Varadkar says society should embrace women, gay people

Minister tells all-male Hibernian Society event his Government must remain consistent in pursuit of equality in society

Leo Varadkar: “We are striving to ensure equality for Catholics and Protestants in the North and in the South to amend our Constitution to modernise the way it refers to women and to grant equality to gay and lesbian citizens by 2016.” Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Leo Varadkar: “We are striving to ensure equality for Catholics and Protestants in the North and in the South to amend our Constitution to modernise the way it refers to women and to grant equality to gay and lesbian citizens by 2016.” Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 10:00

Minister for Tourism Leo Varadkar told an all-male event in the American city of Savannah last night that Irish people everywhere should aspire to a society that included “Catholic, Protestant, believer and non-believer, gay, straight, male, female”.

Mr Varadkar was the guest speaker of the Hibernian Society’s St Patrick’s Day dinner in Savannah, Georgia, last night.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore refused to attend last year because of its exclusion of women.

When it was announced that Mr Varadkar’s itinerary in the United States would include the event, he indicated he would accept the invitation but would also make his views known on its controversial policy of excluding women.


Controversy
In his address last night, Mr Varadkar referred to Mr Gilmore’s decision not to attend last year and spoke about the controversy about members of the Government attending the event in recent years.

“It is not that we do not respect your traditions; we do. It is not that we do not value your connection to and support for Ireland; we value it immensely. But at home, our Government is pursuing an agenda of equality and reform.

“We are striving to ensure equality for Catholics and Protestants in the North and in the South to amend our Constitution to modernise the way it refers to women and to grant equality to gay and lesbian citizens by 2016.

“ It’s a tough battle. For this reason, we feel that it is important that as Ministers we are consistent in what we say at home and abroad,” he said.

During the course of the speech he invoked the spirit of Robert Emmet and the significant historical figures in the United State for whom the Irish patriot had been an inspiration.

Focusing in particular on the exploits of women, he said that Confederate leader Jefferson Davis’s daughter Winnie had written a biography of Emmet in 1888. He also praised Joanna Ruth Kehoe, an Irish immigrant, four of whose descendents led the Hibernian Society in Savannah.

However, in what was perceived as his criticism of the all-male rule for the event, Mr Varadkar called for greater inclusion in society.

“We must remember the spirit of Robert Emmet and recognise that real change requires that we find the courage within ourselves to make our future as it ought to be – free and independent, equal and just – Catholic, Protestant, believer and non-believer, gay, straight, male, female”.


Segregation
Last year, the Tánaiste did not travel to Savannah, where one of the largest St Patrick’s Day marches in the US is held. He told The Irish Times he would not attend on the basis he did not subscribe to “segregation either on a gender basis or any other basis”.

It was the first time an Irish Minister had refused to attend the event for many years. Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley last year criticised Mr Gilmore saying it was an error of judgment for him to snub the all-male dinner.