AN INDIAN IN IRELAND
LEO VARADKAR, THE CHARISMATIC YOUNG POLITICIAN OF INDIAN DESCENT, IS SET TO MAKE HISTORY AS IRELAND’S NEXT PM
Leo Varadkar, a politician of Indian descent, is all set to be Ireland’s new premier
Two of my brothers were decorated as freedom fighters, and my sisters took part in the liberation of Goa,” says Dr Ashok Varadkar. “Politics is not that new in our house.” We’re standing in a huddle of people around Leo Varadkar after one of the leadership hustings in a provincial institute of technology, and his father Ashok is grinning with pride. He moved to Ireland after meeting his Irish wife Miriam when they were both working in the UK. Now, his son is just days away from becoming Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ashok’s adopted homeland.
Varadkar is expected to take up office on June 13, but he has been eyeing this position for a long time. “When he was 10 years old, he used to sit in front of the television during elections,” says Varadkar senior. “He would know who won and what votes they got. Not just in Ireland but all over the world!”
The country Varadkar will soon be running has bounced back from the financial crash of 2008, but now faces a new and serious challenge from the withdrawal of its nearest neighbour from the European Union. Brexit poses particular problems for Ireland—both practical and political—as it shares a land border with Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. It has also emerged that one of those involved in last week’s attack in London lived in Dublin for a time and married there, a wake-up call for the country which had felt removed from this kind of terrorism. Ireland’s openness to migration during the Celtic Tiger era in the 1990s and early 2000s has created a more multi-cultural society, with all the benefits and challenges that this presents.
Indian migration to Ireland— mostly focused on the medical and IT sectors—is longer established, though the community is still small compared to the UK. To outsiders it seems remarkable that a gay man of Indian descent could break through the Irish political system to become prime minister, but in Ireland it’s the generational shift that puts a 38-year-old into Government Buildings that’s making the news.
“He’s seen as having buckets of charisma,” says long-time observer Lise Hand of the Irish Independent. “Then there’s his intellect; people know he’s very smart. You don’t get too many rockstars in Irish politics and he’s the closest we have.” That rockstar quality saw most of the cabinet and the Fine Gael party’s Teachtaí Dála (MPs) row in behind him in his bid to succeed Enda Kenny, when he announced he was stepping down as Taoiseach and party leader. “He’s the right man for the times,” says Frances Fitzgerald, justice minister and deputy prime minister. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
Close up, Varadkar is quietly spoken, listens carefully and doesn’t always give the obvious answer. Asked if he’s proud that someone of halfIndian ancestry is about to become prime minister, he tells india today that he prefers pride to “come from achievements and what you do for people, rather than from your ethnic, gender or any other element of your identity. That said I’m very glad I have my Indian heritage. It’s shaped my worldview. Growing up, I had that awareness of other countries, other nationalities, other religions.”
Many Irish people are only vaguely aware that he’s of Indian descent.
“VARADKAR IS THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE TIMES. THIS IS A ONCE-IN-A-GENERATION OPPORTUNITY,” SAYS IRELAND’S DEPUTY PM
Leo is defined primarily by his Leo-like straight-talking, and he’s one of the few people in Ireland known to almost everyone by his first name alone. His decision to come out as a gay man on national radio in 2015, just before Ireland passed a referendum on same sex marriage, led to an outpouring of support, affection and gratitude. “It was a sign we’d reached a turning point when Leo came out,” says Hand. “It’s the only time really that his ethnic or sexual identity was to the forefront. But we’ve processed it now, we’ve moved on.”
That said, there was a quiet pride in Ireland last Friday that Varadkar’s identity was not an issue, and he himself referenced his background in his victory speech. “I think if my election as leader of Fine Gael today has shown anything, it is that prejudice has no hold in this Republic,” he said. “When my father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed that his son would one day grow up to become its leader.”
Varadkar joined Young Fine Gael at the age of 17, and later managed to combine being on his local council with his medical studies, including an elective spent at King Edward Hospital in Mumbai. He entered the Dail (lower house) in 2007. Varadkar took part in a failed heave against Kenny in 2010, but was forgiven quickly in a way others were not, and became minister for transport, tourism and sport in 2011 when a Fine Gael/ Labour government ousted the Fianna Fáil party after the economic crash.
He became a regular on the agendasetting early radio programme Morning Ireland, often going out to bat for the government on sticky wickets. Although he sometimes annoyed party colleagues with his blunt speaking or solo runs (suggesting that unemployed foreign nationals be given incentives to go back home or that Ireland might need a second bailout), they could also see that he was putting the boot in to the opposition, particularly Sinn Féin and the hard Left, and connecting with the public.
He became minister for health in 2014, and while a central plank of the government’s programme—universal health insurance—was dropped, he did manage to bring in free GP care for under 6s and over 70s. “Leo has great calibre, great potential,” says Ninan Thomas from Kottayam in Kerala, one of thousands of Indians working in the Irish health service. “I don’t know that he was a great health minister though. That great waiting list is still there and no one seems to be able to fix it.” There’s been some criticism that he didn’t stick it out at the health ministry after the 2016 election, and reports that he turned it down in favour of social protection, which gave him more time to mount a leadership campaign.
No doubt Varadkar is ultra competitive and wants to lead a drive towards success at every level, saying he wants a new social contract with the Irish people centred around contribution, and promising to reduce taxes for middle earners. Asked what he thought Ireland could learn from India, he cited the value Indian parents put on education and their urge for their children to excel.
But not everyone is a fan of Varadkar’s policies. “I’d be concerned he is going to move the party to the Right,” says David Fitzgerald, a party councillor. “I don’t like this talk of his about being the party for people who get up early in the morning. What about the people who don’t get up early because they’ve never had any opportunities?”
Varadkar also plans to bring forward a referendum to liberalise Ireland’s abortion laws (although it will be in limited circumstances), borrow more for investment in Ireland’s overloaded infrastructure and introduce a universal pension scheme.
All of this will depend on maintaining
VARADKAR PLANS A REFERENDUM TO LIBERALISE IRELAND’S ABORTION LAWS, BORROW MORE TO INVEST IN INFRASTRUCTURE AND LAUNCH A UNIVERSAL PENSION SCHEME. THIS REQUIRES MAINTAINING ECONOMIC GROWTH, THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE TO WHICH IS BREXIT
economic growth, and the biggest challenge to that is Brexit. The UK is Ireland’s largest market, and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland will be critical, not just for economic reasons but to sustain the peace process in Northern Ireland.
He will also need to develop good relations with the French president, German chancellor and the British prime minister. Varadkar has said he favours a policy of engagement with US president Donald Trump. US foreign direct investment is a key element of the Irish economy and Ireland has much to lose from Trump’s protectionist proposals if he manages to implement them.
The Indian community is all celebratory about Varadkar’s rise. Cricketer Simi Singh from Mohali, who got his first cap for Ireland last month, says: “It sends a great message about Ireland being equal and multi-cultural, and I hopes it will help gays in rural India too.” NilaKanthi Ford of the Ireland India Business Association believes it will make a significant difference to trade relations. “It’s always a bugbear that China gets such a big profile compared to India, but he’s got his head around the potential,” she says. “He doesn’t just turn up to things, he insists on being well-briefed, and he’s a very good diplomat. And he understands cricket!”
India is very much on Varadkar’s radar. He has visited as a minister and also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he came to Ireland. He told india today he hopes to visit in his first year in office. He’s unlikely to bring partner Matthew Barrett along though, saying he has a day job as a doctor and won’t be coming to most state events, and that marriage is not on the agenda for now. When he does make it to Delhi, there had better be jalebis on the banquet table as, according to Leo, they’re his favourite Indian food.
Margaret Ward is a journalist and broadcaster based
in Dublin. Follow her on twitter @mwardjourno
INDIA IS HIGH ON VARADKAR’S RADAR. HE SAYS HE HOPES TO PAY A VISIT IN HIS FIRST YEAR IN OFFICE
MAN OF THE MOMENT
Leo Varadkar celebrates as he is named Ireland’s new PM after counting of votes for the leadership of the Fine Gael party in Dublin
HOME RUN Leo Varadkar with parents Ashok (right) and Miriam Varadkar in Dublin