Ireland appears close to its first openly gay prime minister and the first of South Asian descent

Leo Varadkar, a doctor and Ireland's minister for social protection.
(Brian Lawless / PA Wire)

Leo Varadkar, a doctor and Ireland’s minister for social protection, may be close to becoming the country’s next prime minister, also known as the taoiseach.

Varadkar, who would be the country’s first openly gay prime minister and the first of South Asian descent, appears to be favored over candidate Simon Coveney, the country’s minister for housing, planning, community and local government, according to media reports.

Varadkar, 38, and Coveney, 44, are in the running to replace Prime Minister Enda 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.

Party lawmakers and others are expected to choose a new leader by Friday, and then Parliament is expected to vote for a new prime minister within a few days.


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.

Although both candidates offer continuity from the current leadership, analysts say Varadkar leans more conservative on social and economic issues while Coveney tends to edge toward the left of his party.

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

Varadkar has promised to strengthen the economy through income tax reform and 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 the University of College Dublin. “He has a commanding lead among parliamentary members and among counselor and electorate voters because he appeals to urban constituencies.”

Simon Coveney, Ireland's minister for housing, planning, community and local government, announces his plan to run for leadership of the Fine Gael party.
(Brian Lawless / PA Wire)

Coveney, who spent several years working in the agricultural industry, is not as high-profile and has had to play catch-up, Finlay said.

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.

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.


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

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