|Intro||Irish Fine Gael politician, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland and Minister for Defence|
|Birth||18 January 1979, Dublin, Ireland|
Leo Eric Varadkar (/vəˈrædkər/ və-RAD-kər; born 18 January 1979) is an Irish Fine Gael politician and physician. He has served as the Leader of Fine Gael, and as Taoiseach and Minister for Defence in the Government of Ireland, since June 2017. Following the 2020 Irish general election in which Fine Gael were returned as the third largest party behind Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, Varadkar resigned but remains in office as caretaker Taoiseach until a successor is appointed. He has also been a Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin West constituency since 2007.
Varadkar was born in Dublin and studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin. He spent several years as a non-consultant hospital doctor, eventually qualifying as a general practitioner in 2010. In 2004, he joined Fine Gael and became a member of Fingal County Council and later served as Deputy Mayor. He was elected to Dáil Éireann for the first time in 2007.
During the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum, Varadkar came out as gay, becoming the first Irish Minister to do so. He is Ireland's first, and the world's fourth, openly gay head of government in modern times, and first Taoiseach of Indian heritage. The Economist says of him: "Not since the days of Éamon de Valera has Ireland had a leader as globally recognisable as Leo Varadkar."
He later served in the Kenny Government, as Minister for Social Protection from 2016 to 2017, Minister for Health from 2014 to 2016 and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport from 2011 to 2014.
In May 2017, Kenny announced that he would resign as Taoiseach and Fine Gael Leader. Varadkar stood in the leadership election to replace him; although more party members voted for his opponent, Simon Coveney, he won by a significant margin among members of the Oireachtas, and was elected leader on 2 June. 12 days later, he was appointed Taoiseach, and at 38 years old became the youngest person to hold the office.
Born on 18 January 1979, in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, Varadkar is the third child and only son of Ashok and Miriam (née Howell) Varadkar. His father was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, and moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s, to work as a doctor. His mother, born in Dungarvan, County Waterford, met her future husband while working as a nurse in Slough. They married in the UK, early in 1971, then lived in Leicester, where the eldest of their three children, Sophie, was born. The family moved to India, before settling in Dublin in 1973, where their second child, Sonia, was born.
Though Varadkar was born to a Hindu father and a Catholic mother, his parents made the decision to raise him in the Catholic faith. He was educated at the St Francis Xavier National School, Blanchardstown. His second-level education took place at The King's Hospital in Palmerstown, a boarding school run by the Church of Ireland.
During his secondary schooling, he joined Young Fine Gael. He was admitted to Trinity College Dublin (TCD), where he briefly studied law. He later switched to medicine. At TCD he was active in the university's Young Fine Gael branch and served as Vice-President of the Youth of the European People's Party, the youth wing of the European People's Party, of which Fine Gael is a member. Varadkar was selected for the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP), a prestigious half-year personal and professional development program in Washington, D.C., for students from Ireland.
He graduated from the School of Medicine (Trinity College Dublin) in 2003, after he completed his internship at KEM Hospital in Mumbai. He then spent several years working as a junior doctor in St. James's Hospital and Connolly Hospital, before qualifying as a general practitioner in 2010.
Early political career
Fingal County Council (2003–2007)
Varadkar was twenty years old and a second-year medical student when he unsuccessfully contested the 1999 local elections in the Mulhuddart electoral area. Varadkar was co-opted to Fingal County Council in 2003, for the Castleknock local electoral area, as a replacement for Sheila Terry. At the 2004 local elections, he received the highest first-preference vote in the country with 4,894 votes and was elected on the first count.
Dáil Éireann (2007–2011)
Varadkar was elected to Dáil Éireann at the 2007 general election. Then Leader of the Opposition, Enda Kenny, appointed him to the Front Bench as Spokesperson for Enterprise, Trade and Employment until a 2010 reshuffle, when he became Spokesperson on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. At the 2011 general election, Varadkar was re-elected to Dáil Éireann, with 8,359 first-preference votes (a 19.7% share of the poll in a four-seat constituency).
Minister for Transport, Tourism, and Sport (2011–2014)
When Fine Gael formed a coalition government with the Labour Party, Varadkar was appointed Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on 9 March 2011. This was considered a surprise appointment, as Varadkar was not known as a sports lover. He said that while he knew "a lot of facts ... I don't play the sports."
In May 2011, Varadkar suggested Ireland was "very unlikely" to resume borrowing in 2012 and might need a second bailout, causing jitters on international markets about Ireland's credibility. Many of his cabinet colleagues frowned on Varadkar's forthrightness, as did the European Central Bank. Taoiseach Enda Kenny repeated the line of the Government of Ireland, that the State would not require a further EU-IMF bailout, and said he had warned all Ministers against publicly disparaging the economy. Varadkar said that reaction to the story was hyped up but that he was not misquoted. The Evening Herald repeatedly described Varadkar as gaffe prone.
Minister for Health (2014–2016)
In the cabinet reshuffle of July 2014, Varadkar replaced James Reilly as Minister for Health.
He was returned to the Dáil at the 2016 general election. He retained the health portfolio in an acting capacity until May that year, due to the delay in government formation. In one of his final acts as Minister for Health, Varadkar cut €12 million from the €35 million allocated to that year's budget for mental health care, telling the Dáil that the cuts were "necessary as the funding could be better used elsewhere."
Minister for Social Protection (2016–2017)
On 6 May 2016, after government formation talks had concluded, Taoiseach Enda Kenny appointed Varadkar as Minister for Social Protection. During his time in the ministry, he launched a campaign against welfare fraud.
14th Taoiseach (2017–present)
On 2 June 2017, Varadkar was elected leader of Fine Gael, defeating Simon Coveney. Although Coveney had the support of more Fine Gael members than Varadkar, the electoral college system more strongly weighted the votes of the party's parliamentarians, with these strongly backing Varadkar.
Like Enda Kenny, Varadkar relied upon the support of Independents and the abstention of Fianna Fáil TDs to support his premiership. On 14 June 2017, he was appointed Taoiseach in a 57–50 vote with 47 abstentions. He became Ireland's first openly gay Taoiseach, as well as the youngest. He is not, however, the youngest head of an Irish government; both Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins were younger on assuming their respective offices in revolutionary governments prior to the establishment of the state. He is also the first head of government who is of half-Indian descent. It was also the first time that one Fine Gael Taoiseach was succeeded by another.
One of Varadkar's first acts as Taoiseach was to announce a referendum on abortion for 2018. He said that the government would also lay out a road map for achieving a low carbon economy.
His government nearly collapsed as a result of the Garda whistleblower scandal and Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Frances Fitzgerald's role in it. Fianna Fáil, the main opposition party, who were in a confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael, threatened a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste. This action would have collapsed the government and caused a general election. Despite days of gridlock, the crisis was averted, after Fitzgerald resigned from the cabinet to prevent the election, which most of the country did not want due to the possibility of it jeopardising the Irish position in Brexit negotiations. Shortly after this, Varadkar appointed former leadership rival and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney as Tánaiste, Heather Humphreys as Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Josepha Madigan as Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, in a small reshuffle of the cabinet.
Shortly after the Fitzgerald crisis, an impasse was reached in the Brexit talks, as leader of the DUP Arlene Foster objected to a deal agreed to by Varadkar, British Prime Minister Theresa May and President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. This prevented an agreement from being reached as the deadline approached. Varadkar stated he was 'surprised' and 'disappointed' the UK couldn't reach a deal. However, later in the week a consensus deal was finalised. Varadkar stated he had received guarantees from the UK there would be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. He later said he and his cabinet had 'achieved all we set out to achieve' during the talks before quoting former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, by saying 'This is not the end, this is the end of the beginning". An Irish Times poll taken during these days showed Varadkar with a 53% approval rating, the highest for any Taoiseach since 2011, and showed Fine Gael with an eleven-point lead over Fianna Fáil. Government satisfaction was also at 41%, the highest in almost 10 years. Irish Times columnist Pat Leahy claimed Varadkar had ended 2017 'on a high' and IrishCentral called it the Taoiseach's 'finest hour'.
In January 2018, his opinion poll approval ratings reached 60%, a ten-year high for any Taoiseach.
In January 2018, he announced that the referendum to repeal Ireland's 8th Amendment which prevented any liberalisation of restrictive abortion laws would take place in May. If passed, it would allow the government to introduce new legislation. It was proposed that women would be allowed unrestricted access to abortion up until 12 weeks, with exceptions if the mother's life is in danger up until six months. Varadkar said he would campaign for liberalising the laws, saying his mind was changed by difficult cases during his tenure as Minister for Health. The referendum was passed by a 2:1 majority.
On 24 January 2019, Varadkar said in an interview with Euronews he was standing firm on the Irish backstop and called Brexit an act of self-harm that was not fully thought through. He also said the technology promised by the Brexiteers to solve the Northern Ireland border issue "doesn't yet exist".
Varadkar stated he will refuse to ratify the EU–Mercosur free trade agreement unless Brazil commits to protecting the environment. The fear is that the deal could lead to more deforestation of the Amazon rainforest as it expands market access to Brazilian beef.
On 14 January 2020, Varadkar called for a dissolution of the Dáil, which was granted by President Michael D. Higgins, and scheduled the next election for 8 February. Fine Gael lost 12 seats in the election, falling to third place behind Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Varadkar ruled out any possibility of a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin coalition during the election campaign, though a "grand coalition" of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was floated as a possibility. However, on 12 February, Varadkar conceded that Fine Gael had lost the election and that he was very likely to become the next Opposition Leader. Varadkar added that Fine Gael was "willing to step back" to allow Sinn Féin, as the winner of the popular vote, to have the first opportunity to form a government. On 20 February, Varadkar offered his resignation to President Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin, remaining, however, as Taoiseach in a caretaker capacity until the formation of a new government.
During this period, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Ireland. While in Washington ahead of Saint Patrick's Day, Varadkar announced measures intended to stop COVID-19 spreading, including the closure of all schools, universities and childcare facilities from the following day, as well as the closure of all cultural institutions and the cancellation of "all indoor mass gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor mass gatherings of more than 500 people". After returning home early, Varadkar addressed the nation on Saint Patrick's night during A Ministerial Broadcast by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, introducing television viewers to the concept of "cocooning", i.e. "At a certain point… we will advise the elderly and people who have a long-term illness to stay at home for several weeks". The speech was the most watched television event in Irish history, surpassing the previous record held by The Late Late Toy Show by an additional total of about 25% and was widely distributed globally. It was also plagiarised by Peter Bellew, the chief operating officer at British low-cost airline group EasyJet.
In response to a March 2020 Health Service Executive appeal to healthcare professionals, Varadkar rejoined the medical register and offered to work as a doctor one day each week.
Varadkar is the first Irish government leader of Indian origin and has visited India on a number of occasions. He completed his medical internship at KEM Hospital in his father's childhood city of Mumbai.
During an interview on RTÉ Radio on 18 January 2015 (his 36th birthday), Varadkar spoke publicly for the first time about being gay: "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". Varadkar was a prominent advocate of the same-sex marriage referendum. His partner, Matthew Barrett, is a doctor at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital.
In June 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event widely considered a watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ rights movement, Queerty named him one of the Pride50 "trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people".
Varadkar completed a course in professional Irish, and devised an Irish language form for his surname, Leo de Varad.