Ireland Chooses PM of Indian Descent

Ireland Chooses PM of Indian Descent

Photo : Dr Leo Varadkar

Ireland has elected Dr Leo Varadkar who is of Indian descent as its Prime Minister (Taoiseach is the Irish Gaelic language term for PM) on June 14. Leo is the son of an Indian father (Ashok, a medical doctor) and an Irish mother (Miriam, a nurse). Leo was trained as a doctor at Trinity College where several Guyanese, Trinidadians, and Indian nationals studied.

Leo’s parents met when they were working in London during the 1960s. They fell in love and got married. They moved briefly to India to live during the early 1970s, and then finally settled in Ireland shortly thereafter. Today, their youngest child, only thirty-eight years old, has become the PM; they also have two daughters. Leo is the youngest person ever to hold that office, and is perhaps the youngest elected leader in Europe, a year younger than the President of France Emmanuel Macron who was elected last month.

Varadkar's election in parliament as PM took place 10 days after he succeeded Enda Kenny as leader of the governing Fine Gael party in a vote for the leadership. Kenny led the party for 15 years and served as PM of governments for more than six years. Varadkar beat out one opponent (Simon Coveney) who he has committed to bring into his cabinet. Fine Gael is a centre-right party in Ireland, a socially conservative Catholic country. Fine Gael Member of Parliament Jim Daly, echoing the comments of most of his colleagues, described Varadkar as “a once-in-a-generation politician" noting that “colleagues have placed high hopes in him”.

Varadkar has acknowledged he is gay. Varadkar publicly announced his sexuality after Ireland voted to legalize gay marriage in 2015. Varadkar’s partner is Dr Matt Barrett, who “is rumoured to not enjoy being a political spouse”, said a report. Dr Varadkar is quoted as saying: “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”.

After he was chosen as party leader, a position that automatically qualifies one for the PM position, Varadkar told party delegates to rousing applause: “If my election today shows anything, it is that prejudice has no hold in this Republic.” He added: "I know when my father travelled 5,000 miles (from India) to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt that he ever dreamed that one day his son would grow up to be its leader and despite his differences, his son would be judged by his actions not his identity. Every proud parent in Ireland today can dream big dreams for their children."

Varadkar’s sexual preference is hardly an issue in Ireland, and reports say it has barely been mentioned in local media. One former government minister was quoted in media as saying "without anybody batting an eyelid, Varadkar’s election in spite of his gay lifestyle shows just how far Ireland has come.”

Before being chosen as PM, Varadkar, a medical doctor, served as a Minister of Health and also held other cabinet portfolios. He is known as a straight talker. Reports say his colleagues “giddily proclaim him as having the 'X Factor'.

Commentators note that Varadkar had not been born when his predecessor Kenny, 66, was first elected as a Member of Parliament. Kenny sat in parliament for 35 years before his elevation. Varadkar was first elected in 2007, and before that he served in local government rising to become Deputy Mayor. As noted by reports, “he comes from the generation hit hardest by Ireland's economic meltdown”. Media also pointed that he owned an apartment that fell into negative equity at the turn of this decade.

Varadkar is known for his conservative leanings and has been critiqued by the left in Ireland for cracking down on corruption in health care. But reports say he “bills himself as a visionary”. He told reporters: “What I am interested in are the philosophies of the future. That’s what drives me. What I see around the world are movements around people like [Emmanuel] Macron in France and [Justin] Trudeau in Canada.”