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Leo Varadkar: Irish leader caps off legacy of firsts with shock departure



When Leo Varadkar was a teenager on a school trip to Northern Ireland he smuggled fireworks back into the republic to set off some illicit bangs – but it is only now that he has sent a boom echoing across Ireland.

At the age of 45, Ireland’s youngest – and first gay, and first mixed race – taoiseach is stepping down.

Nobody saw it coming; not his party colleagues in Fine Gael, not his coalition colleagues in Fianna Fáil or the Greens, not the media. Yet there he stood on the steps of Government Buildings in Dublin on Wednesday making an emotional announcement, watched by shellshocked ministers and dumbfounded TV viewers.

“I believe this government can be re-elected,” he said. “I believe a new taoiseach will be better placed than me to achieve that – to renew and strengthen the top team, to refocus our message and policies, and to drive implementation. After seven years in office, I am no longer the best person for that job.”

Varadkar made an unexpected and emotional resignation speech on Wednesday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/PA

He was resigning as leader of Fine Gael and will resign as taoiseach once a successor is named, he said. “My reasons for stepping down now are personal and political, but mainly political,” he said, without elaborating. Michael D Higgins, the president, apparently learned of his resignation just before the press conference.

Speculation about reasons zinged around Dublin but one thing was clear: Varadkar had delivered a political blitz that probably would have won the approval of one of his heroes, Otto von Bismarck.

This was not a typical end: despite losing two constitutional referendums earlier this month there was no visible pressure to quit, no evident palace coup intrigues.

But then Varadkar was never a typical Irish politician. “Why isn’t he called Murphy like all the rest of them?” Boris Johnson, when he was foreign secretary, once allegedly asked his staff.

The gay son of an Indian immigrant, a trained medical doctor, and socially awkward, the taoiseach did not fit the traditional Irish political mould – and despite a glamorous image overseas, at home he was never hip and didn’t claim to be.

Growing up as a GP’s son in a middle-class Dublin suburb, young Leo declared, at the age of eight, an ambition to become health minister. He studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and joined Fine Gael, a centre-right party. Outspoken about tax cuts and welfare reform, some called him “Tory boy”. In addition to Germany’s Iron Chancellor, he revered Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.

After serving his time at council level he emerged on the national stage in 2007, at age 28, by winning election to the Dáil representing Dublin West.

The backbencher was outspoken and blunt, which some found refreshing and others considered arrogant. Instead of glad-handing constituents and attending funerals – staples of parish pump politics – Varadkar preferred policy papers and parliamentary debate.

Varadkar celebrates the success of his same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, months after he came out as gay. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images

“He doesn’t have a lot of time for – or interest in – small talk,” said Brendan O’Shea, a doctor who trained with Varadkar as a medical student, in 2019. “We have someone who is forensic about what he thinks should be done. The calculating machine will make a decision about what is the best decision then the politician will switch on and figure out a way to sell that.”

Despite backing a failed 2010 coup against Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael, when Kenny was elected taoiseach the following year, he made Varadkar minister for transport, tourism and sport, and then health.

In 2015 Varadkar came out as gay. “It’s not something that defines me,” he told RTÉ. “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.”

There was no backlash. On the contrary, Ireland lauded the honesty, and months later passed a same-sex marriage referendum. After coming out, Varadkar appeared looser, more comfortable with himself, friends said. With prodding from his partner, Matt Barrett, the former Mars bar-binger became a fitness adherent.

When Kenny stepped down in 2017, Varadkar outfoxed his party rival, Simon Coveney, to become leader of Fine Gael and the country at just 38.

A year later he led the government’s successful abortion referendum. It marked another milestone in Ireland’s transformation into a secular progressive state. Foreigners tended to swoon over Varadkar as a towering – he is 6ft 4in – embodiment of a liberalising zeitgeist. Irish progressives rolled their eyes, saying other politicians and grassroots groups did the heavy lifting.

Varadkar proved a wily Brexit negotiator, causing headaches in London over the Irish backstop. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

In Brexit negotiations, Varadkar won acclaim at home – and resentment in London – by mobilising the EU behind the border backstop that rebalanced Ireland’s historically subservient relationship with Britain. It also paved Johnson’s path to Downing Street and the Northern Ireland protocol that appalled unionists by putting a trade border in the Irish Sea.

With Ireland recovering from the Celtic Tiger crash, Varadkar confidently called an election in February 2020 only to be humbled by a surge in support for Sinn Féin, forcing Fine Gael to cobble a ruling coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

It steered Ireland through the Covid pandemic, with a job rotation deal that made Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin taoiseach for two years while Varadkar became enterprise minister.

In 2022 he regained the top job, but a housing crisis that collided with a refugee influx and anti-immigrant sentiment eroded Varadkar’s ratings. Critics said the government was too centrist – even too Tory – to reengineer the economy and housing market.

With Fine Gael is bracing for losses in council and European elections in June and in a general election that is due within a year, several lawmakers have announced they will not stand again. This month’s referendum debacle – in which the government was given a drubbing on two proposals to change the constitution – further soured the mood.

The taoiseach faced a bruising calendar and uncertain future, but no one expected him to be pushed – or to jump so abruptly. Varadkar said he had no other job lined up – no plum post in Brussels or the UN – but no one thinks the calculating machine has suddenly stopped.

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