Varadkar flees before the storm breaks



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The face of the capitalist political establishment in Ireland for the past seven years, Leo Varadkar, has resigned as leader of Fine Gael and from the Taoiseach position. Varadkar has been, without doubt, one of the most reliable servants of the Irish ruling class in the last decade.

He was once the man they needed, but the times have now changed.

As the Irish Times put it:

“[Varadkar’s] great talent was for riding out contradictions, not for resolving them… That high-wire act was impressive, but he was right to realise that he could not walk the tightrope for much longer. Ireland is at a point where big choices about its direction can no longer be avoided. Varadkar seems to have understood that his avoidance techniques are not the skill set its condition demands.”

He appealed to the ‘traditional Christian’ values of the Fine Gael ranks, whilst putting on a veneer of progressivism for the public. He was a gay man who opposed gay marriage (that is, until it became law); and he could grovel before the imperialists at international summits, whilst paying lip service to Irish ‘neutrality’ at home.

As long as the economy was bouncing back after 2008, Varadkar’s thin progressive veneer combined with right-wing economic policies, made him a safe pair of hands for the ruling class.

But in the last few years, the political, social and economic contradictions in Ireland reached explosive levels. Varadkar’s “high-wire act” can’t cut it any longer.

Hatred is building towards Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the whole political establishment. Varadkar’s party is staring disaster in the face, with local and European elections in June and a general election due within a year. One-third of Fine Gael TDs have announced that they will not stand in the next general election. The rats are fleeing the sinking ship. Varadkar is only the latest.

Despite the shock in Fine Gael circles at Varadkar’s announcement, the frenzy of speculation about his motives in the media, and the endless sycophantic articles about his ‘heartbreaking’ speech and legacy, the mood among the vast swathe of people is remarkably indifferent. That itself chills the ruling class strategists. As a recent opinion piece from the Irish Times phrased it:

“One of the huge existential issues for this Government is that there is an authority gap as well as a connection gap. There are credibility issues across the board. That’s not just down to a toxic brand of criticism online and off, it’s actually that a lot of people just don’t take them seriously. There’s a lack of respect in the air.

“Last week was a rollercoaster in Irish politics, with the political sphere and media reeling from an ‘earthquake’. Strangely, I don’t think the broader public felt such tremors as deeply. When a show outstays its welcome, it’s difficult to make people care about a change in the cast“.

These comments, to which we’ve added our own emphasis, are very astute. What else is there to add? The show has outstayed its welcome. Not just Varadkar, but the Dáil, the two-party system, there is a lack of respect for all of the institutions that hold up the system of rent, interest and profit that has battered the living standards of the Irish working class and made life a nightmare for the youth.

Varadkar’s legacy

In his resignation announcement, this consummate representative of the capitalist class had the cheek of asserting that he has taken Ireland from “austerity to prosperity”. Even in his parting words, he remains the posh boy, living in a world utterly detached from the lives of ordinary people, whom he looks down upon with the haughtiest contempt.

Image: World Economic Forum, Flickr

It is doubtful whether the 13,531 homeless people in Ireland feel very ‘prosperous’. Nor the 70 percent of young people considering migration, the 700,000 on hospital waiting lists, the 3 in 4 parents unable to secure a spot for their children in oversubscribed schools, the 377,000 that can’t afford adequate heating, the 670,000 living in poverty, etc. etc.

In 2017, Varadkar took up the mantle of protecting the imperialists’ profits, shoving austerity down the throats of workers as the country continued to suffer from the hangover of the debt crisis. The imperialists demanded a balancing of the budget (i.e., heavy austerity) and – as a faithful representative of the Irish ruling class – Varadkar executed the diktats of the capitalists in Washington, Brussels and London. Meanwhile, multinationals made obscene profits out of the sweat of the working class.

Ireland today is one of the most-unequal countries in Europe, where the richest 20 percent own 73 percent of the country’s wealth while the poorest 20 percent holds no more than a meagre 0.2 percent. Landlords make an aggregate €4.5+ billion of rental income on the back of the housing crisis. Bosses made an absolute killing during Varadkar’s term in office, with corporate profits almost doubling to €300 billion euros in seven years.

Varadkar’s government has been one of crisis for the workers, and unprecedented prosperity for bosses and landlords. Is it any surprise that vast anger exists today against the government?

A last throw of the dice

This writing was on the wall for Varadkar when the outcome became clear of the Family and Care referendums a few weeks ago.

With the ruling parties in disarray, these referendums were a last throw of the dice for a government that has lost any semblance of popular support. Recalling the mood around the time of the referendum on the 8th amendment in 2018, which saw the ban on abortion rights repealed, when there was huge enthusiasm for changing the constitution, they no doubt thought: “why not score some quick brownie points with a progressive-sounding constitutional reform, and ride the wave of success all the way to the next general election?”

At that time, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin didn’t take a clear position until quite close to the vote, whilst Fine Gael under Varadkar had more astutely and quickly picked up on the mood. Nonetheless, it was well known that, up until just a year before the vote, Varadkar had opposed the repeal, and none of the major parties emerged with much credit.

Back then, they missed the popularity boat. This time they thought they would be decorated with garlands for leading reform of the rotten, reactionary constitution. Instead, the government was given two consecutive kicks in the teeth at the polls. The Care referendum got the highest percentage of ‘No’ votes in the history of the South, and the Family referendum did little better. The gamble backfired spectacularly.

These referenda were no repeal of the 8th amendment, but represented mere wordplay. The repeal of the 8th amendment was won on the back of a swelling tide of anger from below among women, workers and youth, and it represented a tangible democratic victory, with immediate material implications for women.

What did the Family and Care Referendums achieve? The first added “other durable relationships” side-by-side with “marriage” in the definition of the family in the constitution. The second replaced the reference to the “role of the woman” within the home with the “provision of care by members of a family.”

It represented a mere change of language. But the oppression of women is not rooted in the particular wording of a constitution, but in class society.

Under capitalism, families are shaped and defined by economic ties, not words. Take the half-a-million young adults living with their parents, and the young couples living with family. Does it matter how ‘family’ is defined? The problem is the housing crisis. How many women are forced to remain in abusive marriages or “other durable relationships,” because of economic compulsion and the lack of social housing, shelters and support?

Similarly, you can remove reference to the “role of women in the home”, but is anyone under any illusion that in capitalist Ireland, the role of “carer” in the home – for children, disabled family members, or elderly parents – overwhelmingly falls on women, and especially working-class women who cannot afford private care?

A lack of social facilities, career prospects, the gender pay gap, and general discrimination in the workplace – these are what force women to take up traditional roles in the household, more often than not alongside their double oppression as wage workers.

This is not because of some wording in the constitution: it is economic compulsion. The crisis of capitalism means the conditions of women in Irish society are actually going backwards. To mention one figure, there has been a 171 percent rise in single women becoming homeless since 2014 compared to a 133 percent increase for single men.

The referendums – being mere wordplay, with no clear material gains attached to them, and confusion surrounding the whole thing – became a chance for many to register their feelings with Varadkar, Martin, and company.

Incredibly, many on the left – infected by the ideas of postmodernism, and its obsession with meaningless wordplay as the height of political activity – fell into the trap set by the government. A cynical gamble on the part of the latter led to heated Yes-Yes versus Yes-No debates inside these circles, missing the point entirely.

Communists will of course fight for any and all concrete gains for workers and oppressed groups, but we understand that genuine liberation can come only by relegating capitalism to the dustbin of history. Only when the means of production are nationalised and placed under a democratic plan to abolish want in housing and the other necessities of life, providing for the full socialisation of care and other domestic tasks, only then can we liberate women from the shackles of class society.

Simon Harris: back to “Fine Gael basics”

The timing of Varadkar’s resignation is hardly a coincidence. Many disgruntled voices have been raised inside Fine Gael for quite some time now. After the much-anticipated poll bounceback once Varadkar regained the Taoiseach’s office in late 2022 failed to materialise, many saw the writing on the wall. The referendum defeat was the signal that heads had to roll inside the party.

A change of faces at the top won’t alter Fine Gael’s fortunes, however. For a long time, Varadkar has tried to carry on a balancing act: representing a party that stands for everything reactionary and backwards in Irish society, while seeming to lean with the prevailing wind in society. Fine Gael’s base could go along with it as long as Varadkar could deliver electoral successes.

Image: Swedish Presidency of the Council of the EU, Flickr

But that’s now over, as soon-to-be Taoiseach Simon Harris hinted in his skin-crawling first speech to the media as the new leader of Fine Gael. It is clear that he intends to take the party back to “Fine Gael basics”, speaking as he did about “law”, “order”, “rural Ireland”, “enterprises”, and attempted a bit of forced, tub-thumping Republican-bashing about “taking our flag back”.

Ireland has gone through sea changes in the last decades. An agenda of austerity and social conservatism, however appealing to Fine Gael’s base, won’t cut much ice with millions of Irish workers.

A period of open clashes in the class struggle is opening up. Before we enter this period, the main parties of the ruling class are already emerging as a spent force. In returning to their reactionary base, the true representative of Irish capitalism, Fine Gael, will find itself resting on a very thin stratum. The working class, on the other hand, has never been more powerful.

For all their reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, the Simon Harrises of this world cannot alter this objective balance of forces, which precludes a quick resolution of the crisis of capitalism in favour of the interests of the ruling class. On the other hand, the working class currently lacks a leadership which can decisively lead to a rupture with capitalism through a socialist revolution and the creation of a 32-county socialist republic.

But in the course of the battles to come, the working class of Ireland, starting with its most advanced layer, will come to understand its interests ever more clearly.

Only when we, the working class, own everything, “from the plough to the stars”, can we solve the deep social problems wracking Ireland. Only by expropriating the big banks, industries and construction monopolies, and placing them under the democratic control of the working class, will we be able to use the immense wealth that exists in Ireland to tackle all the problems facing our class head on.

This is the programme the revolutionary communists in Ireland are fighting for. Join us in our struggle!