There is little doubt now that a major social and cultural change is underway in the Republic of Ireland. Traditionally a conservative Catholic country, it became the first nation in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through a popular vote in 2015. And on Friday, Leo Varadkar, the son of an Indian immigrant and an openly homosexual politician was elected leader of the governing Centre-Right party Fine Gael and will soon become Ireland’s taoiseach, or prime minister. Varadkar has many firsts to his name: he is set to be Ireland’s youngest prime minister, the first child of an immigrant to assume that post and the country’s first openly gay head of government.
Though just 38, Varadkar – the son of a doctor from Mumbai and an Irish nurse – has long been seen as a potential leader of Ireland. He’s friendly, personable, photogenic, good with a joke, and has a deep understanding of Ireland’s core and growing voter demographic, the suburban Dubliner. He has a reputation for speaking his mind, sometimes creating controversies and to the chagrin of his party colleagues. For instance in 2011, he speculated that Ireland – like Greece – would need a second European bail-out (the first one was in 2010, after a banking crisis in 2008) directly contradicting the incumbent Prime Minister Enda Kenny and other senior government figures.
Varadkar fitted easily into Irish politics since his debut in 2004. Educated privately, he went on to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin (his partner, Matthew Barrett, is also a doctor). After an internship with the Republican party in Washington DC, he was elected to local politics in 2004 and to the national parliament in 2007. He served as health minister – the sticky wicket of Irish politics, with overcrowded hospitals and ever-increasing demands – between 2014 and 2016. While proud of his heritage, Varadkar has not let it define his political personality: he speaks with a strong Dublin accent, he is among those sometimes referred to in Ireland as the Éireannaigh nua (the “new Irish”) and I suspect that I was not alone in failing to pick up on the Indian origin of his surname when I watched his rapid rise in national politics in the 2000s.
Nonetheless, Varadkar’s elevation is something of a conundrum for Left-wing commentators. Over the past few days, the world media has focused on his ethnicity and sexuality and posited him as another pillar in the temple of reaction to the populist turn marked by India’s Hindutva leader Prime Minister Modi, Brexit – Britain’s decision to exit the European Union in 2016 – and the election of Donald Trump as US President. His name appears alongside liberal figures such as France’s newly elected President Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and the indefatigable German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But Varadkar does not suit this pigeon-holing. His politics is formidably electable in Ireland: socially liberal and economically conservative. Like many in his party, he looks for inspiration more from the entrepreneurial, small-state policies of the pre-Trump Republican party than from the welfare states of continental and Scandinavian Europe. He raised the ire of many Left-liberals in Ireland recently when – not without some irony – he used his position as Minister for Social Protection to launch a series of bus adverts asking people to snitch on “welfare cheats” as part of a name and shame programme to crackdown on social welfare fraud. While this means that some Left voices will cheer his election with a little less enthusiasm, the policy is broadly popular among what is still a markedly Centre-Right electorate in Ireland.
There will also be a minority of voices within his own party and in rural areas that will be uneasy with his sexuality – and that he has the courage to say what that is. It is noteworthy that while he won the leadership vote overall, he lost the constituency of ordinary Fine Gael party members. The local and national parliamentarians had a larger say in the vote, and they went decisively for him.
Moreover, earlier this year, a national newspaper launched a thinly veiled homophobic attack on Varadkar. A columnist asked readers whether it would be better for Ireland to have a woman, a man (or no-one) standing beside its (male) leader at world events. The article included a photo of Varadkar’s main opponent posing with his beaming wife and one of Varadkar by himself. The message was not very subtle: if he became prime minister, there would be no “wife doing photo calls with him on the plinth of Leinster House”, and “no-one hopping on stage to peck him on the cheek after a party conference speech.”. But Varadkar, more than anyone in Irish politics today, knows this will be part and parcel of life from now on: social change comes slowly and furtively.
When he used a radio interview to “come out” as gay in 2015, he was clear that he would not be defined by a single characteristic. “I am a gay man”, he said, adding, “It’s not something that defines me. I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am, it doesn’t define me, but it is part of my character I suppose”. Listening to the radio that morning, I knew these were important words. And the significance of his election for Ireland cannot be understated.
In a country where homosexuality was illegal until a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 1988 (and the law was not reformed to decriminalise it until 1993), Varadkar’s election is a defining moment that would have seemed impossible even a decade ago and may also put a new focus on the many forgotten men and women who concealed (or were forced to conceal) their sexuality in earlier periods of Irish history.
Richard Butler is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester.