It’s not often that history is made on breakfast radio. But on a Sunday morning in January 2015, the then Irish health minister, Leo Varadkar, did just that. “I am a gay man,” he told RTE. “It’s not a secret, but not something everyone would necessarily know.”
His announcement, according to one columnist, sent a “clatter of forkfuls of rashers hitting plates in kitchens around Ireland”. In coming out, Varadkar, one of the few ethnic minority figures in Irish politics (his father is Indian), became the country’s first gay cabinet minister. The moment is now widely seen as a milestone on the country’s long road to marriage equality, legalised in a landmark referendum four months later.
Two years on, the Dubliner has made history again. Following the resignation of the long-serving Taoiseach Enda Kenny on 17 May, Varadkar has won the leadership of Fine Gael, Ireland’s centre-right governing party. (In a result to make Corbynsceptic Labour MPs envious, he won only 35 per cent of the party membership’s vote, but won handsome majorities among councillors and parliamentarians.)
Varadkar’s rise, as a mixed-raced, gay politician in a country where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993 has made for celebratory, if reductive, headlines around the world. His installation as Taoiseach would affirm, rather than challenge, modern Ireland’s sense of self: it was, after all, the first country to legalise equal marriage by popular vote.
Yet, for all the approving commentary, Varadkar is a deeply conventional politician. His personal magnetism belies workmanlike stints in public office, and his battle for the Fine Gael leadership with the starchy housing minister, Simon Coveney, was derided as a contest “between two privileged, private-school educated, socially awkward nerds” by the Irish Examiner.
Unlike Coveney, the mild-mannered scion of a Cork political dynasty, Varadkar, is a first-generation politician. His rise was nonetheless predictable. Born in 1979 to an Irish mother and Indian doctor father, he was privately educated on Dublin’s leafy Southside.
The aspiring medic threw himself into student politics at Trinity College Dublin. Having headed Fine Gael’s notoriously strident youth wing, he interned on Capitol Hill for a Republican congressman, and recounted his experiences in a frank series of blog posts. (“Everything is so f***ing expensive here,” wrote the 21-year-old Varadkar of the entry fee for a Washington bar.)
Struck by the dynamism of the US Congress, he noted: “Irish politics is dominated by a bunch of old codgers, many of whom lost their passion for and belief in politics long ago.” Friends and rivals alike would agree that Varadkar – who was elected to the Dáil Éireann aged just 28 and would be Ireland’s youngest leader since its independence from Britain – is immune to that charge.
Though some have likened Varadkar to the liberal favourites Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, the similarities are few beyond his youth. Varadkar is regularly attacked as a Thatcherite by his critics. He resists the term but has undeniably staked out a position to the right of the political mainstream to woo a demographic he defines as Ireland’s “strivers”.
His break with Kenny – a softly spoken schoolteacher from Co Mayo compared with Varadkar’s metropolitan smoothie – will be more than stylistic. Earlier this year, he spearheaded a publicity drive against so-called “welfare cheats”, which was condemned as a “hate campaign” by a former social security inspector. Outlawing strikes in “essential” public services is a central plank of his leadership bid, and unions accuse him of spoiling for a fight.
The taoiseach-elect has criticised Donald Trump and, more tellingly, Theresa May. While Kenny was one of David Cameron’s few real friends among EU27 leaders, Varadkar has attacked May’s reliance on “slogans and soundbites” and called for Northern Ireland to remain in the single market post-Brexit. His willingness to define himself against May reflects a new political truth: Dublin now sees its future as an integral part of the EU27.
He now faces immediate challenges. He must restore order to the restive ranks of Fine Gael, placate Coveney, his still powerful leadership rival, and maintain a precarious confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil.
He has also pledged a referendum to legalise abortion in some cases, a subject on which he strikes a noticeably less confident note than others. (He does not support abortion on request, the recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly set up to help resolve the issue, and in 2010 said he did not agree with termination for rape victims, a position he has since revised.)
Ireland’s status as a home for US multinationals seeking low corporate taxes is under threat from both Brussels and Trump. Brexit negotiations will prove a test of his political mettle. While Varadkar is having his moment in the sun, storm clouds could soon gather. His biggest challenge could be living up to his own hype.
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning