UPDATED: 1:50 p.m. E.T.
CORK, Ireland — Leo Varadkar became the leader of the governing center-right Fine Gael party Friday. And barring any upset, he will also become the 14th Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland later this month. As he’s openly gay and the son of an Indian immigrant, international attention has focused on how 38-year old Varadkar is received by a country long seen as socially conservative. But in Ireland itself, the reaction has been minimal — a testament to how far this once Catholic-dominated society has come in recent years.
Varadkar’s victory comes just two years after he opened up about his sexuality in an interview on Irish radio.
In a relatively low-key moment, Varadkar annonced he was a gay man, but then added: “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.”
“Ireland is no longer the socially conservative, church-ridden country that many abroad had assumed.”
Varadkar’s public announcement about his private life came just months before Ireland would become the first country in the world to approve gay marriage with an overwhelming popular vote — a momentous decision that took many around the world by surprise.
“It’s not a big deal for me anymore; I hope it’s not a big deal for anyone else. It shouldn’t be,” Varadkar added.
Voters seem to be on the same page as Varadkar, as the leader’s sexuality hardly factored into the campaign.
“We are cool with it,” Diarmuid Ferriter, a well-known Irish historian, told VICE News. “We have got to the stage that there has been such momentum around the idea of equality in that area, particularly arising out of the referendum two years ago, that it has really been depoliticized.”
The fact that a leadership contest in Ireland can be conducted with virtually no mention in the media of the front-runner being openly gay “is a remarkable transformation and revolution in a country like this, where sexuality was so loaded for so long,” Ferriter says.
Irish political commentator Noel Whelan concurs. “Ireland is no longer the socially conservative, church-ridden country that many abroad had assumed,” he told VICE News. “Ireland hasn’t been a holy Catholic Ireland for a long time.”
Whelan suggests all the international fanfare around the referendum and now Varadkar’s rising career says more about those outside the country catching up to the reality of Ireland’s transformation over the past 40 or 50 years.
Early political ambitions
Varadkar is “a celebrity as well as a politician,” Whelan asserts, calling him one of a new breed of politicians poised to shake up Ireland’s staid political system significantly. Inevitably, comparisons have been made with other youthful world leaders like France’s new leader Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Born to an Indian father and an Irish mother, Varadkar got involved in politics at a young age, participating in the Washington-Ireland Program designed to groom potential future leaders. He was elected as a councillor in 2004 before being voted into the Irish Parliament in 2007.
“Varadkar will be judged on his talents or otherwise as a politician, not on his sexuality.”
Since the Fine Gael landslide victory in 2011, he has held several Cabinet posts including the health portfolio, one of the toughest postings in Irish government over the last decade. While his sexuality and his immigrant background might suggest he would support progressive causes, Varadkar is seen as fairly right-wing, something that doesn’t easily mesh with his inclusion in the Trudeau-Macron club.
The election of Varadkar heralds a generational shift away from the party-focused, personality-driven politics that Ireland has traditionally engaged in, to a more agenda-driven route where big issues are more important, especially to voters under the age of 40. For these people, Varadkar’s sexuality is a non-issue, and he will be assessed solely on his political skills.
“Varadkar will be judged on his talents or otherwise as a politician, not on his sexuality,” Ferriter said.
Nevertheless, Ferriter believes that Varadkar’s election to high office may help change outdated assumptions about Ireland. “There is a level of ignorance about Ireland, which is true of many other smaller places, because they don’t dominate international news [agenda] to the same extent, and people tend to have a fixed idea of Ireland being a small, conservative, Catholic country,” Ferriter said.
Many political experts also think that the Trudeau/Macron comparisons will help promote Ireland’s standing internationally, at a time when the world is worried about the rise of the far right.
“People are watching out there internationally for the emergence of centrist, progressive politicians against the presumed tide of populist and right-of-centre politics,” Whelan said. “He fits into the mix that is Trudeau and Macron, because of his youth as much as anything else.”
A hard task ahead
Politics in Ireland is currently in deadlock, following a period of volatility arising out of the global economic collapse a decade ago. Neither of the main parties is currently big enough to form a government — even with minority partners. Today Fine Gael is in government, but only because the Fianna Fail party supports them from opposition.
This fragile situation means that Varadkar knows his position as leader of the country could be very short-lived, with many political pundits predicting a general election as soon as 2018.
There will not even be a honeymoon period for Varadkar as taoiseach, since his first crisis already awaits him — an escalating problem of malpractice within the Irish police force — an issue his predecessor chose to largely ignore in the final days of his leadership.
More importantly, Varadkar will also have to tackle the abortion issue, a subject which has long proved to be hugely divisive in the country, even at a time when voters have shown progressive beliefs.
As David Farrell, head of the school of politics at University College Dublin, points out, the debate surrounding abortion is one indication that while the country has moved on significantly from religious domination, there are still areas where it is firmly stuck in the past.
“We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”