Belfast Telegraph

Fine Gael's Varadkar vows to put Republic at the heart of Europe as he is elected Taoiseach

By Staff Reporter

Leo Varadkar used his first day as Taoiseach to tell world leaders "this country will be at the heart of Europe".

The son of an immigrant Indian doctor and Irish nurse was formally elected yesterday as the country's youngest and first gay Taoiseach after securing 57 votes against 50 in the Irish parliament, with some 45 parliamentarians abstaining.

Mr Varadkar's Cabinet reshuffle saw leadership rival Simon Coveney made the effective 'Brexit Minister', while Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has been tasked with preparing "for the challenges and opportunities of Brexit".

Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald, who has moved to the Department of Enterprise, is to ensure Ireland is "business ready for Brexit".

Mr Varadkar will discuss the Brexit crisis during a series of phonecalls with Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron over the next 48 hours.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, under Mr Coveney, has been given responsibility for coordinating a whole of government response to Brexit.

The full details remain to be worked out but a source told the Irish Independent: "In the same way that Public Expenditure monitors spending in every department, Foreign Affairs will now oversee Brexit across government."

Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar had been rivals in a drawn-out race for the leadership of the minority ruling Fine Gael party.

"We face enormous challenges in foreign policy as relationships on this island and between these islands and across Europe change," said Mr Varadkar.

"I have given (Mr Coveney) the task of working towards re-establishing devolved government in Northern Ireland, securing the best possible deal for Ireland on Brexit, winning seats for Ireland on the UN Security Council and expanding our diplomatic and trade footprints overseas."

One of Mr Varadkar's first official contacts as leader will be with Mrs May to pass on the sympathies of the Irish people following the London tower block fire.

"The UK has been through some dreadful and terrible tragedies in the past few weeks and to them, on behalf of this House, we offer our sympathies, solidarity and support," he said.

Mr Varadkar also vowed a "genuine willingness" to work together with all parties "on matters relating to Northern Ireland and matters outside the State".

"Our responsibility as a government is as co-guarantor of the (Good Friday) Agreement, and of course the responsibility of all parties in Northern Ireland, after two elections, is to form an administration," he said.

Mr Varadkar will meet the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein in Dublin tomorrow.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams took the opportunity to tell the Dail yesterday and he and Mr Varadkar had previously attended the same Pilates class.

"I do not know him well, though he and I once attended the same Pilates class," he revealed. "We couldn't get the former Taoiseach to stretch as far as that."

Last night the leaders of the SDLP and Alliance Party offered their congratulations to Mr Varadkar.

Colum Eastwood said: "The new Taoiseach enters into office when our country is experiencing some of its greatest challenges since the formation of the State. This is a period of fracture and change across our continent and all of us in political life face the challenge of meeting that change and bringing unity and stability in the interests of all our people."

Naomi Long said: "Northern Ireland and the Republic have a good relationship and I am confident it will continue under his stewardship.

"That is particularly important given the challenges we face in the near future - especially in relation to Brexit and the future of the power-sharing institutions."

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