Once a Figurehead of Change, Ireland’s Returning Leader Has Lots to Prove
When Leo Varadkar became Ireland’s prime minister in 2017, he was hailed as a fresh face in European politics, only 38 years old, his country’s first openly gay leader and the first with South Asian heritage — a personification of a rapidly modernizing state.
Now he returns to office on Saturday, in a prearranged power-sharing deal, with that initial optimism dissipated, and with question marks over his judgment and leadership style.
Mr. Varadkar, who trained as a doctor, was one of Europe’s youngest heads of government when he took over from Enda Kenny, then his party’s leader, who had become embroiled in a police whistle-blowing scandal. At the time, many Irish commentators viewed him as a breath of fresh air. He “comes across to the public, especially younger voters, as if he is not a politician at all,” the political columnist Stephen Collins wrote in The Irish Times in 2017.
“In this anti-politician phase of Western democracy,” Mr. Collins added, “that is a crucial asset.”
Much was expected of Mr. Varadkar as he climbed the ranks. The son of an immigrant — his father, who is also a doctor, is from Mumbai; his mother is an Irish nurse — Mr. Varadkar announced that he was gay in 2015 while serving as health minister. That statement, during a referendum about legalizing gay marriage, was cited by some as having contributed to the measure’s approval.
Then, as prime minister, or taoiseach, Mr. Varadkar oversaw another referendum — and another cultural watershed in a country long a stronghold of Roman Catholic doctrine — this time to legalize abortion. That measure, voted on in 2018, was also approved.
For many, Mr. Varadkar, a conservative who had once opposed abortion and allowing gay couples to adopt, was a symbol of Ireland’s transition to a socially liberal, secular nation.
But by the time Mr. Varadkar became prime minister, his party, Fine Gael, had already been in power for six years, and he could not shield it from deepening crises in housing, health and education on its watch. In the 2020 election, Fine Gael slumped to third place for the first time in its history and was forced into a coalition with a rival center-right party, Fianna Fail, to hold onto power.
The coalition deal demoted Mr. Varadkar to deputy prime minister. Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail took over for the first two and a half years of the usual five-year term; now, Mr. Varadkar gets another chance.
So far, his return to power has been marked by little fanfare, and there have been no announcements of major new policies, which would in any case have to be agreed upon with his coalition partners in Fianna Fail, the Green Party and a few independent lawmakers.
Critics have pointed to Mr. Varadkar’s stiffness of manner and tendency to speak his mind, to the point of insensitivity, as counting against him in Ireland’s relatively conciliatory political climate.
Last month, for example, Mr. Varadkar responded to reports that many young Irish people were thinking of emigrating to escape the housing and cost of living crisis by saying that they should not expect to find cheaper rents abroad.
“The grass can look greener, and considering emigration is not the same as actually doing it, and many do come back,” he said in a radio interview.
Those comments prompted a storm of social media posts from young Irish emigrants reporting that they had indeed found better and cheaper accommodation in major cities abroad. Critics noted that in 2021, Dublin was the most expensive city in the European Union for renting a small house or one-bedroom apartment — higher than Amsterdam, Berlin or Paris — and pointed out that rents in Ireland had increased by another 8.2 percent since then. This month, the government’s Central Statistics Office found that 43 percent of renters were thinking of leaving Ireland to find better and cheaper housing abroad.
Lorcan Sirr, a housing policy lecturer at Technological University Dublin, said Mr. Varadkar’s comments portrayed him as out of touch.
“The tin ear and lack of sensitivity to other people’s needs is fairly characteristic of his party,” Mr. Sirr noted. “Varadkar has had a fairly privileged housing upbringing in that he didn’t have to suffer the trials and tribulations that many young voters — now including many who would have voted Fine Gael — have to go through to find somewhere to live.”
For the past two years, he has also been dogged by questions about the legality and appropriateness of his actions when, as prime minister, he leaked details from a closed negotiation with Ireland’s main doctors’ organization to an acquaintance with an interest in the talks.
Without referring to anything in particular, this past week, Mr. Varadkar acknowledged his fallibility. “Everyone makes errors in judgment — you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t,” he told reporters, but he added that he was confident that he had the full support of the coalition.
Whether the public is behind him is another question. At the start of this month, an opinion poll found that 43 percent would prefer Mr. Martin to remain Taoiseach. Only 34 percent wanted Mr. Varadkar to take over again. A month before, the two had been tied at 39 percent.
Winning the next election, scheduled for 2025, looks to be an uphill battle for Mr. Varadkar. The agreement between his party, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fail — also in long-term decline — was seen as an awkward alliance to check the growing influence of an up and coming rival for power, Sinn Fein.
Once the political wing of the militant Provisional Irish Republican Army, which used violence to try to end British rule in Northern Ireland during the bloody “Troubles” of 1968 to 1998, Sinn Fein has sought to rebrand itself as a democratic force of the center-left. The party vows to solve the housing crisis by abandoning the reliance on private developers and landlords to supply properties, instead spending state money to build 100,000 new homes. That, together with promises to overhaul health and education, have won Sinn Fein considerable support.
A Politico poll this month showed voter support for Sinn Fein at 34 percent, with Fine Gael at 23 percent and Fianna Fail at 18 percent. If replicated in an election, that would put the Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald in a strong position to become the first female taoiseach, and also the first from outside the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail political movements since the state was founded a century ago.
After being in government in various roles for 11 years, Mr. Varadkar may no longer carry the novelty of being a political outsider, but his supporters say that he is older and wiser and has learned from his mistakes.
Gary Murphy, a professor of politics at Dublin City University, said he believed that Mr. Varadkar’s main priority in his second term as prime minister would be to show he can guide his party to the electoral success that has so far eluded him.
“In 2017, when he walked home in the party leadership competition, he was being hailed as a generational change,” Professor Murphy said, “but that hasn’t happened.”
“He’s young, and he could still have a life outside politics,” Professor Murphy added, “but I don’t think he’ll want to go until he has shown he can do well in an election.”