He’s the gay son of an Indian immigrant and an Irish nurse who draws comparisons to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and is set to smash just about every preconception of Ireland.
Leo Varadkar is on track to take over the leadership of Ireland’s ruling Fine Gael Party on Friday, making him the next Taoiseach or Prime Minister. He’s not only gay and a visible minority, he’s also just 38 years old, meaning he’ll be the youngest Prime Minister in Irish history.
It’s a remarkable turn of events in this socially conservative country that only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, didn’t allow divorce until 1996 and still has Europe’s toughest laws against abortion. But as the country shakes off much of its traditional past, Ireland is joining several other European countries in turning toward a youthful leader who embraces the European Union and is moving away from traditional political labels.
“It’s a dramatic generational shift,” said Noel Whelan, a political analyst in Dublin. “He has the potential to be transformative for the political fortunes of Fine Gael and of the Irish political system in general.”
Mr. Varadkar is a political veteran who cut his teeth in youth politics while attending medical school in Dublin. He’s brash, self-confident and not afraid to cause controversy by calling for a crackdown on “welfare cheats” and limiting the rights of some public servants to go on strike.
He’s played down his sexuality since revealing that he was gay in a television interview two years ago, just before the country voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to allow same-sex marriages. “It’s not something that defines me,” he said at the time.
“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.”
And for the most part, it hasn’t been an issue in the leadership race, which has become more about who can win the next election for the centre-right party.
“His homosexuality and origin are not commented about much here,” said Eoin O’Malley, a political science professor at Dublin City University. That’s particularly notable, he added, “because he’s leading what was often regarded as a socially conservative party.”
Mr. Varadkar’s background reads like many immigrant families. His father, Ashok, is a retired doctor who came to Britain in the 1960s from Mumbai to work in the National Health Service. During a stint in a hospital in England, he fell in love with a nurse from Ireland named Miriam.
They married in the U.K. and moved to Dublin in 1973, where Ashok set up a practice as a family doctor. Mr. Varadkar is the youngest of the couple’s three children, who all followed their parents into medicine. He and his sister Sophia are both doctors and their other sister, Sonia, is a nurse.
He got involved in politics as a teenager, joining the youth wing of Fine Gael at the age of 17 and winning a seat on municipal council in 2004 while still at medical school. He entered Parliament in 2007 and took on several cabinet positions after Fine Gael won power in 2011.
When Prime Minister Enda Kenny resigned earlier this month after 15 years as party leader, Mr. Varadkar quickly became the favourite to replace him. His backers pointed to Mr. Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron as examples of the kind of youthful freshness Mr. Varadkhar offered.
It helped that Mr. Varadkar has excited young voters who flock to him at public appearances for photographs. He’s also tried to eschew traditional labels, saying people no longer care about left-wing or right-wing politics.
“What I am interested in are the philosophies of the future,” he said recently. “That’s what drives me. What I see around the world are movements around people like Macron in France and Trudeau in Canada.”
While the results of the leadership race will be announced Friday, Mr. Varadkar has an overwhelming lead. He’s sewn up most of the support of Fine Gael parliamentary members and local councillors, who have a disproportionate share of the final vote total under the party’s system of weighted balloting.
He has not done as well among party members, who account for 10 per cent of the vote. That could be a concern, along with his sometimes abrasive demeanour. But he has reached out to his main rival, Housing Minister Simon Coveney, and promised to unite the party.
“He has a strong reputation as a straight-talker and that makes him attractive in terms of being authentic,” said Mr. Whelan, who described Mr. Varadkar as a fiscal conservative. “Of course, it also means that he could be dramatic and volatile in terms of the way he behaves as Taoiseach.”
There are plenty of challenges lying ahead for the new leader. The country’s government has been at a virtual standstill for the past year, ruled by what has become an unworkable minority in Parliament led by Fine Gael with the tacit support of the main opposition party, Fianna Fail.
There’s also the looming prospect of Britain’s departure from the European Union, which will impact Ireland more than any other EU country. Much of Ireland’s exports go to Britain and it’s not clear what the trade arrangements will be like after Brexit.
The relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland could also become an issue if Brexit results in the re-establishment of the border between the two countries. The border was removed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the so called “troubles” and led to the free movement of goods, services and people. Economists have said that any return of the boundary would be detrimental to both sides.
Mr. Varadkar, who is staunchly pro-EU, says he’ll push to ensure there is no border and that Northern Ireland has a special designation that would keep it within the EU’s single market. However, he’s not keen on holding a referendum about whether Northern Ireland should become part of Ireland.
Prof. O’Malley said Mr. Varadkar’s biggest concern will be getting the government working. “Big decisions on infrastructural spending, on how to pay for education, health reforms, simply aren’t being tackled because of the difficulty in achieving a majority in Parliament,” he said. “So he’ll have to make a decision on timing a general election to get something closer to a coalition government with a working majority.”
For now, Mr. Varadkar’s presumed victory on Friday has lifted Fine Gael’s standing in most opinion polls and it’s likely he’ll move to hold an early election. And he’s joined a new breed of young leaders across Europe who have embraced the EU and moved away from traditional politics.
“He’s likely to be, in my view, more of a risk-taker or decision-maker and so there’s always the risk that with that kind of drama there could be a downside,” said Mr. Whelan. “On balance, though, I think [his election as leader] is going to be positive for Fine Gael, and for him and the country.”