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Leo Varadkar poised to become Ireland's first gay premier

Ireland is on the cusp of electing its first gay premier after the ruling Fine Gael party revealed its new leader Leo Varadkar.

The 38-year-old son of an immigrant Indian doctor was widely expected to succeed outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, although his forecast coronation appeared wide of the mark.

Votes in an internal Fine Gael party contest show Mr Varadkar had the backing of the majority of elected representatives, but his rival, 44-year-old father-of-three Simon Coveney, had the hearts and minds of most of the grassroots membership.

Nonetheless, after winning the overall electoral college-style vote, Mr Varadkar is now expected to be appointed Ireland's new leader if he gains the backing of the Dail, which sits again on June 13.

Amid jubilant scenes in Dublin's Mansion House, the current social welfare minister was carried aloft by supporters to a stage where he declared the significance of his victory.

"If my election as leader of Fine Gael today has shown anything, it is that prejudice has no hold on this republic," he said to sustained applause and cheering from his centre-right party faithful.

Mr Varadkar said he accepted his win with humility and would set about making the party more democratic and more inclusive.

"When my father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed his son would grow up to become leader," he said.

"And despite his differences, his son would be treated the same and judged by his character, not his origins or identity."

He added: "Every proud parent in Ireland today can dream big dreams for their children. Every boy and girl will know there is no limit to their ambition, to their possibilities, if they are given the opportunity."

In a signal that he would try to reunite his party - which has split between the ordinary membership and the parliamentary party over the leadership race - Mr Varadkar said he hoped to gain the trust and confidence of those who did not vote for him.

Turning to the runner-up Mr Coveney, he said more united than divided them, and "I know we are going to work together to bring Fine Gael and Ireland forward".

Mr Varadkar also paid tribute to Mr Kenny for passing on a party and country "in a much better place than he found it".

Although he could be ratified as Taoiseach within weeks, questions already loom over how long Mr Varadkar can hold on to the office.

The administration is propped up by Fine Gael's ancient rivals Fianna Fail as part of a supply and confidence arrangement after an unprecedented schism in the electorate.

Mr Varadkar, a qualified doctor, only revealed he was gay months before Ireland became the first country in the world to back same-sex marriage in a referendum in May 2015.

He has been in a relationship with another medic for about two years.

Mr Kenny announced last month he was stepping down after 15 years leading Fine Gael.

He had been under sustained pressure within his own ranks to allow a successor to be elected so the party is prepared for the next general election.

In a series of messages on Twitter Mr Kenny sent both men good wishes and said they had energised the party.

"I remember this day almost 15 years ago & the sense of excitement & possibility," he said.

"I pledge my full support to whoever is elected, in the important work at Govt level, to which the new leader will have to dedicate ... their life in service of the people of this great Republic. My enduring belief in the potential of this country is boundless."

Elected Fine Gael politicians and ordinary members had been voting throughout the week for their new party leader.

The ballot is decided in an electoral college system that gives the parliamentary party, made up of 73 TDs, senators and MEPs, 65% of the vote.

Several thousand rank-and-file members of the party have 25% and 235 local representatives 10%.

Among Mr Kenny's final official overseas engagements will be a two-day trade mission to Chicago next week and the centenary commemoration of the start of the Battle of Messines in the First World War where soldiers from all over Ireland fought together.

Mr Kenny, who did not turn up to the count, offered his "heartiest congratulations" to Mr Varadkar in statement.

"This is a tremendous honour for him and I know he will devote his life to improving the lives of people across our country," he said.

Mr Kenny said he would provide a "brief but appropriate period" for Mr Varadkar to engage with other parties and groupings about leading the country.

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