Varadkar to challenge outdated stereotype of Irish identity in US

Taoiseach first gay prime minister to march in New York St Patrick’s Day parade

While much of the focus this week will be on the Taoiseach’s visit to the White House, equally significant will be his participation in the New York St Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday.

Leo Varadkar will be the first gay prime minister to march in the parade.

It’s an important moment for the 250-year-old institution.

It is just two years since the parade permitted gay groups to march under their own banners. For centuries the organisers of the New York Patrick’s Day Parade banned gay groups from marching, prompting boycotts by many including mayor Bill de Blasio. In 2016, after decades of campaigning, groups including the Lavender and Green alliance, were permitted to march.

While Varadkar continues to be rightly judged at home for his performance as leader, and questions about the health service and other domestic issues follow him to the US, internationally his significance as a new kind of Irish leader goes much deeper.

Ideological conservatism

Nowhere is this more important than America where Irish-American identity has long been rooted in an ideological conservatism and nativist idea of Irishness. Millions of Irish-Americans continue to view Irish national identity through a conservative, often Catholic, lens. It is reflected not just in the conservative politics of the annual parades, last year the Boston parade was forced to reverse a ban on a gay veterans’ group marching. It is also reflected in many of the Irish-American organisations around the country.

The nation’s oldest Irish-American group, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, which has undertaken important philanthropic work over the years, was a male-own institution until 2016. Founded in 1771 in Philadelphia, it admitted its first woman – Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson – in 2016. Ireland’s Deputy Consular General Anna McGillicuddy was also honoured last weekend.

Varadkar presents a challenge to the outdated stereotype of Irish identity promulgated by many Irish-American groups. It's an idealisation held by vice-president Mike Pence, a proud Irish-American but intensely conservative man. Varadkar's meeting with Pence on Friday will be an opportunity to offer him a new version of Irishness. The Taoiseach has already said he will raise the issue of gay rights when he meets him.

While the politics of Northern Ireland will continue to be an important strand of Irish-American relations, particularly in light of the current challenges in the North, the Irish-American relationship is now as much about trade and investment as culture and history given the huge levels of US investment in Ireland.

Irish diaspora

As Niall O Dowd wrote recently in The Irish Times, the Irish diaspora is at risk at dying out in the United States given the low numbers that now emigrate to the US.

Much of that is due to the visa regime, and is a reason why the government should continue to actively push for new immigration paths, such as the introduction of an Australia-style E3 visa, rather than solely focusing on the plight of the undocumented.

Ensuring Irish-American identity is not just rooted in the past but also has an eye to the future, is a challenge for the Government as they continue to foster links with America, and to ensure continuing American investment into Ireland

Ensuring Irish-American identity is not just rooted in the past but also has an eye to the future, is a challenge for the Government as they continue to foster links with America, and to ensure continuing American investment into Ireland.

Varadkar is an important symbol of that new Ireland. He himself took part in the Washington Ireland Programme, spending a summer interning in the capital in 2000.

Speaking at the SXSW conference on Sunday, he was asked about his background. He joked that he was the person in school who was “tanned all year round and had a funny name”. “West Dublin is a very diverse place now but it wasn’t when I was growing up,” he said. But growing up in a multicultural household gave him a unique perspective on the world he said.

“Because my dad is from India, I was always aware that there was a bigger world, that the world didn’t stop at Ireland, or even Britain, or America.” His exposure to “totally different religions, cultural references and concepts,” gave him a different perspective.

“I have always seen myself as an Irish person but also a citizen of the world.”

The Irish public may have grown used to having a young gay Taoiseach with an Indian name, but for this week, Varadkar’s status as a fresh symbol of modern Ireland will make an important statement on St Patrick’s Day.