I suspect there may be a few pats on the collective back in the land of our nearest neighbours today. There’s about to be a new PM at the helm and not only is he half-Indian; he’s also openly gay. Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach will no doubt he heralded as representative of the Irish Republic in its new incarnation as a modern, inclusive, forward-looking state no longer bogged down by the rigid old codes of strict Catholic morality that once governed the Emerald Isle. It’s certainly a far cry from when Éamon de Valera, a survivor of the Easter Rising and former Prime Minister, was elected Irish President at the age of 84 in 1966, a move which seemed to embody the stasis the country had slipped into. De Valera’s shift from the militant Republicanism of his youth to a far more conservative outlook as he entered old age implied Eire itself was similarly culturally and socially stagnant.
The year de Valera finally retired at the age of 90, Ireland became a member of the EEC; the positive effect of this membership was the boom ‘Celtic Tiger’ era of the 90s and 2000s, though the spectacular crash that brought about its ending resulted in exposure to the less benign aspects of the EU. Ireland conceded fiscal sovereignty to the Brussels big-guns whilst being forced to accept a high-interest loan of €85 billion; another element of Ireland’s recent economic woes has been the resumption of emigration, something that fell during the boom years, as Ireland’s youth are again leaving the country to seek their fortune elsewhere.
If economic issues have been a story of peaks and troughs from the 1990s onwards, social liberalism has slowly gathered pace during the same timeline. Restrictions on purchasing contraceptives were finally lifted in 1993, the year homosexual sex was also belatedly decriminalised; divorce was legalised two years later. For many, however, the greatest socially liberal achievement in recent Irish history was the legalisation of same-sex marriage following a highly-publicised referendum in 2015.
Many of these great leaps forward were aided by the diminishing power of the church. Any society in which religion has too great a say is usually marked by the strict imposition of an intolerant moral code on the population, and Ireland was no exception, at times competing with the likes of hardcore Islamic Iran in the effective suppression of its citizens. However, the scandals (particularly involving child sexual abuse) that have plagued the Catholic Church over the last decade or so have not only severely impacted upon church attendance; they have served to weaken the stranglehold it once had upon the people of Ireland and have in turn relaxed attitudes towards any form of diversity where sexuality is concerned.
The election of a gay man as Taoiseach in this context appears a natural progression, even though it still comes as something of a surprise, especially when Leo Varadkar has few (if any) peers in such a prominent position outside of Ireland. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a half-Indian gay man leading the British Government, regardless of Jeremy Corbyn’s intentions to ‘release potential’. However much Varadkar might wish the media attention he’ll undoubtedly receive following his elevation to power will focus on his political message, his sexual status is bound to attract the most interest.
In the grand scheme of things, for a nation that only decriminalised homosexual sex less than twenty-five years ago to shortly have a gay Prime Minister is indeed a positive reflection of Ireland’s changing attitudes; even the fact that the Taoiseach-elect’s religious leanings haven’t figured in the coverage of his promotion to PM – something that would certainly have been raised for an equivalent figure holding the same office on this side of the Irish Sea – is encouraging.
However, amidst an event destined to be held up as a sign of the great distance Ireland has travelled in socially progressive terms, we really shouldn’t forget this is a country where a woman can still not receive a legal abortion unless in exceptional circumstances. The act remains an offence enshrined in the nation’s constitution.
Despite abortion never having been legal in Ireland, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1983 was essentially a constitutional ban on abortion, and though the law was rendered a little more flexible with the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution 1992 – enabling surgeons to perform an abortion to save a mother’s life and no longer making it an offence to travel abroad for a termination – abortion remains illegal in a country where two women or two men can now marry each other. This glaring omission from Ireland’s liberal agenda rightly remains a blot on its copybook and a curious situation for a country to find itself in when something once viewed as beyond the pale as homosexuality is no longer a barrier to high office.
Perhaps, as when capital punishment remained on the UK statute books throughout the peak years of the Swinging Sixties, the abortion ban will eventually come to be seen as an embarrassing anachronism in the face of Ireland’s liberal rebirth. Over to you, Mr Varadkar.
© The Editor