Leo did Ireland proud in his swan song in the US

Leo did Ireland proud in his swan song in the US

LARRY DONNELLY, Boston-born lecturer at the University of Galway, looks back on Leo Varadkar’s legacy

“POLITICIANS are human beings. We have our limitations. We give it everything until we can’t anymore and then we have to move on.” So said an emotional Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in an address announcing his choice to resign just after returning from a high profile visit to the United States for the week of St. Patrick’s Day. More on that anon.

Varadkar’s fellow Oireachtas members and most of the pundits were collectively taken aback when word of his intention spread on the morning of 20 March. And on one level, it was surprising. Yet on another, it should not have been. The 45-year-old gay son of an Irishwoman and an Indian immigrant doctor had long indicated he would retire from politics before he reached 50.

Political journalists had told this writer as early as last April that Varadkar appeared increasingly detached, so much so that they predicted he could walk away at any time. He had departed his own Dublin West territory to live with his partner and, according to one politically astute resident of that constituency, was seldom seen there as of late.

Varadkar also took a proverbial wallop in two constitutional referendums put to the citizenry by the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party coalition on family and care following a campaign in which many analysts adjudicated him to be a major liability for advocates of Yes-Yes votes.

In the wake of the resounding endorsement of the No-No position by the people on March 8, it was not overly cynical to opine that Irish government ministers, from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste on down, were delighted to skedaddle to the four corners of the globe on their annual pilgrimages.

Rather than eliminating outdated and arguably offensive text in the 1937 cornerstone document, the electorate was persuaded by an ideologically diverse coalition of detractors that the language offered to replace it was potentially risky, vague and non-committal. The “durable relationship” and “shall strive” are now entries in the Irish political lexicon.

As ever, there were the cries, primarily emanating from the extreme left, that Irish officials were wasting time and taxpayer money by availing of the unique access to the corridors of power in America and elsewhere engendered by this country’s national holiday. This is nonsense. Irish diplomats are the envy of their colleagues, who marvel at how Washington, DC grounds to a halt for representatives of this tiny jurisdiction and would give anything for the same opportunity.

To the enduring scepticism of a vocal, short-sighted minority in 2024 was added legitimate anger about the Biden administration’s ongoing support for Israel as it wages war on the men, women and children of Gaza.

The Irish people, who for myriad reasons are inherently sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, have been horrified by the revolting images we cannot escape every night and want Israel’s grossly disproportionate use of armed force to cease, immediately.

They cannot fathom why many American political figures perceive things so differently. There are several complex explanations rooted in realpolitik for this transatlantic gulf in attitude. A large bloc of voters here aren’t interested in hearing the details, however, and many urged a boycott of the White House festivities to signal profound disapproval.

Members of the government, as well as Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin, refused to amend their itineraries, but vowed to use the prominent platforms allocated to them to make an Irish case to change American hearts and minds. Despite the dismissals of critics who asserted that they would default to being meek and supine, Varadkar, McDonald, et al were far from it.

The Taoiseach pulled no punches at the JFK library in the city of my birth: “If we are not consistent – if we do not see and respect the equal value of a child of Israel and a child of Palestine – then the rest of the world…will not listen when we call on them to stand by the rules and institutions that are the bedrock of a civilised world...Consistent application of international law and international humanitarian law has to be the basis on which the international community engages with one another.”

He was forthright at the fabled shamrock ceremony, too. “When I travel the world, leaders often ask me why the Irish have such empathy for the Palestinian people. And the answer is simple: We see our history in their eyes: a story of displacement, of dispossession and national identity questioned and denied, forced emigration, discrimination, and now hunger. The people of Gaza desperately need food, medicine, and shelter. And most especially, they need the bombs to stop. This has to stop, on both sides, the hostages brought home, and humanitarian relief allowed in. Israel must reverse its precipitous decision to authorize a land incursion into Rafah.”

Of course, the extent to which Ireland can influence the trajectory of the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful country is very limited. Nonetheless, the Taoiseach was unflinching, courageous and persuasive in the US. As final acts go, this one was excellent. I wish him the best of luck in the next chapter. Leo Varadkar will undoubtedly find that there is life after politics.

A visit to London from Boston via Galway

IT’S HARD to believe that it is five years since I made the trip across the Irish Sea to watch my cherished Galway footballers take on London in Ruislip in the opening round of the Connacht Championship. It’s even harder to believe that it is more than two decades since my cousin Paddy Murphy dragged me from the warmth of my ancestral home place in north Galway, between Tuam and Dunmore, on a typically windy and rainy evening in the West to a club football match where my love affair with the GAA began.

I am flying in from Dublin on 5 April. My great friends, the McGinns of Tuam, are travelling from Knock. We’ll meet up and stay at the Crown in Cricklewood. From Friday to Sunday, we’ll make our way to most of the Irish pubs in the vicinity. We may venture to Harlesden to hang around with my wife’s brother, Phil Whelan, who has lived there for half a century, yet still speaks as if he never left his native Limerick.

Naturally, I’ll be shouting for Galway to win on Saturday. Equally though, I hope London acquit themselves well. Having strong GAA sides beyond this island is hugely important to sustaining the vitality of the most important sporting and cultural institution for Irish emigrants and their progeny.

All in all, it’s a fantastic weekend for the London Irish community, Galwegians and the Galway diaspora – even those of us whose personal journeys to this celebration of identity in McGovern Park have been slightly more circuitous!

Larry Donnelly

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a regular media contributor on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and the US. @LarryPDonnelly