View: Leo Varadkar & symbolic campaigns

Leo Varadkar made his name with a referendum, and further built his stature as Taoiseach (prime minister of Ireland) with another. So, it seems symbolically fitting that a referendum, over a largely symbolic issue brought him down, leading to his decision this week to quit politics.

Varadkar was path-breaking. Being one of the first biracial leaders in Europe may not seem special with the UK, Scotland and Wales, now all led by non-white men. But in a wider European context, where Hungary’s Viktor Orban made a speech in 2022 against ‘race-mixing’, Ireland’s easy acceptance of Varadkar was significant.

But it was Varadkar being openly gay that made him, while he was minister of health in 2015, the face of the referendum to legalise same-sex marriage. This attracted international attention, with Irish people from across the world travelling home to vote. Same-sex marriage won with 62% of the electorate voting yes. It signalled a changing Ireland, and Varadkar was proof of it.

This helped Varadkar become head of his Fine Gael party in 2017, making him Taoiseach. He announced a referendum on an even more controversial subject, the right to abortion. In 1983, a referendum had actually gone the other way, enshrining the right to life of a foetus. Three subsequent referenda, in 1992, loosened restrictions on women having abortions abroad, but still banned it in Ireland.

The 2018 referendum to allow abortion in Ireland resulted in an emphatic 66.4% vote in favour. Varadkar’s popularity was further propelled by getting the European Union to take a hard line in negotiations with the UK on Brexit. Bashing the Brits is always a popular strategy in Ireland. Varadkar’s personal polling was high, though his party lost seats in the 2020 election. He struck a deal with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael’s long-term opponents, under which he would become Taoiseach again in the second half of the coalition’s term.

This happened in 2022, but Varadkar’s second term did not go well. Ireland is suffering from an acute housing shortage and the same unease over immigration roiling the rest of Europe. Varadkar didn’t seem able to deal with these issues, so when he announced two new referenda for this year, it seemed a lot like he was trying to recapture the political waves that first put him in power.

The referenda aimed to change language in Ireland’s Constitution that seemed anachronistic. This Constitution came into force in 1937, replacing the Constitution of the Irish Free State from 1922.

For the Irish, framing a Constitution – which the UK does not have – was an act of resistance in itself, even if the actual document included many uncomfortable concessions. By 1937 Ireland felt confident enough to become a Republic, with a new, more independent Constitution. But the country was small and impoverished and Eamon de Valera, the Taoiseach, was looking for wider global support, particularly from the Catholic Church

This is what accounts for socially conservative language in the 1937 Constitution declaring the Family, based on Marriage, as fundamental to society, and the role of women, as mothers at home, as important for the ‘common good’ of the state. India’s Constitution, framed in the late 1940s, learned a lot from the Irish Constitution and similar issues were debated in our constituent assembly. If such language has not lingered in our Constitution, it is partly because changing is much easier here than in Ireland, where a national referendum is needed. We have passed 106 amendments, where Ireland has just proposed 39, some of which, like the latest, have not passed.

The Constitution’s socially conservative language was out of touch with modern Ireland, where the role of the Church is diminished, marriage rates are falling and women no longer feel tied to the home. Varadkar clearly calculated this would be a popular measure, and the fact that no major political party opposed it seemed like confirmation. Which mainstream party would want to sound like they wanted women back in the home?

But Varadkar made a key mistake – he didn’t consider if voters felt a referendum was needed. The same-sex marriage and, even more, the abortion referenda corrected very real problems. Many people knew same-sex couples facing practical problems due to lack of state recognition. The problems of women having to go abroad for abortions were well-known, and then there was the horror of the Savita Halapannavar case where a young, Indian-origin woman died from complications of her pregnancy because she was denied an abortion.

By contrast, the changes in Irish society, as proved by the earlier referenda, seemed to make the language in the Constitution irrelevant. It could be argued that it was embarrassing having such language persist, and that it helped pop-up a patriarchal culture. But in practical terms, the referendum seemed to driven by symbolic rather than practical concerns – and the suspicion that Varadkar was trying to divert attention from domestic issues.

Politicians make such mistakes when they lose connection with regular voters. By contrast, they can get overly influenced by issue-based activists, who are passionate and get themselves heard. Many politicians may have debts to such activists, who helped them reach the leadership positions from which they get elected. But a balance must be struck between appeasing them, and the needs of the wider electorate.

Varadkar’s downfall shows the dangers of politics driven by symbolism. Politicians love symbolism-driven campaigns, which give them visibility but require few hard decisions to be taken. Yet taking hard decisions and dealing with real issues is what voters really want – the symbolic stuff is the icing on the cake, nice, but not sustaining. Indian politicians, at all levels, are prone to campaigning on symbolism, but the fate of this Indian-origin Irish politician should be a caution on how it can fail.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of

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