Leo Varadkar is not one to make gaffes. He knows what he’s saying when he says it. And he knows what he’s doing when he does it. Every photo op, every comment, is planned in the mind of a sly politician who fully understands what the results will be.
And now, when attacking Sinn Féin by saying it doesn’t care about white, middle-class men, it’s abundantly clear what he’s doing. He’s laying even more groundwork on which the far right will capitalise.
One of the common tropes of the far right is that white men and white masculinity are under threat. Their evidence for this is the fact that feminism exists. Added to this is that racism and sexism aren’t given the same leeway they were 20 years ago. Instead, activists regularly challenge the discriminatory status quo that exists in society. And because of this, the white man is apparently endangered.
The ones standing up to discrimination are invariably left-leaning. So when the tánaiste tells people that Sinn Féin don’t care about white, middle-class men he’s doing two things. He’s showing the far right that Fine Gael will stand up for them and their beliefs. And it’s an indicator that he’ll attack any person or party remotely left-leaning. This isn’t a dog whistle. It’s an open declaration that Fine Gael’s Overton window is now wide open for potential far-right voters.
According to Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter, authors of Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, Varadkar is engaging in “mainstreaming”. Essentially, ideas that were once confined to the political fringes of the far right are brought into the mainstream by academics, politicians, and the media. The ideas become normalised and removed from their less palatable origins.
Whereas Justin Barrett of the National Party can be correctly condemned for ranting about race, Varadkar’s comments in defence of white men barely registers. Mondon and Winter note that actions like this cause “the radicalisation of the mainstream itself”. And as a result, the far rights’s “presence in the political debate”, as physical parties or their ideas, becomes legitimised.
An unsurprising pattern
But such behaviour on the part of Varadkar and Fine Gael isn’t entirely surprising. In June he told the Dáil that the far right and far left “aren’t very different to me”. The arch neoliberal argued that both deal in conspiracies of elites and “tearing people down”. His comments were a reaction to Richard Boyd Barrett having the gall to demand that he condemn the direct provision system.
He has also questioned the authenticity of asylum seekers arriving in Ireland. In November last year he opined that asylum seekers from Albania and Georgia are using forged documents to come to Ireland. And he called for their “illegal entry” to stop. The fact that asylum seekers are under no obligation to adhere to a country’s arbitrary immigration laws was of no interest to him. In fact, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is quite clear on this.
What’s disturbing is that this was something that could have been uttered by any representative of Ireland’s far right groups. But it wasn’t. It was the then leader of the party ruling the country. No matter how you look at it, it was a concession to the far right. And it was “mainstreaming” their ideas.
Courting the right people
Varadkar and Fine Gael are also more than happy to deal with independent TDs who have been openly racist. Before the Green Party decided to throw in with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Varadkar and company were attempting to win over the Regional Independent Group. Included in this group are Verona Murphy and Noel Grealish.
Last year Murphy told anybody who would listen that asylum seekers arriving in Ireland are “possibly infiltrated by ISIS”. At the time Murphy was a candidate for Fine Gael in the by-elections in Wexford. In an attempt to later defend her comments she said that she was merely “raising a security issue”. And claiming that she had more experience of the “migrant issue” than others in the Dáil, she warned of the possibility of a terrorist attack in Ireland.
She was eventually dropped as a candidate by Fine Gael because of her comments. Nonetheless, she claimed the media misrepresented her comments. And she argued that Fine Gael was restricting her freedom of speech.
Grealish holds the same views. In September 2019 the Galway West TD told a public meeting in Oughterard that asylum seekers come to Ireland to “sponge off the system”. He also claimed “the only genuine refugees in Ireland are Christian ones fleeing ISIS”.
Two months later Grealish attacked migrants in the Dáil. He argued that money sent home by migrants could possibly be from the proceeds of crime or fraud. And given this, he asked if the government has “mechanisms in place” to make sure the money has “been fully accounted for” by the Irish revenue service.
Like Murphy, his comments were widely condemned at the time. In the Dáil Ruth Coppinger called him a “racist” and a “disgrace”. She later posted on her Facebook page that Grealish’s history speaks for itself and was nothing to do with asking honest questions:
If he has proof of something he knows where to go. But it was about stirring up racism, as he’s been doing in Oughterard and elsewhere.
These are the people Fine Gael and its leader believe are appropriate companions to do business with.
The far right in Ireland has become increasingly aggressive. In recent weeks activists have been attacked and women kicked and spat on by far-right activists. Thus far the establishment media has been more than happy to platform outright racists or those who parrot far-right talking points.
Varadkar knows exactly what he’s doing and the context in which he’s doing it. This has always been the case. By portraying himself as a defender of the aggrieved white and middle-class section of society, he’s doing nothing than attempting to co-opt hatred for his own political purposes. The ironic thing is that because of his own Indian background he’s a regular target of the same people he’d apparently like to vote for him.
He likely reasons that the political results will outweigh the potential risks down the line. It’s a big gamble that puts people’s safety at risk. But apparently it’s one he’s willing to take.
Featured image via Flickr – Liam Lysaght