Since he resigned last week, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has been hailed by liberal media as the representative of a modern, forward-looking Ireland. Yet he was above all an ally of corporate elites, not people in need of housing and health care.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to the media on March 9, 2024, following the failure of two government-backed referendums on family and care. (Charles McQuillan / Getty Images)

Since Leo Varadkar announced his resignation as Ireland’s taoiseach (prime minister) and head of the Fine Gael party on Wednesday, media have already begun writing his political legacy. For some, Varadkar will be remembered as an “astute, courageous leader during challenging times,” in light of his relative competence during Brexit negotiations with the European Union and the United Kingdom. Unlike many of his diplomatic interlocutors (in Belfast and London, particularly), he and his government demonstrated a consistent awareness of the politically incendiary and pragmatically untenable implications of a “hard border” on the island of Ireland. They successfully worked, under trying circumstances, to avert this outcome. As the Guardian notes, “Mr Varadkar stood up both to the unionists [in the North of Ireland] and to London when it mattered.”

At a more general level, an opinion piece in the same newspaper praises Varadkar’s diplomatic skills — comparing him to New Zealand’s former Labour Party leader, Jacinda Ardern, and casting both as exemplars of a progressive liberalism for the twenty-first century. The BBC likewise describes the outgoing taoiseach as a public figure who “championed referendums to change the Irish constitution legalising same-sex marriage and abortion.” It cites Varadkar’s own words, that he was “proud” to “have made the country a more equal and more modern place when it comes to the rights of children, the LGBT community, equality for women, and their bodily autonomy.” Listeners to Friday’s Irish Times Inside Politics podcast were even told that he was, at root, a “social democrat.”

However, for many people who have lived through Varadkar’s almost two decades in public life — including his stints as taoiseach and tánaiste (deputy prime minister) in coalition governments over the past seven years — he will be remembered differently. He represented a politics that deepened inequalities in the name of market sovereignty and social privilege, a politics in which progressive reforms could indeed be granted by public representatives, albeit seemingly on the basis of personal expediency and very often with strings attached. There was always a clear neoliberal edge to Varadkar’s pronouncements and reforms.

Not Caring

This was evident even in recent weeks, during the lead-up to the “Family” and “Care” referendums — both held on March 8, International Women’s Day. The twin votes were intended to modernize the Irish constitution’s outdated and rather Catholic definition of the family’s role and makeup, and its heavily gendered conception of domestic care, respectively.

The government’s proposed amendment to the latter article, in particular, proved increasingly contentious in public debates. Advocating a rejection of the “Care” amendment, prominent disability rights activists, for instance, pointed out that the government’s chosen wording for the amendment, if signed into law, would grant “constitutional expression to the conservative ideological position that the primary responsibility for care resides within the family and family members” — thus absolving the state of any such responsibility in future.

Varadkar’s response to such criticisms was to confirm them. He went on air and plainly stated “I don’t actually think that’s the state’s responsibility, to be honest. I do think that is very much a family responsibility.” Margaret Thatcher would surely have agreed. In the end, after a period of confused and often lackluster public discussion, the proposed amendment was roundly rejected by voters. In light of his resignation, many observers view this result catalyzing Varadkar’s loss of credibility as Fine Gael leader and subsequent exit from the political stage.

In a certain sense, the hard-nosed conservatism informing these remarks should have come as no surprise. As a young TD (member of the Dáil, or main chamber of parliament) in 2007, he famously described his dislike of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, arguing that “Tiny Tim should get a job.” While such a view may seem almost self-parodying in its callousness, throughout his career Varadkar remained consistent in his social attitudes. In 2017 — a year after the Fine Gael–led government rejected European Commission instructions to collect €13 billion in back taxes from Apple — he spearheaded a national campaign against domestic welfare fraud, with the slogan “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All.” Shortly after, he was elected party leader by Fine Gael members apparently impressed by the rightward tilt of his new stance.

If Varadkar had a penchant for punching down — blaming societal ills on supposed “Welfare Cheats,” rather than corporate elites or Ireland’s landlord lobby — he was not, in all cases, inflexible in his beliefs. “I consider myself to be pro-life in that I accept that the unborn child is a human life with rights,” he stated in 2014. Nevertheless, over the next four years he — like other prominent members of his party — would shift his position almost completely, responding to the mass, grassroots campaign for reproductive rights by advocating for the repeal of the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, which had in 1983 outlawed the provision of abortion services. His reputation as a champion of “equality for women and their bodily autonomy” rests largely on this change of heart.

For a fuller picture, however, we might also recall October 2020, when government parties voted to seal departmental and other state records relating to Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes — religious institutions where unmarried Irish mothers and their children were sent and held against their will throughout the twentieth century — for some thirty years. Campaigners accurately accused the government of “retraumatizing and disregarding” survivors of these institutions, where as many as nine thousand children are thought to have died due to neglect or abuse. As here, all too often Fine Gael under Varadkar’s leadership proved to be startlingly insensitive to women and other vulnerable groups in Irish society (including refugees and asylum seekers).

Crushing

Varadkar, a doctor by training, may have marketed himself as a leader “for people who get up early in the morning,” but government policies during his time in office seem only to have exacerbated trends of widespread emigration of young professionals. Droves of recently qualified medical staff, in particular, have chosen to travel to Canada or Australia for work, in an attempt to escape hospital conditions in Ireland that unions have described as “crushing and traumatic.” A recent survey by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation found that over 70 percent of Irish nurses have considered leaving their jobs “due to workplace stress.” Vast numbers of those who stay, moreover, must contend with a housing crisis that has seen street homelessness soar to unprecedented levels, while forcing an estimated two-thirds of urban-based adults in Ireland to move back home with their parents. Many of Ireland’s earliest risers literally have nowhere to go but abroad — if they can afford the ticket out.

Numerous commentators in recent days have chosen to emphasize what they see as Leo Varadkar’s reliability and forthrightness during Brexit negotiations. When viewed through a wider lens, however, his legacy appears less illustrious. He leaves behind not only a political party in free fall and a coalition government in disarray, but a state beset by devastating crises in health care and housing, which the neoliberal policies he pursued and advocated throughout his career served only to worsen. Ireland in 2024 stands as a haven of economic growth; it’s also a nation where workers, caregivers, and young people remain sidelined, and over half a million citizens live in poverty. Such is his real legacy.

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