-sex marriage, and Leo Varadkar has recently emerged as Fine Gael’s new leader. 

He ended his first full week in office as Taoiseach by attending a gay pride parade in Dublin and expressing delight at how Irish society had “moved on in the past number of decades”.  

Mr Varadkar immediately identified family life north of the border as requiring his attention: “We really need to come behind and press for marriage equality in Northern Ireland. That’s something I have already raised with Arlene Foster and will continue to do so…I will use my office to stand up for LGBT rights around the world.” 

True to form, the Taoiseach used the occasion of his first official visit to Belfast to attend a gay pride breakfast preceding their parade and reiterate his demand for same-sex marriage in the North. He told his Belfast audience that he was there as a “gesture of solidarity”, claiming that he was “not here to unsettle anyone”.

“Difference makes us stronger”, continued the Taoiseach, “and that’s something I believe in and something that I think can mark Northern Ireland out in the future.”

Mr Varadkar was accused by certain Unionists, in advance of the Belfast outing, of interfering unduly in matters of domestic policy north of the border, given that the gay pride event was actually campaigning for a change to Northern Ireland’s laws in respect of marriage. 

The nationalist daily, The Irish News also appeared to recognise that the Taoiseach was probably crossing a line: “While his support for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland is in line with his stated position, he will also know that he is straying into more political territory,” it commented last Wednesday. 

In widely reported remarks, Mr Varadkar appeared trenchant in his response to concerns expressed: “I will attend the pride breakfast on Saturday morning in Belfast to express my support for equality before the law for Catholics, Protestants, non-religious people, men, women, gay people and straight people. And I won’t be making any compromises about that for anyone really.”

A number of questions suggest themselves here: Firstly, children are – noticeably – absent from this presumably inclusive list of peoples, whose rights to ‘equality’ the Taoiseach aims to defend. The well-being of children seemed so critical to Mr Varadkar’s previous stances on same-sex marriage and adoption that he had no difficulty declaring to parliament that “the right of a child to a mother and father is more important than the right of two men to have a family, or two women to have a family”. 

In an Ireland allegedly vigilant about the protection and welfare of the child – with a Children First Act brought into law as recently as 2015 – how could a Taoiseach so easily overlook their rights in his current thinking?  How, one might add, did Irish media outlets fail to identify this omission and probe it further?

Secondly, if Mr Varadkar genuinely believes that “difference makes us stronger” and that diversity should be a priority on the island of Ireland, then why can northern society not be allowed to continue with its existing civil partnership provision (ironically no longer available in the Republic) and without recourse to same-sex marriage? Why did a Taoiseach need to use his first official visit to the North to decry it, simply for being ‘different’? 

Has he missed the significance of the Advertising Standards Authority’s judgment, last week, that a billboard campaign claiming ‘100,000 people are alive today’ because of the North’s restrictions on abortion, was in no way misleading. 

The authority was clear that “the evidence indicated that there was a reasonable probability that around 100,000 people were alive in Northern Ireland today who would have otherwise been aborted, had it been legal to do so.” To put it very mildly, the North has richly benefited from being distinctive in some of its legal provisions and not slavishly following Britain in matters such as abortion. Can Leo Varadkar not acknowledge this and be respectfully open to the possibility of real wisdom in Northern Ireland’s adherence to a conventional model of marriage?

Thirdly and, perhaps, most fundamentally: How can a Taoiseach take it upon himself to either look north, or come north, and lecture society here on accepting the kind of fundamental changes to family and marriage legislation to which he himself was opposed for the greater part of his public and political life?  

Can Mr Varadkar even begin to credibly challenge the largest political party in the North for remaining steadfast around a conviction about marriage and the family which he appeared to believe and was willing to articulate until somewhere around three years ago, or whatever time he ‘moved on’ - to use that highly ambiguous cliche? 

Leo Varadkar insisted during this year’s Fine Gael leadership contest that he wanted the party to be, in his words, “a warm house for social conservatives”. Last Saturday he came to the centre of arguably the most socially conservative city on this island and declared that it was “only a matter of time” - as he saw it - before Northern Ireland would be obliged to legalise same-sex marriage. For a visiting premier, apparently not here “to unsettle anyone”, there seemed something audacious about this remark. 

The presence of a Taoiseach among them would surely have been sufficient to hearten LGBT enthusiasts north of the border. Was such additional public commentary really needed? 

For the more socially conservative among the North’s population, there will have been little encouragement in Mr Varadkar’s performance last weekend. Far from even attempting to ‘warm’ the air for them, his forecast had more of a chilling effect – something of a warning, perhaps, to those unwilling to dispense with their convictions as readily as the Taoiseach himself appears to have done.