Who is Leo Varadkar?

looking closer Leo Varadkar

What else we know about the man set to take over from Enda as Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar has been announced as the new leader of Fine Gael, seeing off competition from Simon Coveney. Adam Shaw takes a look at the man set to be Ireland’s new Taoiseach as well as his predecessor, Enda Kenny.

Leo Varadkar – the openly gay son of an Indian immigrant doctor – is set to become Ireland’s new Taoiseach, succeeding Enda Kenny.

The Irish Social Protection Minister was elected as leader of the Fine Gael party on Friday 2 June, seeing off competition from Irish Housing Minister Simon Coveney. It is likely that he will be sworn in as Irish PM within a few weeks – pending a vote in the Dáil – which will make him, at 38, the youngest ever person to hold the position.

Mr Varadkar (38) was born into a medical family; his father, Ashok, was a doctor originally from Mumbai and his mother, Miriam, was an Irish nurse. They met while working in Slough, Berkshire, and moved to west Dublin when Ashok found a job as a GP.

Initially it seemed as if their son would follow suit and he studied medicine at Trinity College before moving into politics as it would, in his eyes, enable him to help more people.

Patients

“I always realised that doctors can only help a certain amount of patients, but the [Irish] Minister for Health can really change things,” he said in an interview in 1999.

This would be an office he would hold in the future but his initial ventures into politics took a bit of a knock.

He successfully campaigned for the man he has just beaten to the Fine Gael leadership, Mr Coveney, in the 1998 Cork South-Central by-election but he himself lost out badly in local elections in 1999.

His break didn’t come until four years later when he won a place on Fingal County Council. Then, at the 2007 general election he was elected to the Dáil for Dublin West and he was immediately pushed onto his party’s front-bench, becoming its spokesperson for Enterprise.

looking closer Leo Varadkar

His style polarised opinion, with some seeing it as refreshing and others as concerning, but he certainly made his presence felt.

Despite voicing his opposition to Mr Kenny (66) during a challenge to the latter’s leadership, he was appointed as Minister for Transport following Fine Gael’s triumph in the 2011 general election.

Three years later he moved to the coveted office of Minister for Health and, given his medical background, there were high expectations of him. His time in the office, like much of his political career, split opinion. It was exemplified by the fact that he introduced free GP healthcare for under sixes and over 70s but shelved the universal health insurance plan.

Mr Varadkar’s centre-right politics are clearly conservative. In the run-up to the leadership election he was described as the “Thatcherite” candidate who would reward those who “got up early in the mornings”.

Same sex

But he also portrays the image of a new, progressive Ireland, something that was best demonstrated through his vocal backing in favour of legalising same-sex marriage during Ireland’s referendum on the issue in 2015.

Before the vote, in an interview with RTÉ, he told listeners that he was gay.

“It’s not a secret but not something that everyone would necessarily know,” he said.

And LGBT groups in Ireland have welcomed the domestic focus on Mr 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.”

Mr Varadkar has revealed that restoring devolution in Northern Ireland and dealing with Brexit would be his immediate priorities as the country’s new leader.

He has also vowed to hold a referendum on abortion next year and keep taxes to below 50 per cent.

Upon his election as new Fine Gael leader, he said he was “honoured” to accept such an “enormous challenge”.

“If my election shows anything, it’s that prejudice has no hold in this Republic,’ he said. “When my father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed his son would grow up to be its leader.”

As for the man he is replacing, he has been a mainstay of Irish politics for more than 20 years.

Mr Kenny as been a member of the Dáil since 1975, when he replaced his father, Henry, following the latter’s death. Upon his election as a TD, he became the youngest member of the house at just 24. He has since gone on to be the Father of the Dáil, a position he has held since 2007.

The 66-year-old has been Ireland’s Taoiseach since 2011, succeeding Fianna Fail’s Brian Cowen. He was leader of Fine Gael from June 2002 until last month and has been a TD for Mayo since 1997.

Rainbow Coalition

An Irish language speaker, he originally worked as a teacher after studying at NUI Galway and he spent the early part of his political career on the back-benches.

He eventually was handed the position of Irish Minister of Tourism and Trade under John Bruton’s ‘rainbow coalition’ in 1994.

The Castlebar-native proved popular within Fine Gael and was elected the party’s leader just weeks after they had performed poorly at the 2002 general election. He immediately set about reversing the party’s fortunes and they captured 51 seats at the election five years later.

Their momentum continued to build and, combined with widespread voter dissatisfaction, Fine Gael won the most seats at the 2011 election.

Kenny took office in March that year in a coalition with the Labour Party.

He will hope that history will credit him with having led this coalition government through an economic crisis and re-establishing Irish economic sovereignty from the IMF and the European Central Bank.

Last year he became the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected as Taoiseach, with his government supported by independent deputies.

Kenny has been married to his wife, Fionnuala, since 1992 and they are parents to one daughter and two sons.


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