Ireland’s new taoiseach, or prime minister, is the thirty-eight-year-old gay son of an Indian immigrant, and can’t speak the country’s first official language. Actually, that last bit isn’t true, but in any case it would be forgiven in a country where only 3 per cent of the population speak Gaelic outside school (where it is a compulsory subject). What the new leader wouldn’t have been forgiven for, as recently as twenty years ago, are the other traits, which would have been insurmountable obstacles for even the most ambitious politician.
Homosexuality was decriminalised as recently as 1993, and even then controversially. “If this bill is passed, I am concerned about the possible effect on Irish society,” said Paul McGrath, a Fine Gael member of the Dáil, or lower house, during the parliamentary debate. “Will we now see exhibitions in public by homosexuals holding hands, kissing, cuddling, etcetera?”
Much has changed in Ireland since then. In particular, the influence of the Catholic church, once a pillar of Irish society, has sharply declined. Released from the hold of Rome, Ireland became a much more liberal country, perhaps best symbolised by the passing of the 2015 referendum legalising same-sex marriage.
At the forefront of this campaign was a young Leo Varadkar, destined to become leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party and taoiseach of Ireland. But those expecting Varadkar’s meteoric rise to signal further change in Ireland shouldn’t hold their breath.
Varadkar is not the first leader of the country with a foreign surname. Fianna Fáil was once led by Seán Lemass (an anglicisation of the French le Maistre) and, most famously, by Éamon de Valera, who wasn’t even born in Ireland.
Far from being a liberal or radical politician, Varadkar has previously placed himself on the right of the party, on both social and economic issues; during the recent campaign for the party leadership, he was also leading a high-profile campaign, as social protection minister, against welfare fraud.
And Varadkar comes from middle-class stock, being the son of the local doctor and having attended a fee-paying school in an affluent part of Dublin. So this is not exactly a log-cabin-to-White-House story. But this shouldn’t take away from what has been a remarkable rise to power for a politician who has sat in parliament for just ten years.
Leo Varadkar and I were contemporaries at Trinity College Dublin, and I recall the fresh-faced nineteen-year-old running for local elections in 1999 while he was studying for a medical degree. Although he wasn’t elected then, five years later his winning vote in the local elections was the largest in the country.
By 2007 he was sitting in the national parliament, where he would make a name for himself with vociferous condemnations of senior politicians, including a popular former leader of his own party. He was also heavily involved in a failed leadership challenge to Enda Kenny, Fine Gael’s leader, in 2010.
A year later, despite this mutinous behaviour, Kenny appointed Varadkar to cabinet after Fine Gael returned to office following fourteen years in opposition. In the six years since, he has served in three separate ministries, in none of which he seemed to have a significant impact.
Yet – known popularly simply by his first name – Leo has been extremely popular with the Dublin-based media, which was undoubtedly a factor in his quick rise to prominence. And so, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced his decision to leave office last month, Varadkar was immediately seen as one of the favourites for the job.
Facing only one opponent for the leadership of Fine Gael – under a convoluted set of rules, and an electoral college comprised of the parliamentary party, local councillors and party members – Varadkar gave a first glimpse of his potential decisiveness and ruthlessness.
Within days, if not hours, of Kenny announcing his intention to step down, minister after minister came out to declare their intention to support Varadkar in the leadership race. With the parliamentary party (including members of the European Parliament) holding 65 per cent of votes, these declarations virtually decided the contest before it had begun.
While Varadkar eventually won the leadership battle with the support of fifty-one of Fine Gael’s seventy-three parliamentarians, he failed to convince the party membership of his credentials; they backed his opponent, Simon Coveney, by a majority of two-to-one.
Winning over the hearts and minds of his party might seem like his first challenge, but he faces much more difficult tests within parliament. Fine Gael occupies just fifty seats in a Dáil of 158, making Varadkar leader of the smallest minority government in the history of the Irish state. Only the cooperation of Fianna Fáil, the party’s main rival, and several independent parliamentarians stands between the government and oblivion.
Varadkar has inherited this unprecedented arrangement from his predecessor, who took seventy days to negotiate it after the 2016 election. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the state, both of them remnants of a civil war divide, and they have never been in power together.
The current minority arrangement came about only because there seemed no alternative. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had ruled out a coalition with Sinn Féin, and Fianna Fáil refused to countenance sharing office with Fine Gael. The party that wants Varadkar out of office is keeping him there under a deal that will shape his time in office.
While known for his outspoken and confrontational nature, Varadkar will have to tone down his rhetoric to keep Fianna Fáil and the independents on side. Early evidence that he will try not to upset the apple cart came with his first major decision, the composition of the new cabinet. Rather than an Augean reshuffle, Varadkar kept many of the old faces, demoting just one person from cabinet, the rather unfortunate Mary Mitchell O’Connor, who can still attend as a “super junior” minister.
Indeed, for those hoping that Varadkar’s elevation would herald significant change, the day of his election to high office was a damp squib. The one highlight was a revelation from the longstanding leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, that the two shared a Pilates class.
While Varadkar may well enjoy something of a honeymoon from the media, he faces a number of significant challenges that will test his leadership skills. Of these, perhaps the two most prominent are Brexit and abortion laws.
The latter is an issue that won’t go away. Every week, about eighty Irish women travel to the United Kingdom to terminate a pregnancy, a total figure estimated to be 150,000 over the past forty years. In the week of Varadkar’s coronation, the state sectioned a girl who was deemed suicidal and wanted to travel to England for an abortion.
To date, Ireland has voted on abortion law reform five times, with the new taoiseach pledging to have another referendum in 2018. The vote will most likely be on a repeal of the eighth amendment, which constitutionally enshrined a ban on abortion in 1983.
If the referendum is successful, parliament will then have the power to legislate for abortion, but it is not clear if this is Varadkar’s intention. He has sent out mixed messages in the past. In the 2015 radio interview in which he first publicly declared his sexual orientation, he stated that he was pro-life and against removing the constitutional ban on abortion.
A previous attempt to legislate for abortion in severely restricted circumstances led to a split within Fine Gael in 2013, with some members breaking away to form a new party. It would be careless of Varadkar to allow history to repeat itself, so it remains to be seen how he intends to deal with this divisive issue.
The other event that will shape his premiership is Brexit. The UK’s departure from the European Union will bring a range of opportunities and risks. It’s often said that Ireland will be the only English-speaking country left in the EU (forgetting poor Malta), which will make it even more attractive for the foreign direct investment that fuels much of the country’s economic growth.
The biggest challenge will be the border with Northern Ireland. The British government seems to be under the illusion that a “soft” border can be maintained, an assumption that seems naive at best. Reinstating a physical border would not help the peace process in the north, and would also be extremely expensive.
Politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly on the unionist side, are in a quandary. Most of them voted to remain in the EU, but they are aware that Brexit might swing the momentum towards a united Ireland. Varadkar touched on this topic for the first time during the Fine Gael leadership hustings. The arrangement being negotiated between Theresa May and the Democratic Unionist Party to keep the Conservatives in power could only make matters more complicated.
While there is a lot to do, a new poll is not necessary until 2021, as long as Varadkar can avoid the temptation to follow May’s fateful lead and seek his own mandate with an early election. Of course, whether he can keep the precarious administration in power until then is another matter. Leo will have no time to rest on his laurels. •