In Varadkar, Ireland may be about to have its first openly gay leader

Leo Varadkar now leads among TDs to win the Fine Gael leadership and, with it, Ireland’s premiership. (Facebook)

Among the European countries on the 2017 political agenda, Ireland figures relatively low. 

Ostensibly, Ireland may not hold its next general election until 2021. Irish politics have so far avoided the kind of xenophobic, hard-right politics that are roiling larger countries. Nor (other than the republican Sinn Féin) has the country succumbed to the kind of hard-left politics that have emerged in much of southern Europe in the aftermath of the eurozone debt crisis.

But as Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister (known in Ireland as the Taoiseach) prepares to step down after more than six years in power, the country may have its first openly gay leader within weeks.

Leo Varadkar, a 38-year-old rising star and the son of an Indian immigrant (and, like his father, a doctor by trade) who represents the pro-market wing of the liberal, center-right Fine Gael, is now the favorite in the party’s first leadership election in 15 years. First elected to the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish parliament) in 2007, Varadkar immediately joined Kenny’s government in 2011 as transport, tourism and sport minister. From 2014 until last May, he served as health minister, and he currently serves as minister for social protection.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s housing minister, hopes he can come from behind to win the Fine Gael leadership on the strength of the party faithful.

His opponent is the 44-year-old (and openly straight) Simon Coveney, a scion of Irish politics, who got his start in politics at age 26 when, in a 1998, he won a by-election to replace his late father, Hugh Coveney. He has remained a fixture of the Irish parliament (or the European parliament — as an MEP from 2004 to 2007) ever since. Like Varadkar, Coveney has held three ministerial posts in the Kenny era — first as agriculture, food and marine minister, then defence minister, and currently minister for housing, planning, community and local government. Though Coveney is relatively pro-market, he has emphasized the need to combat rising inequality.

Varadkar is the flashier choice, a more radical figure with more panache, while Coveney is viewed as somewhat more wooden, though a policy whiz and a more seasoned official. While they will shy away from actively endorsing Coveney, both Kenny and the current finance minister Michael Noonan are likely to support Coveney.

If his lead holds, Varadkar would represent a far greater rupture from Kenny for Fine Gael. He has said he would re-christen Fine Gael as the ‘United Ireland’ Party, and he has promised a series of tax cuts, pledging that Fine Gael would be the party for people who ‘get out of bed early in the morning.’ Among his policy positions is a relatively radical step to reduce the ability of public workers to engage in strikes.

The next leader will be elected on June 2 among an electoral college that gives 65% of the decision to the MEPs, senators and TDs (members of the Dáil), 10% to local city and county councillors and 25% to the Fine Gael rank-and-file membership. Currently, Varadkar has the support of 45 parliamentary party figures and 84 councillors, while Coveney lags behind with just 19 members of the parliamentary party and 58 councillors. Coveney’s hopes lie in some surveys that show he has relatively stronger support among the party grassroots.

Under Kenny’s leadership, Irish voters emphatically endorsed same-sex marriage in a May 2015 referendum (in which Varadkar himself played a prominent role after coming out in the middle of the campaign). Varadkar would be just the fourth openly gay head of government in Europe — joining Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel, former Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo and former Icelandic prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.

Kenny is stepping down after years of pressure from younger figures in Fine Gael. In fact, both Varadkar and Coveney supported an ultimately failed effort in 2010 to dump Kenny from the leadership. The proximate cause for his resignation, however, is long-standing disapproval with his government’s conduct regarding a whistle-blower who in 2014 revealed corruption within the national police.

Fine Gael currently governs in a minority government, with Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s other center-right party, providing ‘confidence and supply’ support on key votes from within opposition. (The two parties have never in modern history governed together in coalition, due to complexities and rivalries that date back to the Irish civil war). If Fianna Fáil decides to bring down the government, however, the new Taoiseach would be forced into a snap election. Regardless, Fine Gael’s new leader may want to attempt a fresh personal mandate before 2021.

In that regard, Fine Gael is doing surprisingly well in the polls, generally holding steady (or only slightly behind) Fianna Fáil, with the leftist and republican Sinn Féin firmly in third place. The social democratic Labour Party, which won 37 seats in the 2011 election (and which served as the junior coalition partner for Fine Gael for five years), was devastated in the 2016 election, winning just seven seats, however — polls show that Labour would struggle to maintain even that support in a snap election.

Though Ireland may no longer be the ‘Celtic Tiger’ of the 1990s and 2000s, it has emerged after a painful decade of banking, housing and economic crises in stronger shape than any other European economy, with a staggering 26% GDP growth in 2015. While that number is meaningless — it captures profits of foreign companies headquartered in Ireland, not necessarily economic production within Ireland — the more accurate figure of GNP growth is estimated at around 5.5% for 2015 and 5.2% for 2016. Though Kenny has presided over years of austerity policies, that initial pain has met with growth that the rest of continental Europe only dreams about, and that’s made the outgoing Taoiseach a darling of policymakers in Brussels.

Nevertheless, the next leader will face tough challenges, including Ireland’s delicate approach to Brexit and the delicate issue of a potential land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland virtually erased under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the European Union’s penumbra.

The more socially conservative Fianna Fáil governed for over a decade due to its association with the economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s, and its support cratered with the economic crash of 2008. Its new leader, Micheál Martin, is a well-known figure who led the party through the 2011 election debacle and its relative recovery in 2016. Moreover, both Martin and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams will be far more experienced leaders than either Fine Gael contender as Ireland looks to its next election.

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