It was tighter than expected but a win is still a win, and an emigrant son whose father moved 5,000 miles from Mumbai to Dublin became Ireland's next leader.
It is official. Leo Varadkar will be Ireland’s new Taoiseach (Prime Minister). The last name comes from the village named Varad, in Gujarat, where his family came from. Gandhi spent many years in the same region.
Fifty-five of his Indian relatives gathered in a Mumbai suburb to watch the count on the internet. His uncle 93-year-old Manohar Varadkar (93) commissioned a large cake to be distributed once the announcement was confirmed.
Also present, the Irish Times reported, was another uncle, Avinash Varadkar, 79, along with many of the new Fine Gael leader’s first and second cousins.
His cousin Shubhada told The Times of India, “We are extremely happy to hear the news. We were closely watching his campaign as well as today’s counting of votes. As the news broke, we cut a cake and celebrated his success. I have not yet decided about my Ireland visit but I would love to meet him as soon as possible,” she said.
The 38-year-old legislator for Dublin West lost the support of party members by a near two to one margin, but was the runaway choice of legislators who made up 65% of the Fine Gael party’s electoral college.
Once he receives the seals of office from President Michael D. Higgins he’ll be the first gay leader in Irish history and the first non-white head of government in western Europe.
It’s a heady cocktail of historical firsts; Ireland only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 and 92% of the population declared themselves white in the last census - the same percentage as Iowa.
It is thought much of the grassroots opposition among rank and file was because he was gay. For once the party politicians were ahead of the people.
He won it by completely outsmarting his rival. Simon Coveney. He played his ace by demonstrating rural support first when everyone expected him to trot out his Dublin-based bandwagon.
He also organized much earlier helped by being in a government ministry far less busy than where Coveney was located in Housing. He had canvassed the entire cabinet before Coveney even shqwed up to woo him. It was a blitzkrieg which revealed a razor sharp political brain and Coveney never got off the skids.
He also made himself available at short notice to every elected member. No distance was too great to drive, no event too trivial. Coveney sometimes took weeks to get back to members
He grew up in a comfortable middle-class Dublin household; his father was a doctor from Mumbai and his mother a nurse from Waterford. He attended the private King’s Hospital School and it was then that he first joined the center-right Fine Gael party he now leads.
Then it was on to Trinity College, Dublin where he studied medicine and made a name for himself in the party’s youth wing, Young Fine Gael. He became a councillor at only 24 and was elected to the Dáil for his home constituency of Dublin West in 2007.
Ideologically, he is to the right of his vanquished rival, Simon Coveney - although it could best be described as a few differences rather than a gulf of opinion.
The two colleagues exchanged the odd pointed barb during hustings, but most seasoned political pundits wouldn’t disagree with left-wing columnist Fintan O’Toole when he derided the contest as “not a struggle for the soul of Ireland – it’s not even a struggle for the soul of Fine Gael.”
What Coveney did bring to the table was a far more traditional political background; his father was a TD and he was first elected in a by-election caused his Dad’s early death. Such a story is a familiar one in Ireland; Enda Kenny and his predecessor as Taoiseach both entered the Dáil this way - Irish politics at times can be tragically monarchical.
Fortunately for the Corkman, Varadkar has pledged to keep him on as a Minister; next week the ministerial car will still be waiting for him and ministerial pay will continue to trickle into his bank account.
No such certainty exists for anyone else in the cabinet and a fundamental shakeup could be on the cards.
Ted Leddy, who currently serves in Varadkar’s constituency as a Fine Gael councillor, told IrishCentral, “Many people who have worked with Leo Varadkar from his younger days are not in any way surprised by his rapid climb toward the top of Irish politics. His impressive intellect was obvious to Fine Gael members in Dublin West from his decision to contest the local elections as a 20 year old back in 1999.”
His intellect is something that crops up again and again when Fine Gael insiders are asked for their opinion on their new leader.
“He has a real innocence about him. You might even say he’s a bit childlike. You want to mind him,” one Fine Gaeler told the Irish Times anonymously. “He has a huge IQ, he’s very, very smart and he’s genuinely sincere... And he’s probably one of the very few politicians I know who has doesn’t really have an ego.”
After Fine Gael were swept to power in 2011 Enda Kenny made him Minister for Transport. When he retires none of his political obituaries will devote many column inches to his time there but they will to the job he held afterwards - that of Minister for Health.
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen once compared the Department of Health to Angola - a place where a bomb could go off at anytime. Ireland’s creaking healthcare system has long been a thorn in the side of politicians and will likely be for many more years yet.
His most eye-catching achievement was the extension of free General Practitioner care to the under 6’s and over 69’s, but that hardly counts as fundamental structural reform.
Indeed, for a doctor and a politician, he came across as strangely uninterested in the long term issue of how the health service should be funded.
In 2015 he made a speech of almost Trumpian evasion in which he posed the question, “How do you collect the money? Do you take it from tax, from social insurance, from health insurance, or from out-of-pocket payments, or some form of combination? I am agnostic. I see no compelling evidence to favor one collection system over another.”
Should Ireland’s health service be run on a socialized model like in Britain or on a Dutch model with insurance? Varadkar has yet to make his mind up. Expect no Thatcherite free market transformation or big government takeover of healthcare, the tinkering around the edges will continue the same as before.
Where he did make waves was in the private matter of his sexuality. Before 2011 no openly LGBT politician had ever been elected to Dáil Éireann and he became the first gay cabinet minister when he came out to plaudits in early 2015.
His sexuality was no secret to his family, many colleagues, or anyone who’s ever gone to the nightclub Mother on a Saturday night, but it was a welcome, if small, boost to the yes side in the run-up to Ireland’s referendum on marriage equality.
Will Leo's Taoiseach campaign be torpedoed by dodgy dancing at mother— matthew mulligan (@_mattuna) February 19, 2017
“What I really want to say is that I’d like the referendum to pass because I’d like to be an equal citizen in my own country, the country in which I happen to be a member of Government, and at the moment I’m not,” he said at the time.
It’s reported he won’t bring his current partner to many events. An exception might be made for the event in the Taoiseach’s calendar - the St Patrick’s Day trip to the White House. If he does and if somehow they end up in a photo op with Vice President Pence - green ties and all - the picture will flash across the world.
Unlike Enda Kenny, Varadkar has made no bones he disagrees with the current US Administration on LGBT issues.
“When it comes to Mike Pence, I’d like him to come to Ireland,” he said in November. “I’d personally like to meet him. I’d love to tell him my story but more importantly I’d love to tell him the story of our country. The country of his ancestors and how we went from being one of the most conservative countries in the world [to where we are now]. That’s the way to deal with things.”
That might make him an international gay icon but much of Ireland’s LGBT community tilts strongly to the left and have little time for the man.
Even if Leo Varadkar is the first gay Taoiseach can we all just, like........ pretend that he's not— 🤔 mike 🤔 (@draggiesimpson) February 16, 2017
First gays to say they're "excited about the prospect of a gay Taoiseach" are in SO much trouble— Aifric (@aifreckle) May 18, 2017
His department’s latest campaign against welfare cheats has been denounced as stigmatizing the poor, and independent Senator Lynn Ruane said she thought him, “very classist in his nature.”
A single mother from the working-class Dublin suburb of Tallaght, she surprised many when she told the Irish Times this week, “I was also close to thinking I would nearly sign up to Fine Gael just to vote against him and put a number one beside Simon Coveney’s name... and that is saying something.”
Moreover, he has shown little interest in abortion reform - a key issue for the Irish left.
I love how Varadkar, our Minister for Health, thinks abortion isn't an issue of health or politics. pic.twitter.com/3qgHEB9sJN— Aoife (@aoiph) February 7, 2016
A spokesperson for the Abortion Rights Campaign told IrishCentral, “His statements [on the issue] in the press have been unclear and lacking in conviction.
“He was a great advocate of the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly, which has now recommended the introduction broad abortion legislation with abortion available on request up to 12 weeks. [He] wants to be seen as a young and progressive leader for Fine Gael, so we hope he will accept the very progressive recommendations of the process his party were so keen to set up.”
Varadkar has in fact come out in favor of changing the Irish Constitution to allow abortion, but added the caveat that he also wanted to see “term-limits” included in the legislation.
With a referendum on changing the law due next year, many will look to him for leadership on the issue, but by endorsing the yes side he’ll anger many Fine Gael supporters who favor the Constitution’s current pro-life amendment.
Varadkar says he wants Fine Gael to be a "warm house" for those who have conservative views on abortion issue— Hugh O'Connell (@oconnellhugh) May 22, 2017
He’s also said he supports banning certain public sector workers in “essential services” - an idea hugely unlikely to garner enough support to be passed into law by the current Dáil.
The two other big challenges he faces are the housing crisis and Brexit.
On the first, he’s promised that he will abandon Coveney’s signature policy of grants to first time buyers if it’s found to be increasing prices.
On Brexit he has called for Northern Ireland for remain a member of the European Single Market and the Common Agricultural Policy. Similar suggestions from within the UK have already been rejected by the British Government on the grounds they would “not be deliverable”.
Regardless, the idea would require unanimous consent from EU member states and Spain’s EU Minister, Jorge Toledo, has already poured scorn on the idea.
“If the UK leaves the single market, the whole UK will leave the single market,” he told reporters in December last year.
Spain is dealing with a credible threat that the province of Catalonia will succeed and fears that any special deal for a part of Britain would set a precedent for its own most troublesome region.
No EU member state, except Britain itself, has more at stake in the Brexit negotiations than Ireland and Varadkar will need to swot up on his homework some more before he puts on the green jersey and heads to Brussels next month.
One community however where he might expect a warmer welcome is from the nation’s Irish speakers.
Although incumbent Enda Kenny once lived in the Connemara Gaeltacht and spoke the language happily and fluently to anyone gaeilgeoir he met, Irish speakers became increasingly unhappy with the Government’s lack of interest in funding services for the language.
Varadkar lacks the fluency of his boss but has taken classes in recent years to improve and is considered by Irish speakers to be noticeably respectful and enthusiastic about efforts to promote the language.
Liam Ó Cuinneagáin who runs Irish courses in Donegal every summer recalled, “His vocabulary and fluency were lacking due to lack of practice but he gave 100% to the class and enjoyed it. He gave an interview to Raidió na Gaeltachta last week and his fluency was pretty high - 70/80%.”
A bounce in the opinion polls is expected for Fine Gael but with the EU warning that further belt-tightening is expected in the fall budget it is likely to be a temporary reprieve from the public’s current indifference to the Government.
The Government has no majority the Dáil and relies on a confidence and supply agreement with the largest opposition party, Fianna Fáil. That agreement is due to be reviewed in 2018 but few doubt that Fianna Fáil would happily collapse the Government if they thought they could win the subsequent election. All of which means Varadkar’s will serve at the pleasure of politicians on the opposition benches.
H/T: The Irish Times