Scott De Buitléir is an author and poet from the Republic of Ireland.
He’s also the founder of EILE magazine, which focuses on LGBT+ issues.
In our socially distanced interview we talk Ireland’s potential new government, COVID-19, LGBT+ equality, and more.
MH: Scott, thanks so much for doing this interview.
SDB: My pleasure, Mathew! Great to be able to chat with you from across the water!
MH: So, for my readers who may not be aware of yourself and your work, give us a brief bio.
SDB: Of course: I’m a writer, poet, and a somewhat new political activist based in Cork, in the southwest of Ireland. By day, I work in marketing for a tech company, but my academic background is a mixture of media, journalism, and Celtic languages. I’m originally from Dublin, but I’ve lived in Cork for over three years now, having also spent time in Belfast and Nottingham.
MH: Yes, we’ll come back to your days in my own beloved East Midlands later on. And we first were introduced (albeit online) by one of my previous interviewees, the lovely Stephen Donnan-Dalzeil.
SDB: Yes, Stephen has been a wonderful friend of mine since living in Belfast some years ago. We met at first via Twitter, and Stephen quickly became one of my favourite people. I learned a lot about politics, Northern Ireland, and about the region’s unionist community from Stephen.
MH: Yup, Stephen’s great. So, how is lockdown affecting you?
SDB: I’m very conscious of how fortunate my partner and I have been during the lockdown, in that neither of us have lost our jobs, and we’ve been able to work from home without much interruption. Life in lockdown has been interesting for us, however; we had been in the middle of major home renovations when Ireland was placed under lockdown, and we have been living on a building site since! Thankfully, though, we’re slowly making progress, so the only thing I am missing now is the ability to see our families and friends in person. Most of them are in Dublin, some 260km (160 miles) away from Cork.
MH: What are the major differences between how the situation’s been dealt with in Ireland compared to the UK?
SDB: I think the leadership has been different from the very start. Our Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, had been a GP and physician, so his medical knowledge gave an air of competency at first. Ireland was in a precarious situation, in that we had a general election in February, where Varadkar’s Fine Gael party had been given a less secure footing by the electorate. That being said, there was initially a collective political ceasefire for implementing lockdown. Our government’s reaction to the pandemic was not without flaws or oversights, but the messaging was clear from the start: Stay safe at home, check in on each other if you can, and don’t put yourself or others in danger unnecessarily. Looking at it from outside the UK, I became worried for my friends living there, based on the messaging from Westminster. Boris Johnson’s laissez-faire attitude to the virus at first ultimately led him to contracting it himself, and I hoped that his recovery would make him see first-hand the horrific pressure facing health workers, including the PPE situation. Instead, we’ve seen Dominic Cummings effectively prove that the government is not adhering to their own advice for British people, and his continued presence at Number 10 shows a disrespect for those who have sacrificed so much or have lost loved ones. It is a tragedy that over 50,000 Britons have lost their lives to this virus, because I believe so many of them could have been saved sooner.
MH: It’s been interesting seeing how different governments and heads of government have dealt with COVID-19. I think probably Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand has done the best job, but from an outsider’s perspective Varadkar seems to have, broadly speaking, shone in the role.
SDB: If I were to grade Varadkar’s performance during this, I’d probably give him a C+. He has not been perfect, not by a long shot, but it’s not my style to ignore his efforts or good intentions during the situation. Jacinda Ardern would definitely deserve a higher grade, but I don’t doubt that she probably faces some criticism, too.
MH: You’re an activist with the Irish Social Democrats, right?
SDB: I joined the Social Democrats based on my own view that the State must act to protect the vulnerable and not scapegoat them for the sake of middle-class stability. The two are not mutually exclusive, but whereas Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have regularly allowed for less privileged sections of society to suffer, almost as the price to pay for the majority to be better off. I wholly disagree with such a philosophy, and I’m prepared to wait and continue building the party until we can say to the Irish people: “A practical, logical, and expert-vetted alternative is available which doesn’t sacrifice any of us.”
MH: I agree and watch the Soc Dems with interest, especially as I describe myself as a Social Democrat in the Liberal Democrats (the party, of course, having been a merger of Liberals and Social Democrats in 1988) and I’m heavily involved in the Social Democrat Group. I think Social Democracy, at its best, is the best political philosophy there is. But often it’s not communicated very well. How active are you? Would you like to stand for elected office?
SDB: In terms of political philosophy, I believe the best term for my view is Social Liberalism, so in an Irish context, the SocDems are best aligned with my own. I’m an active member of the party, and try to help with my local constituency of Cork South Central where I can. From a policy point of view, my academic expertise is best suited to Irish language and Gaeltacht-region affairs, which enjoys the strange status as being a nationally special but niche area. So, I’d like to improve the party’s standing for Irish speakers, but I leave it to others to use their expertise for areas like health, housing, and education. As for elected office, I’m not sure. I’ve lived in Cork for 3 years now, but I am and always will be a Dubliner. I’ve only moved to the neighbourhood we now live in last year, so I don’t consider my Cork roots to be deep enough to represent the area. I’m also quite introvert at heart, so the idea of canvassing – a ritual all elected politicians would face – is particularly daunting to me. That being said, maybe as I learn more about the party and settle into my new home, things might change in the future.
MH: Tell us more about your writing.
SDB: Ah, a very different topic from politics! I’ve written fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in both English and Irish since I was a teenager, as I’ve always found writing to be theraputic. I’ve four books published in total, with a fifth on the way later this year. My latest book, Forgiving Jake, is a novella based on a young woman whose life is changed when her boyfriend is killed in a car accident. It’s a story about love, loss, and learning to move on from the past. My poetry, meanwhile, deals with a wide range of topics from relationships to civil rights, and from history to love. All my books are available in paperback or eBook format from Amazon, Apple Books, or Goodreads.
MH: People should definitely check them out. And you ran a magazine previously, I believe?
SDB: Yes; in 2013, I launched my own digital publication, called EILE Magazine. “Eile” is the Irish word for ‘other’, and it was meant to provide a different perspective to previously existing LGBT media in Ireland. I ran the magazine as Editor-in-Chief for two years, working with voluntary contributors in Ireland, the UK, and the US. After the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015, I stepped back from EILE to pursue other projects, and my mother took over in the daily running and management of the publication. EILE still continues as a daily news and arts platform for the Irish LGBT community, thanks mostly to my mother and a handful of regular writers, and I’m still very proud of its legacy.
MH: Can I ask you for your response to the news that, subject to the agreement of the respective party memberships, Ireland has a historic new government?
SDB: Although I’m cautious, I welcome the aims in the Programme for Government set out by the three parties, as at first glance, it seems to have a decent balance between social and economic goals. It’s not exactly historic – Ireland has had a 3-party coalition before – but it is a contemporary approach to our country’s needs. Part of me is cynically aware that no government agenda is completed fully, so I would be concerned that the targets influenced by the Green Party may fall down the priority list, but for now, we await the approval of each party’s membership. It will then fall upon Opposition parties to hold the triad to account once the new Dáil is finalised.
MH: Tell me if I’m wrong, but it’s historic in terms of the two old Civil War parties going into government together, right?
SDB: That much is true, yes. This will show how similar Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in policy and actions, and how they act together will have major implications for the narrative of the next election (whenever that may be). Whereas usually one will attack the other based on their actions in government, with both in power together, it means that neither will be immune from criticism of their roles in government. If this government doesn’t truly satisfy the Irish people over the coming years, then the following general election should surely see a major opportunity for left-leaning parties other than the Greens.
MH: I often have an internal debate with myself on whether, if there’s a chance to govern and enact your policies, parties should always govern whatever the potential electoral consequences. My party, the British Lib Dems, were all but decimated as a result of being part of the 2020-15 UK Coalition Government, and the Irish Greens lost every single one of their Dail seats after their first time in government. What’s your view?
SDB: Ireland may be used to the idea of coalition governments a little more than the UK, but I’ve seen the damage done to the Greens and to Labour here after their work in coalitions. To some voters, their association to the larger parties is seen as selling out their principles in order to gain power, and any genuinely good intentions are dismissed by the cynics (of which there are many, both left and right leaning). It falls upon parties like the Lib Dems, or Alliance in Northern Ireland, or even the Social Democrats in Ireland, not to be deterred from their mission; to call for a fairer, sustainable, equal, and inclusive society for their respective peoples, not allowing for the vulnerable minority to be abandoned for the sake of the majority. Where there is common ground with other parties, that should be explored for government, but the duty of keeping the electorate informed of achievements and challenges, while in coalition, falls on party leadership and organisation. If that information doesn’t get through, the public will be disillusioned and the party may not get the credit it may deserve, as I feel was the case for the Irish Labour party in its last role in government with Fine Gael.
MH: Can I ask to please reflect, as a gay man, on the symbolism and substance of Ireland having had it’s first ‘openly Gay’ head of government? Whatever Leo Varadkar’s politics, that has been significant hasn’t it?
SDB: Yes, but not in the way one might expect. To me, it was more telling of how far our nation has come that Leo’s political actions and stances were criticised far, far more than his sexuality. His being gay was very much a “so what?” moment for the public, which is as it should be. There will always be some ignorant and downright horrid comments on the likes of Twitter from the far-right (of which there’s thankfully few in Ireland, although it doesn’t stop others internationally from chiming in) but generally the last few years have shown that we can and do have openly-gay Councillors, TDs, and Taoiseach. I wish he had been a better advocate for the LGBT community, both before and after he came out, but he cannot be denied his title of being the first openly-gay Taoiseach, and that is a good thing for our country, regardless of his politics.
MH: Does this new likely government give you hope of a better future or not?
SDB: I’m seeing various figures on Twitter make efforts to tear the new Programme for Government apart already, and part of that is good – it shows that people will be quick to notice if something is wrong or not achieved. Personally, I’d rather wait and see what happens next; the members of each party will have to green-light their move into coalition, and then our collective effort – not just in politics, but as a society overall – must be to recover from the pandemic without placing vulnerable sections of society under even more financial and social hardship. All eyes are on what happens next in Leinster House, but every citizen has their own duty of holding all politicians and representatives to account. That is of paramount importance, regardless of who’s in power next.
MH: So, this is Pride month, what’s your assessment on where we stand re LGBT+ rights and equality. We’ve come a long way, but a long way still to go?
SDB: The 2020 Rainbow Europe report from ILGA Europe placed the UK in 9th position in terms of legal and policy practices for LGBT+ people, and Ireland came 15th. That shows that we still have a lot to do. Ireland, for example, still doesn’t have hate crime legislation, which affects much more than just LGBT+ people, and our Asylum-related policies are severely lacking. We also have a duty to call out homophobia beyond our shores, as the horrific conditions in Chechnya and Russia have not gotten better for LGBT people there. As someone who is pro-EU, it worries me a lot when I see news from fellow EU states like Poland and Hungary about homophobic or transphobic attacks. We have certainly made progress, but the fight is not over.
MH: And intersectionality is important, isn’t it? If, for example, you’re BAME, gay and Trans you are very likely to face discrimination on a host of fronts. And, public services don’t seem to have any clue how to help/reassure/protect people who may be vulnerable to hate crime etc. We want to put people in certain boxes and don’t seem to be able to cope when people could be put in several boxes.
SDB: I very much agree. Recent events in the US with the killing of George Floyd have not only caused shock around the world, but they’ve also sparked conversations here about how we perceive and deal with racism. Ireland is still arguably over 90% white, with our largest non-national ‘ethnic’ minorities being from Britain or Poland, so we are not immune to abject racism by any means. Even the most well-intentioned of us have a journey to go on in order to support others of one or multiple different communities, and it starts by listening to the experiences of others.
MH: Absolutely. So, just a couple more questions. Tell me, how did you end up in my university city, Nottingham, and how did you like my beloved East Midlands?
SDB: My partner was living in Nottingham when we started dating, and for the first 18 months, we had a long-distance relationship between Dublin and Nottingham. Then, when it was clear that he couldn’t move back to Ireland yet (as he’s also a Dubliner), I decided to move to England instead. We lived in Nottingham for another 18 months or so, until my partner was given the opportunity to relocate to Cork with his job. I loved my time in the East Midlands, and I made some life-long friends from my time in Nottingham. My partner and I love to travel, and we took advantage of exploring England whenever we had a weekend free; including visiting Leeds, Manchester, beautiful rural Leicestershire, Derby, and Warwickshire. I had a wonderful time in Nottingham, and love the atmosphere of the city, especially around the artistic Hockley district, and where we lived in West Bridgford. We still own an apartment there, so thankfully we have a reason to return every so often and catch up with friends while in town.
MH: And we still didn’t manage to actually meet! 🙂
SDB: If anything, I’ve proven to my friends and colleagues in Notts that it’s usually very cheap and easy to fly from East Midlands to Dublin! I did it once a month at least while living there, so now I’m keeping an eye on when my English friends can visit me for a change – once normality returns!
MH: Well, maybe I’ll have to pay a trip when things return to some kind of normality!
SDB: There will be a “céad míle fáilte” (hundred thousand welcomes) awaiting you when you do!
MH: Hahahahaha. You are a charmer. Thanks for your time today, Scott, and very best wishes for all that you’re involved in.
SDB: Thanks for the chat, Mathew, it’s been lovely to catch up.