Leo Varadkar is Ireland’s youngest, openly gay and ethnic minority former Prime Minister. He’s manoeuvred Ireland to become Europe’s fastest-growing economy and stared Brexit bravely in the face to get a good deal. He’s a down-to-earth leader who surprises and delights.
His father, a doctor from Mumbai, met his mother, an Irish nurse while working in Slough in Berkshire. The family settled in Dublin in the 1970s. Ireland was very different back then; until the 1990s, divorce and homosexuality were illegal and considered taboo. The country had few immigrants, and the Republic of Ireland was one of the poorer members of the EU.
Varadkar, at the tender age of 7, announced that he wanted to become a Health Minister and since then followed through with his plan. He enrolled at the Trinity College Dublin to study medicine like his father while mapping his path to become the Health Minister.
In college, he followed through with his plan of action and was an active member of the Young Fine Gael organization. He was also the Vice President of the European People’s Party’s youth organization, a mixture of right and centre youth political groups spanning across Europe. In 1999, while still a medical student, at the age of 20, Varadkar stood for his first election for public office but unfortunately lost badly in a run for local government.
Before he could become a Taoiseach (Prime Minister of Ireland), he was the unofficial soft drinks boy in Fine Gael, tasked with stocking up on fizzy drinks for important meetings, a task that he diligently undertook. In October 2003, however, he was ‘co-opted,’ appointed as a replacement into the Fingal County Council. He soon stood for a council seat that represented Castleknock and established himself as a brilliant prospect for Fine Gael’s party by amassing more than 4,800 votes, the biggest total for anyone running in the local election in the country that year. In 2007, at age 28, Varadkar emerged on the national stage by winning an election to the Dáil representing Dublin West.
Fine Gael came to power at the head of a coalition in 2011; Varadkar moved up the ranks and headed several portfolios, including transport, tourism and sport. He said, “I didn’t just wake up one day and decide ‘Wouldn’t it be great to become leader of Fine Gael?’ It was something that was always a possibility from the time I became Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Except we never knew if and when, under what scenario, it would arise.” He eventually achieved his life long dream and was named the Health Minister of the country shortly after.
Varadkar struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. In his 20s, he did not show any interest in having a relationship, as he solely concentrated on his career and politics. In an interview, he revealed that he once considered marrying a woman instead of admitting his sexual orientation.
However, that changed in the months leading up to Ireland’s marriage equality referendum; he decided it was time to come out and encourage other people to do so as well. He first came out to his family and close friends and then held discussions with his inner circle about coming out publicly as a high-profile figure in Ireland.
He came out as gay in an interview with the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ, in 2015. He said: “I am a gay man, it’s not a secret, but not something that everyone would necessarily know but isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before,” he told Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio 1. The country voted in a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage a few months later, which was a big step for the country. Varadkar spoke about the breakthrough and said, “Something has been awakened in the Irish people, it was not just a referendum it was more like a social revolution.”
Varadkar recalled his parent’s response, “My dad was absolutely fine, my mum, less so because she was worried I would be beaten up and she worried it would be the end of my political career.”
After coming out about his sexuality, he started dating Dr Matthew Barrett, based in Chicago. The pair are both interested in keeping fit and go on regular runs and hikes together. Varadkar has also previously said that this is his first serious relationship.
On June 14, 2017, his nomination was approved in the Dáil by a vote of 57 to 50. At the age of 38, Varadkar became the youngest taoiseach in the country’s history and its first openly gay minister and the first to be a member of an ethnic minority due to his father’s background. During his tenure, he oversaw a particularly robust economy marked by GDP growth of more than 8 per cent in both 2017 and 2018, along with the expansion of about 4 per cent in 2019.
After becoming the Prime Minister, Varadkar opened up about his struggles as an immigrant kid; he said, “Growing up in Ireland in the 80’s, multicultural families were rare. I was the guy with the dark skin and a funny name. I don’t think I was ever subject to any kind of racial violence or anything like that, there is ‘an othering’.I really want to make sure any kid of colour growing up in Ireland, that there’s no limit to their ambitions.”
Varadkar has a charming personality with witty responses; for instance, during a coronavirus briefing, he said, “Some have asked whether there is a limit to what we can achieve. My answer is that the limit does not exist.” Half of that quote is taken from Tina Fey’s hit comedy, Mean Girls. He added a touch of fun and laughter during a morbid crisis to calm his people.
In conclusion, when asked to define himself, Varadkar said, “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. It’s just part of who I am, it doesn’t define me, it is part of my character I suppose.”