Should politicians be entitled to keep their private life private?

Tadgh McNally

The news coverage surrounding the Virgin Media Leaders Debate has focused quite heavily on comments made by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar around his past use of drugs as a college student.

The answer he gave, referencing a Hot Press interview from over a decade ago, was pressed by both Micheál Martin and Pat Kenny. Varadkar eventually gave in, but not before the pregnant pause which gained huge traction on social media in the aftermath of the debate.

The interview in question asks Varadkar about his use of illegal drugs as a teenager, and Varadkar openly admits to smoking cannabis while studying in Trinity, but hasn’t since. “Not since I’ve held elected office, anyway. I’ve been extremely law-abiding since I’ve been elected to politics,” said Varadkar.

But does it really matter in the grand scheme of the election? Should politicians, and senior ones at that, be held accountable for their use of drugs as students? 

Speaking as a student, I think it’s foolish to believe that the leaders of our country are saints who’ve never touched recreational drugs in the past. Drugs are absolutely present across every college campus in Ireland and are a common part of Irish nightlife. Not everyone can be like Micheál Martin and completely abstain from both drug use and no-confidence votes in the Dáil.

Politicians and their respective histories with drugs are always going to be sexy stories for the tabloids, but Varadkar’s initial unwillingness to answer was what garnered the attention across the rest of the media. If he had just answered immediately, I don’t think there would’ve been a big deal made out of it. 

Perhaps more scrutiny should be placed on Varadkar for his lack of action on the feud in Drogheda, and how drugs are affecting young people in the area, rather than looking at how he smoked weed a decade ago.

While it’s fine to leave the past to the past, it’s not alright for politicians who have experience using recreational drugs in the past to moralise about them in the present. The situation would be much worse for Varadkar if he had staunch anti-drugs policies. While the policy isn’t groundbreaking, sending first-time offenders to the HSE rather than the courts is certainly a step in the right direction. This, alongside receiving planning permission for a safe injection centre in Dublin city, are definitely positives. 

Varadkar also isn’t the first Taoiseach to admit to using recreational drugs in the past. Fianna Fáil’s Brian Cowen, who led a Fianna Fáil-Green coalition from 2008 to 2011, also revealed his past drug use in a Hot Press interview. He admitted to smoking cannabis while studying at UCD, saying: “Anyone who went to the UCD bar in the ‘70s that didn’t get a whiff of marijuana would be telling you a lie”. 

For young aspiring politicians to have experimented with drugs is fine, and I think both the media and the public should focus more on the policies of a politician rather than their past use of recreational drugs.

Tadgh McNally

Image: Jonathon Lynam