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Ireland’s youngest Taoiseach moves on

Leo Varadkar was the young Fine Gael upstart who became Taoiseach at 38 in 2017. He returned to the role in 2022, but, just two years later his actions may have prematurely ended a dazzling political career.

His political aspirations were sparked while studying medicine at Trinity College. He joined Fine Gael and in 1999, he ran unsuccessfully in the local elections – telling RTÉ News of his ambition to become Minister for Health.

“I always realised that doctors can only help a certain number of patients, but the Minister for Health can really change things.”

He was co-opted to a council seat in Mulhuddart in 2003 and he built towards gaining a seat in the Dáil in 2007. There, he developed a reputation as a straight-talking young gun as illustrated by this 2010 put-down to then Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

“You’re no Seán Lemass, Jack Lynch or John Bruton. You’re a Garret FitzGerald. You tripled the national debt and effectively destroyed the country. You’ve brought us a wasteful botched job of a Cabinet reshuffle. It is the last thing you will do so you should enjoy writing boring articles in the Irish Times in a few years.”

Although Mr Varadkar has been credited with a finely-tuned political antenna, he backed the losing side in the 2010 heave against Enda Kenny. Despite this, he was appointed a minister in the 2011 Fine Gael–Labour government with responsibility for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

In 2014, he spoke out in support of Garda whistleblowers calling their actions “distinguished”. This may have annoyed his Cabinet colleague, then Justice Minister Alan Shatter, but it burnished Leo Varadkar’s own reputation.

Leo Varadkar has stepped down as Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader

Later that year, he was moved to the challenging Health portfolio where he mined his own experience as a doctor. He did not make light of the difficulties ahead saying, “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to turn a poison chalice into sweet wine but I’m going to do all I can to improve our health services.”

In 2015, he came out in an interview with RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan telling her “I am a gay man it’s not a secret, but not something everyone would necessarily know, but it isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before now.”

That revelation made him the first openly gay Cabinet minister and was a carefully managed announcement in advance of the Marriage Equality referendum.

After the 2016 general election, he was moved from the “Angola” of Health to the less high-profile Social Protection department. Some saw this as an effort by Enda Kenny to contain Leo Varadkar’s ambition, as it was an open secret that he was pushing to lead Fine Gael.

In 2015, in an interview with RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan Leo Varadkar (pictured here in 2020 with his partner Matthew Barrett) made it known to the public that he is gay. (File image)

In the 2017 Fine Gael leadership contest, there were just two contenders – Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

Mr Varadkar ran a slick campaign managed by Eoghan Murphy and he secured an early advantage by getting the backing of a majority of the parliamentary party including several heavy hitters. He memorably promised to lead a party for “people who get up early in the morning”.

He outflanked Mr Coveney in the overall contest but the Cork TD pulled off a surprise by garnering a bigger share of the membership vote. The path was now set for Mr Varadkar’s ascent to the highest political office at the age of 38.

On 14 June 2017, he became the country’s youngest ever Taoiseach. In his Dáil speech, he promised to create a “Republic of opportunity – a Republic in which every citizen gets a fair goal and has the opportunity to succeed”.

Leo Varadkar implemented a limited Cabinet reshuffle promoting key ally Eoghan Murphy to the front bench and retaining his rival Simon Coveney. The new Taoiseach was celebrated abroad as the young face of Ireland – the son of an immigrant and one of the only openly gay European leaders.

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But his administration was quickly plunged into its first controversy with the nomination of Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.

Some months later, the government nearly collapsed in a bitter row over Minister Frances Fitzgerald’s handling of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. Fianna Fáil demanded her resignation and so the government survived.

In December 2017, his government secured the backstop deal with the UK to prevent a hard border on the island. Leo Varadkar promised that the assurances received were “cast-iron” and “politically bulletproof”.

Micheál Martin (L) and Leo Varadkar operated on a rotating Taoiseach basis since 2020

Government support soared along with Mr Varadkar’s own popularity according to opinion polls.

In 2018, his administration paved the way for major social change after agreeing to ask the Irish people whether they wanted to repeal the Eighth Amendment. The passing of the referendum led to wider access to abortion in Ireland.

After months of Brexit cliff edges, Leo Varadkar’s meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Wirral, England in October 2019 was credited with breaking the deadlock and finally reaching a deal.

In early 2020, he led Fine Gael into a general election campaign with the party seeking to capitalise on his image. But it finished behind Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin in a deeply disappointing result.

In the post-mortem afterwards, several errors were identified including a misplaced belief in a Brexit bounce along with mistakes on pensions. Leo Varadkar resolved to go into opposition insisting the party needed to regroup.

But the country was soon plunged into crisis as the pandemic arrived and the caretaker Taoiseach was catapulted into the spotlight.

On 12 March 2020, Leo Varadkar made a fateful early morning address from Washington DC where he ushered in unprecedented restrictions on people’s lives.

Leo Varadkar returned to his role as Taoiseach in December 2022

“I know that some of this is coming as a real shock and it is going to involve big changes in the way we live our lives. I know that I am asking people to make enormous sacrifices. We’re doing it for each other.”

Many more public addresses followed as even tougher measures were introduced including an address with a huge audience on St Patrick’s Day.

“This is the calm before the storm, before the surge. And when it comes and it will come, never will so many ask so much of so few.”

All the while, government formation talks dragged on with Fine Gael eventually agreeing to coalesce with the old Civil War enemy along with the Green Party. Leo Varadkar became Tánaiste and Business Minister in a government led by Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin.

But his leaking of a GP contract to a friend in 2020 came back to haunt him, leading to an eventual Dáil no confidence vote which he survived, paving the way for Mr Varadkar to return as Taoiseach in 2022.

This saw Micheál Martin return to the role of Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, a brief that became ever more high-profile with the war in Ukraine and later, the war in Gaza.

As the international picture became more troubling, the domestic one calmed down, with life returning to normality for most people after the upheaval of the Covid pandemic.

While the Irish economy returned to growth, outpacing most of Europe, political difficulties began to crop up once again.

The ill-judged and poorly-timed referendums on Family and Care provided a double wallop for the Government, leading to reflection, and the realisation that mood of the public was not with the political classes.

Ten Fine Gael TDs have announced they will not be running again for election – almost one third of the party’s parliamentary representatives, leading many to question the party leader’s strategy for the next election.

This will now be a consideration for the next leader of Fine Gael, with Leo Varadkar’s departure.

Additional reporting Juliette Gash

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