A Profile: Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s First Gay Prime Minister

By Danny Tye

When Leo Varadkar’s mother, Miriam, was interviewed by the Irish Times before his confirmation as Taoiseach in 2017, she said ‘I knew he’d be a leader. I knew he’d be something. I knew he would reach the top in whatever he chose.’

Former Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar

The two-time head of the Irish government, who announced his resignation last month, developed an interest in politics around the age of 10. This pleased his father, a socialist who comes from a family of Indian activists against British imperialism. 

When the teenaged Leo joined Ireland’s centre-right party Fine Gael, his father viewed it as a kind of revolt against his own left-wing politics. If so, it has certainly been a long-running rebellious streak for Varadkar, who has risen over the past 20 years from Fingal County Council to Ireland’s highest office. At age 28, in 2007, he was elected to the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament. Four years later, when Fine Gael became the largest party in a historic reversal of electoral fortunes, Varadkar was appointed Minister for Transport, Tourism, and Sport. He held this position until 2014. 

In the next two governmental positions he held — first a two-year stint as Minister for Health, then a year as Minister for Social Protection — Varadkar maintained a tight fist with public funding. He cut over a third of the €35m mental health budget, and launched a campaign against welfare fraud that was condemned by the Irish left as ‘symptomatic of a system which is based on greed and profit rather than the needs of ordinary working people’.

In June 2017, Varadkar won the Fine Gael leadership election and became Taoiseach. His ascension broke a number of records; like France’s new PM, Gabriel Attal, he made history as Ireland’s first openly gay head of government, as well as the youngest. On top of that, he was also the first person of colour to hold the position of Taoiseach.  Varadkar had come out as gay during Ireland’s fiercely fought debate on marriage equality in 2015. His rise to the top undoubtedly marked a turning point for LGBTQ+ political representation in the country. Nonetheless, left-wing voices expressed concern from the offset of his identity being used to mask the reality of his politics. As Emer O’Toole wrote in the Guardian in June 2017, ‘the election of a gay person of colour at the same time signals the entrenchment of anti-woman, anti-working-class austerity-as-usual.’ 

Pessimism about Varadkar’s leadership was proven correct in many cases. The first year of his first term saw the housing situation in Ireland deteriorate, as the number of homeless families rose 20% to 10,000 while private hoarding of housing stock continued to grow, particularly for use as short-term holiday lets. This housing crisis has only worsened with Varadkar and Fine Gael at the helm, and has become an emblem of the government’s failure and inaction.

Perhaps Varadkar’s most definitive triumph, though, was his success in legalising abortion. In 2018, following decades of feminist activism against Ireland’s regressive laws criminalising abortion, he championed a successful referendum on the issue and codified abortion rights. 

With the formation of a new coalition government between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party in 2020, Varadkar stepped back into the deputy position before returning to be Taoiseach in late 2022. His second term was fraught with scandal and a long line of failures and setbacks, beginning less than a month in. In January 2023, one of Varadkar’s Ministers of State, Damien English, resigned after it was revealed that he had lied on a planning application. Later that month, another Minister, Paschal Donohoe, faced condemnation over an electoral expenses complaint. Varadkar’s decision not to extend a ban on rental evictions in March 2023 led to increased pressure from opposition Sinn Féin, as well as a no-confidence vote from the Labour Party. 

Both Varadkar’s personal and political life have made headlines in recent years. Shortly before the beginning of his second term as Taoiseach, he was discreetly filmed ‘socialising’ in a Dublin gay nightclub, leading to a social media frenzy that prompted a dialogue surrounding privacy for politicians in the Tiktok age.

Worsening polarisation amongst the Irish electorate put Varadkar’s personal safety in jeopardy. Dublin Live revealed that he was subjected to death threats seemingly led by Ireland’s extreme right, including hoax bomb threats sent to his home. The far right has seen an unprecedented resurgence in Ireland in recent years, exploiting public anger surrounding the country’s housing crisis to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment. Racial tensions have been greatly exacerbated throughout Varadkar’s second term, particularly following a series of high-profile crimes committed by people born outside of Ireland. Far-right activists, rallying behind the slogan Ireland is Full, brought tensions to boiling point in a riot which broke out in Dublin in November. 

Protesters during a Mayo Pride event at the Tertulia Book Shop at the Quay Westport
Photo: Conor McKeown

This resurgence of the far right has also threatened the security of Ireland’s queer community, whose societal acceptance and legal protections are relatively new. Though Varadkar came to power in the aftermath of 2015’s marriage equality and gender recognition legislation, he himself expressed concerns last month that it has ‘become acceptable again to be homophobic or transphobic’. The visible growth in reactionary queerphobic sentiment has been attributed to Christian fundamentalism imported from the US. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Ireland’s far right are using the same tactic of ‘sensationalist, highly emotive’ social media content to manufacture anger against Ireland’s queer community.

As political and racial tensions raged on throughout 2023, Ireland fell four places in the World Happiness Report, down to 17th. Varadkar became the human face of Ireland’s discontentment. Following two humiliating referendum defeats for the government, where proposals to erase traditionalist provisions in the Irish constitution related to women and the family were rejected, Varadkar announced his resignation on the 20th of March.

In the aftermath of Varadkar’s shock resignation, particularly following a period of government failure, there has been a visible discomfort amongst political commentators attempting to quantify his premiership. The left, who maintained a strong opposition to Varadkar throughout both of his terms in office, have railed against attempts to whitewash his legacy post-resignation. A scathing post-mortem of his premiership in Jacobin wrote of the ‘clear neoliberal edge’ to his actions at the helm. The article argues that he ‘deepened inequalities in the name of market sovereignty and social privilege, a politics in which progressive reforms [were granted] seemingly on the basis of personal expediency and very often with strings attached.’ 

Danny Tye (@dannytye) is a staff writer at GAY45. After graduating from the University of Manchester with a BA in Politics and Spanish, he co-founded the radical history magazine Red Riding, where he currently works as contributing co-editor and graphic designer. His main areas of interest are the politics of queerness and (sub)cultural history, as well as film and music analysis. Besides his work for Red Riding, he has also been published in The Lemming and the Manchester Historian.

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