Leo Varadkar is set to become Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister
His victory marks a watershed moment in Ireland, a once overwhelmingly Catholic and socially conservative country
The son of an Indian immigrant who came out as gay in 2015 will be the next Irish prime minister, after he was voted leader of the country’s main governing party.
Leo Varadkar’s victory in the Fine Gael leadership contest on Friday, which took place after outgoing PM Enda Kenny announced his resignation last month, marks another significant step forward for equality in the country, after 2015’s gay marriage referendum .
As well as becoming Ireland’s first gay prime minister, Varadkar, 38, will also become the country’s youngest leader, and the first from an ethnic minority background. His position will be confirmed later this month when parliament resumes after a break.
Varadkar faced a stiffer-than-expected challenge in the centre-right Fine Gael election from his rival, Simon Coveney. The Cork-born Irish housing minister is popular with the party’s grassroots, particularly in Fine Gael’s more conservative, rural redoubts.
Speaking after the final votes were tallied in Dublin, Varadkar said he was delighted, humbled and honoured to win. Coveney joked that at least his children would be pleased that he had lost.
Kenny said Varadkar had his full support.
“This is a tremendous honour for him and I know he will devote his life to improving the lives of people across our country,” he said.
“I want to also thank and pay tribute to Simon Coveney for making the leadership election a real contest. This has been a wonderful exercise in democracy for the Fine Gael party.”
Kenny, who led the party for 15 years and has been at the head of two governments for more than six years, delayed his resignation on a number of occasions this year.
First he asked colleagues for time to visit the US for the annual St Patrick’s day celebrations and to meet US president Donald Trump, continuing the unique tradition Ireland has of access to the White House every March 17. He stayed on to attend the European council summit in Brussels at the end of April, where the priorities for the Brexit negotiations were agreed.
Varadkar’s father Ashok, who comes from Mumbai, met his Irish mother Miriam while they both worked at an English hospital in Slough in the 1960s.
While the international media gathered in Dublin have focused on Varadkar’s sexuality and immigrant family background, Ireland’s news organisations zeroed in on his economic policies.
Some commentators dubbed Varadkar “the Thatcherite” candidate after his comments during the two-week leadership contest that he wanted to be the champion “of those who get up early in the morning”.
Although Varadkar’s centre-right politics are clearly conservative, he portrays the image of a new, progressive Ireland, symbolised best in May 2015 when the Republic voted overwhelmingly in favour of gay marriage. It came just a few months after Varadkar came out publicly in a radio interview .
LGBT groups in Ireland welcomed the domestic focus on Varadkar’s ideology.
“I think it’s really significant that both his party and the media in Ireland focused on his policies, rather than him simply being a gay man who wants to lead the country,” said Brian Finnegan, the editor of Gay Community News in Dublin.
“It is a sign of how much Ireland has changed and moved on that no one really cares if he is gay here. Irish politicians were among the last sectors of our society to come out of the closet but now at least we’ve got one gay man and a lesbian, Catherine Zappone, both in the cabinet. That would have been unthinkable perhaps even 10 years ago.”
Varadkar, a doctor educated at Trinity College Dublin, entered Irish politics in 2004, when he polled almost 5,000 votes in a local government election in the Dublin West constituency. Three years later, he was elected to represent the area in parliament.
In 2014, he became Ireland’s minister for health and, after Fine Gael suffered losses in last year’s general election , he entered a minority coalition as minister for social protection.
In the 2015 interview with RTE radio when he came out, Vradkar said: “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. It is part of my character, I suppose.”