Leo Varadkar: Ireland's liberalising leader

4 min

Dublin (AFP)

Mixed-race, openly gay and just 41, Leo Varadkar captures the spirit of a liberalising Ireland -- but now he faces a fight to stay on as prime minister.

Varadkar rose to the leadership of the governing centre-right Fine Gael party in June 2017, when incumbent Enda Kenny resigned in the middle of a parliamentary term.

On Saturday the public have their say on his two-and-a-half years serving as Ireland's taoiseach during its biggest upheavals in modern memory.

He is also facing voters in the wake of Brexit, having overseen a historic housing crisis and with polls suggesting public patience is wearing thin after his party's nine-year tenure.

- Doctor's son -

Varadkar was born in Dublin to an Irish mother who worked as a nurse and an Indian immigrant father, who was a doctor.

At the age of seven, a precocious Varadkar is reported to have told his mother's friends that he wanted to be the minister for health.

After earning a medical degree from Trinity College Dublin, he went into general practice but stayed involved in politics, and in 2007 secured election for Fine Gael in the Dublin West constituency.

Fine Gael surged to power in a 2011 general election when the incumbent Fianna Fail party took the blame for the post-Celtic Tiger recession that ravaged the republic's economy.

In the 2011-2016 term he served first as minister for transport, tourism and sport -- and then as minister for health.

- Coming out -

In 2015, before Ireland's referendum legalising same-sex marriage, Varadkar came out publicly as gay. His partner, Matthew Barrett, is a cardiologist.

"I am a gay man, it's not a secret, but not something that everyone would necessarily know," Varadkar told broacaster RTE.

"It's not something that defines me... It's part of my character."

The revelation raised his profile with praise from all quarters of Irish politics and beyond.

It came at a time the country was preparing to reform the Roman Catholic Church's historically strong grip on civil society.

Two years later, Varadkar became party leader.

Then at 38, he became the youngest taoiseach -- as well as the first openly gay head of government and first of Indian heritage -- in the country's history.

- 'Quiet revolution' -

One of Varadkar's first moves as prime minister was to announce a public vote on Ireland's strict abortion laws. In May 2018, the country voted by a landslide 66 percent to repeal the ban.

Varadkar dubbed it a "quiet revolution" -- a phrase characteristic of his aversion to firebrand ideology and rhetoric.

Others have said he comes across as aloof and socially awkward but his appeal was elsewhere.

"Part of it was that he embodied the zeitgeist -- a confident gay man with an Indian dad. He seemed to look the part of a leader of a new and improved Ireland," Breda O'Brien wrote in The Irish Times newspaper in 2018.

But while his liberal credentials are strong, Varadkar has been hounded by accusations that the Fine Gael government he leads is failing on housing, homelessness and health.

Varadkar dismisses claims he lacks the common touch.

"I care deeply about our country and the problems we face. I maybe can't put it into words as good as my opponent does but I do it in action," he said.

- Brexit-focused campaign -

Varadkar's term has also been overshadowed by Britain's seismic 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

He hopes to return to office by touting his government's achievements in Brexit negotiations, which have averted the emergence of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

But the public and domestic media seem more focused on problems at home -- something Varadkar has had to acknowledge.

"You want us over the next three years to focus on issues like health and housing with the same passion and intensity that we've focused on Brexit in the past three years," he said in Ennis, western Ireland, on his last day out campaigning on Friday.

He also accepted that the Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein parties were running him close.

"This election is wide open. It's a three-horse race," he said.