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Ireland breaks the mold - again

Gavan Reilly Dublin
June 1, 2017

Leo Varadkar is set to become Ireland’s youngest ever, and first openly gay, head of government - but those hoping for a liberal standard bearer may be disappointed. Gavan Reilly reports from Dublin.

Irland wählt neuen Premier
Image: Leo Varadkar leadership campaign

Irish people tend to roll their eyes when presented with the stereotype of being a traditionally staunchly Catholic, conservative country - one which was more accustomed to emigration, rather than acting as a new home to people from further afield. Those perceptions might be outdated in a 21st century cultural melting pot, where a fifth of all residents were born overseas; in the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage through popular vote; in a country over which the Catholic Church now has a tenuous and ailing grip.

Abortion debate in Ireland

Read more: Ireland votes 'yes' on same-sex marriage

That new metropolitan nation might be about to get a leader that more closely resembles itself: this month it might be taken over by the gay, 38-year-old mixed-race son of an Indian immigrant father.

If elected as the new leader of the governing Fine Gael party, when members' votes are counted on Friday, Leo Varadkar would become the first European prime minister to claim south Asian heritage, Ireland's youngest ever Taoiseach (prime minister), and the youngest ever prime minister of an EU member since the bloc's foundation.

Varadkar made history when he disclosed his sexuality in a 2015 radio interview. In doing so, he became the first openly gay person to serve in Ireland's cabinet. He said the announcement was intended so that nobody could accuse him of having a hidden political agenda ahead of that year's gay marriage referendum - a claim which bolstered his reputation for being a relative straight-talker in an industry of clouded language.

The Irish Trudeau?

In the current leadership campaign, Varadkar has sought to portray himself as the Irish translation of the new president of France, Emmanuel Macron, or Canada's young premier, Justin Trudeau. He has spoken of wanting to offer the same opportunities to the underprivileged as to the better-off, and of seeking to build a new centrism in Ireland - claiming that the far-right and far-left are often difficult to distinguish.

Those left-versus-right debates are "the debates of the 1980s," Varadkar told reporters at his campaign launch. "I don't think that's what modern politics is about at all. I don't intend to hark back to any of the philosophies - what I'm interested in is the philosophy of the future. We see now across the world a new divide in politics, between those who are regressive… and those who are progressive, those who look to a future about free trade, the freedom of the individual, which is about enterprise, and which is about a new social contract. That's the kind of politics I want to represent."

Irland wählt neuen Premier
Varadkar appears to be modeling himself on Macron and TrudeauImage: Leo Varadkar leadership campaign

But a curious trend has developed over the last month or so, among younger Irish people who do not obsessively follow political affairs. Before the current campaign there was a wide assumption (one still held internationally) that a man of Varadkar's demographic - gay, mixed-race, the son of an immigrant - would lean liberally on social issues. In the last few weeks, his record has been under wider scrutiny, and many of those liberal voters have emerged disappointed.

Varadkar was indeed one of the leading stalwarts in the campaign on gay marriage, and relaxed the ban on blood donations from gay men during his time as Minister for Health. But he has voiced concern about proposals to widely liberalize Ireland's abortion regime, as requested earlier this year by a Citizens' Assembly and has consistently voted against opposition proposals to relax the 14-year jail term for illegal terminations - stances which will become more contentious in a forthcoming debate about relaxing the constitutional ban.

Read more: Rubicon crossed in Ireland's abortion debate

Under scrutiny

Varadkar has also caused more recent domestic ire over a contentious 200,000-euro campaign urging people to report their suspicions of welfare fraud (his department oversees Ireland's benefits system). The campaign has resulted in over 20,000 reports, but a negligible increase in prosecutions.

"It's not that Varadkar doesn't have a social conscience, but his basic political ideology is that the state should get out of people's way," according to Hugh O'Connell, a political reporter with the Sunday Business Post newspaper. He told DW that Varadkar's welfare crackdown, and a pledge to represent 'people who get up early to go to work,' "has led to accusations of him sowing divisiveness in Irish society. So there's an irony there. One would think that an openly gay, half-immigrant Taoiseach would take the country in a more socially liberal and inclusive direction and yet the opposite may be the case."

Ironically, his rival - the 43-year-old housing minister Simon Coveney - might be more favorable to the liberal electorate. He has pledged to resurrect the party's social democratic credentials, and says Fine Gael has a duty to seek votes from all strands of society - in other words, appealing directly to left-leaning voters.

Tough tasks ahead

Irland Premierminister Kenny tritt als Parteichef ab
Current Prime Minister Enda Kenny is leaving behind a sizeable workload for his successorImage: picture alliance/ZUMA Wire/W. Dabkowski

Either way, Varadkar's appointment seems a virtual certainty. Fine Gael's electoral college gives a vote to every single member, but the votes of the parliamentary party are weighted to be worth 65 percent of the total. Varadkar has already received the public support of nearly two-thirds of those, and Coveney would need an unlikely mass revolt of grassroots members to recover the lost ground.

The harder work for the new Taoiseach will lie ahead, in committee rooms across Europe as Ireland deals with the fallout from the UK election, the impact of Brexit and the threat of colder relations with Northern Ireland. There, the novelty of Varadkar's appointment will quickly wear thin, and the novice premier will face significant hurdles - not least the need to sustain the relationships built up by his successor during six turbulent years at the European table.

Read more: EU negotiator addresses Ireland's unique post-Brexit future

In the meantime, Ireland will mark the disappearance of another glass ceiling, and another indication that the staid conservative land of old is an even more distant memory.