IN 1992, a fairly prominent Irish politician, Michael Smith, then the Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce, famously declared that the people “need to know where the Taoiseach sleeps at night.” “Taoiseach” translates to the head of the government or the prime minister of Ireland. Two politicians—Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds—were against each other for the top job. Ahern was separated from his wife back then. Smith was a Reynolds supporter. The comment was a warning that if Ahern entered the race, everything, including his personal life, would be fair game. It was a despicable comment, but it was also a reflection of the country back then. Ireland was a Catholic country, perhaps the most conservative nation in Europe, where religious probity was paramount. Homosexuality was illegal, gay marriage unheard of, abortion unlawful, the church supreme and an inquiry into a leader’s bedroom had currency. Ahern did not run for office. He would eventually become prime minister a few years later. Reynolds became the leader of Fianna Fáil and the Taoiseach in 1992.
Twenty-five years later, Ireland stands at a new juncture. Its Taoiseach- elect is its youngest ever—just 38 years old. He is openly gay and the son of an immigrant Indian. While much of foreign media attention has been on these aspects of Leo Varadkar’s life, the local press has barely held them accountable. The nation has long moved on from the conservatism that defined its past.
Varadkar’s rise doesn’t just represent a symbolic moment in Ireland’s history; he is an interesting figure. Although Varadkar belongs to a Centre- Right party and his politics is mostly conservative, he has been portrayed as the face of a new, progressive Ireland. As an article in The Irish Times goes, Varadkar’s greatest achievement is in managing 'the almost impossible feat of being a politician who comes across to the public as if he is not a politician at all.’ His propensity to speak his mind is seen as a rare quality. This happened two years ago, when, in the course of a successful referendum campaign to legalise same-sex marriage, he became Ireland’s first cabinet minister ever to come out as gay—a courageous move , given that the country had decriminalised gay sex only in 1993.
Varadkar, who pursued medicine as a student, was born to Ashok Varadkar, a doctor from Mumbai, and Miriam, an Irish nurse. Varadkar’s two sisters are also medical professionals.
He is seen as something of a Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron rolled into one. All three are young heads of state—modern, fresh and progressive on social issues, while urging the electorate to move away from the usual political outlook of the Right versus the Left. The media has shown exceptional fascination with their personal lives, with a fair amount of focus on their partners —Macron’s wife, who is 24 years older to him; Trudeau’s wife is a TV presenter; and Varadkar’s doctor boyfriend.
However, Varadkar is quite unlike the two liberal favourites. His campaign was built upon an appeal not to the marginalised, but to the wealthy. His Right-wing views often made his opponents dub him as a “Thatcherite candidate”. This came about especially when, during the campaign, he said Fine Gael needed to be the party of “the people who get up early in the morning”, a reference to workers and taxpayers. Despite being the son of an immigrant, he does not appear to be very welcoming of them. In 2008, for instance, he suggested if foreign nationals could be persuaded to repatriate to their country of origin by offering them a few months’ worth of welfare benefits.
When he assumes offices, he will have a robust and growing economy to help him. But there are also dark clouds gathering–a post-Brexit world and rising inequality. Let’s see if he lives up to the hype.