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Ireland's Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar arrives to speak to the media as he announces his resignation, in Dublin, Ireland on March 20.Damien Eagers/Reuters

He was once considered the fresh face of Irish politics, the gay son of a mixed-race couple who became Ireland’s youngest prime minister in 2017 at the age of 38.

But on Wednesday, Leo Varadkar said he was no longer the best person to lead the country and announced plans to step down as Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, and leader of Fine Gael.

“Politicians are human beings and we have our limitations. We give it everything until we can’t any more and then we have to move on,” Mr. Varadkar said in a brief speech outside government buildings in Dublin. “There’s never a right time to resign high office. However, this is as good a time as any.”

Mr. Varadkar said he will stay on until his party selects a new leader next month.

His resignation stunned Ireland’s political class just a couple of months before elections to local councils and the European Parliament in June. A general election is also expected next year.

“To have a Taoiseach step down so close to a general election and resign the leadership of his party is really a bombshell moment,” said Gary Murphy a professor of politics at Dublin City University. “There’s nothing in recent history like this and it’s a rather sad and sudden end to Leo Varadkar’s tenure.”

Mr. Varadkar’s departure follows the government’s humiliating defeat in a pair of referendums earlier this month. Both votes proposed changes to the wording of the country’s Constitution, which was written in 1937 under the influence of the Catholic Church. The first referendum would have broadened the definition of family to include “durable relationships” and the second would have replaced the reference to women in the home with a provision that recognized the role of carers.

Voters rejected both by resounding margins – 67 per cent voted no to the wording on family and 74 per cent turned down the change to the role of women in the home.

Dr. Murphy said the scale of the loss likely played a role in Mr. Varadkar’s decision to resign. “There’s long been a view politically that these were Leo Varadkar’s referendums and he was the person who was pushing for them in government, and ultimately the blame stops with him.”

But Mr. Varadkar’s star power had begun to fade long before the referendums, and his party was not expected to do well in the coming elections.

“The gloss wears off,” said Gail McElroy, a political-science professor at Trinity College Dublin.

Mr. Varadkar started out as something of a political wonder boy when he won the party’s leadership in 2017 and took over as Taoiseach. A medical doctor by training, he was a free-market capitalist with a social conscience. And he was seen by many as someone who could move the country away from its socially conservative roots.

He played a prominent role in a referendum campaign in 2015 that led to the legalization of same-sex marriages. And within a year of taking office he called for a referendum to overturn Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion. A little more than two-thirds of voters backed the change.

“What we see is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades,” Mr. Varadkar said at the time.

But as the 2020 general election approached, Mr. Varadkar couldn’t overcome his inability to personally connect with people and what many voters saw as his government’s failure to deal with a housing crisis.

Fine Gael lost 15 seats and ended up finishing third behind Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. His political career seemed finished, but Fine Gael managed to remain in government by striking a coalition deal with Fianna Fail and the Green Party. Under the terms of the agreement, Mr. Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin rotated as Prime Minister, with each leader serving for two and half years.

Mr. Varadkar returned to the post in 2022, but his party has continued to lag in most opinion polls.

Dr. McElroy said Ireland’s housing crisis has not dissipated, and now the country is also facing challenges over immigration. A large influx of refugees from Ukraine and countries in the Middle East and Africa has led to protests and the beginnings of a far-right movement in Ireland.

“There’s an awful lot of personal abuse and he’s been harassed at his home which is a very interesting change in our society,” Dr. McElroy said. In the past, she said, the Taoiseach and other cabinet minister would mingle with people on the streets and had minimal security. “That need for police protection or not feeling that the privacy of your home is being honoured, is very, very new. And that does take a toll.”

Mr. Varadkar said he does not have any plans for the future, but there have been suggestions he could be in line for a position with the European Union in Brussels. He has been a staunch defender of the EU and played a pivotal role during the bloc’s Brexit negotiations with Britain.

Fine Gael officials expect to have a new leader in place by April 6 when the party holds its annual convention. The early leading contender is Higher Education Minister Simon Harris.

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