Ireland’s Leo Varadkar moves a step closer to becoming prime minister

Leo Varadkar celebrates being named leader of Ireland's ruling Fine Gael party.
(Brian Lawless / Associated Press)

Leo Varadkar, a doctor and Ireland’s minister overseeing the country’s social welfare system, Friday became the new leader of the ruling Fine Gael party, bringing him one step closer to becoming the next prime minister.

Varadkar, who would be the country’s first prime minister who has come out as gay and the first of South Asian descent, was selected by party lawmakers and other politicians to replace outgoing Prime Minister Enda Kenny. He was the favored candidate over Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister for housing, planning, community and local government.

“I want to thank everyone who engaged in this extraordinary, open democratic process,” Varadkar, who was born in Dublin and is the country’s minister for social protection, said in his acceptance speech. “For me, it’s just the start of a more democratic and more engaged Fine Gael and we will be stronger for it.”


Varadkar, 38, and Coveney, 44, were vying to replace Kenny, who announced in May that he would step down as head of the Fine Gael party and as the country’s leader once a successor was chosen. Kenny faced mounting pressure from within his party over the handling of a scandal in the Irish police force.

As party leader, Varadkar is expected to become the new prime minister — also known as the taoiseach — when Parliament votes on the matter this month.

Coveney delivered a concession speech shortly after Varadkar was announced as the winner.

“I’m so proud of everyone in Fine Gael in the way in which we have conducted a competitive and at times sparky contest,” Coveney said. “But I think it had dignity and respect in it, in terms of the differences of opinion that were expressed over the last two weeks.”

Kenny issued a statement offering Varadkar his heartiest congratulations.

“This is a tremendous honor for him and I know he will devote his life to improving the lives of people across the country,” Kenny said. “He will have my full support in the work that lies ahead.”

Varadkar, the son of an Irish mother and an Indian immigrant father, and Coveney, a member of a prominent political family, rose through the ranks in Fine Gael, a center-right Christian democratic party that leads a minority government with rival political party Fianna Fail.

Varadkar leans more conservative on social and economic issues, while Coveney tends to edge toward the left of his party, some analysts said.

Analysts said Varadkar’s media-savvy charisma, grass-roots campaign strategy and ability to appeal to both urban and rural voters placed him in the best position to become the country’s next leader.

He has promised to strengthen the economy through income tax reform and to pursue technological advancements to help people in rural areas.

“He is a terrific media performer and has a reputation as a straight talker,” said Graham Finlay, a political science professor at University College Dublin. “He has a commanding lead among parliamentary members and among counselor and electorate voters because he appeals to urban constituencies.”

In 2015, shortly before Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in a popular vote, Varadkar came out as gay on Irish national radio.

“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,” Varadkar told RTE 1 then. “It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me. It is part of my character, I suppose.”

Many observers see Varadkar’s rise in politics as a milestone that highlights changing attitudes in Ireland’s once-religiously conservative population of 4.6 million people.

LGBTQ advocates were among those who celebrated Varadkar’s win, calling it a pivotal moment.

“Today is a historic one for the LGBTQ community in Ireland,” said Belong to Youth Services, a non-profit for LGBTQ youth in Ireland, on its Facebook page. “We welcome Ireland’s first gay presumptive’s to the next generation!”

Ireland decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 and overturned its ban on divorce two years later.

The decline of the Catholic Church’s influence in Irish society over the last 20 years, following revelations that some priests were sexually abusing children, was a significant factor that has contributed to Varadkar’s rise in politics, said Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“Young people are becoming less religious and more secular and the Catholic Church’s moral authority has diminished,” Farrell said.

Aidan Somerville, of Dublin, said via Twitter that Varadkar’s success was historic.

“I think he has an opportunity to make real change as he is quite well-liked,” Somerville, 43, said in an interview. “However, he needs to not be cocky, and put real action into place in terms of health and battling homelessness.”

Follow me on Twitter @melissaetehad


3:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments and details.

This article was originally published at 12:30 p.m.