He’s out, and he’s inIreland looks set for a young, gay prime minister

ASKED what qualities they seek in a politician, many people may mention honesty, transparency and reliability. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s minister for social protection, scores high on the first two. On the third characteristic, there is somewhat more doubt. But his fellow members of the governing Fine Gael party trusted him well enough to choose him as their new leader on June 2nd. Assuming parliament confirms him later this month, he will become Ireland’s next prime minister, replacing Enda Kenny, who is stepping down over a scandal involving the national police force.

Mr Varadkar certainly represents something new. At 38 years old he would be the youngest prime minister since Ireland gained independence in 1922. The son of a Hindu doctor from Mumbai and an Irish nurse from Waterford, he is also the first with non-European ancestry. And in 2015, in the course of a successful referendum campaign to legalise same-sex marriage, he became the first Irish cabinet minister ever to come out as gay–a courageous move in a country that only decriminalised gay sex in 1993, when Mr Varadkar was a teenager. His revelation was widely credited with boosting the “yes” side.

But Mr Varadkar was known for his outspokenness long before that. In his first days as an MP, he declared on the floor of the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, that the prime minister at the time, Bertie Ahern, belonged in “the gutter”. A year later he mused that unemployed immigrants should be given up to six months’ worth of benefits if they agreed to leave Ireland. Many accused him of xenophobia; he denied it.

More recently, Mr Varadkar’s bluntness has caused problems for Mr Kenny. In 2011, after Ireland received an €85bn ($114bn) bail-out from the European Union to cope with a property-market crash and the euro crisis, the prime minister attempted to persuade the world that the economy had stabilised. In an interview, Mr Varadkar said he had his doubts: he thought Ireland would find it difficult to borrow on international markets, and that a second bail-out might be needed. Yields on Irish debt quickly rose, the European Central Bank and Mr Varadkar’s cabinet colleagues castigated him for his indiscretion, and he quickly moderated his opinion. (Happily, it turned out to be wrong.)

Mr Varadkar’s fellow politicians tend to live by an old Irish maxim: “Whatever you say, say nothing.” But so far his frankness has done his career more good than harm. His colleagues in the centre-right Fine Gael party hope he represents a new, more direct and personable style of politics. His greatest achievement, wrote Stephen Collins, an editor at the Irish Times, a daily, is managing “the almost impossible feat of being a politician who comes across to the public, especially younger voters, as if he is not a politician at all.” In the leadership election, he beat Simon Coveney, the minister for housing, by winning over his fellow politicians. Ordinary party members voted for Mr Coveney by roughly two to one. But the vote is weighted, with councillors and parliamentarians accounting for 75% per cent of the result; they gave Mr Varadkar a comfortable victory.

Mr Varadkar is almost certain to be elected Taoiseach when parliament returns later this month. Fine Gael currently heads a fragile minority coalition, but its biggest rival, the similarly centrist Fianna Fail party, is unlikely to bring it down until its polling figures improve. It is not clear whether, as Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar would make any major changes in policy. If he does, it would probably be to introduce more free-market economic measures.

“People often assume that because [Mr Varadkar] is gay he’d be left-leaning, but he really is not,” says Diarmaid Ferriter, a historian at University College Dublin. “He has been quite Thatcherite in his language during the leadership campaign.” That includes pledging to ban strikes in the public sector. As for social issues, Dr Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at University College Cork, notes that Mr Varadkar was late to intervene in the gay-marriage debate. Mr Varadkar seems to have warmed to the notion of legalising abortion, which is banned in Ireland, but he used to oppose it firmly, and still says his party should make social conservatives feel welcome.

As prime minister, Mr Varadkar will inherit an economy that is growing nicely. But he will also confront a host of challenges: a budget crisis in the health sector, the police-force scandal that felled Mr Kenny, ballooning housing costs and rapidly rising inequality. Brexit threatens to reintroduce a hard border between the republic and Northern Ireland. Irish politicians are also worried that Donald Trump may try to rejigger the favourable tax arrangements that have led American corporations to route billions of dollars in revenues through Ireland. And while Mr Trump has not let being president stop him from shooting his mouth off, Mr Varadkar does not have as much leeway.

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