Belfast Telegraph

Leo Varadkar to be Republic of Ireland’s next Taoiseach

'Prejudice has no hold on this republic' says Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar is set to become the Republic of Ireland’s next Taoiseach after being elected as the new leader of Fine Gael.

The 38-year-old son of an immigrant 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 between Mr Varadkar and 44-year-old father of three Simon Coveney showed his rival fared better than expected.

However, Mr Varadkar is now expected to be appointed as the Republic's new leader if he gains the backing of the Dail, the Irish parliament, 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".

Enda Kenny congratulated Mr Varadkar.

He said: "I want to extend my heartiest congratulations to Leo Varadkar on his election as Leader of the Fine Gael party. 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 will have my full support in the work that lies ahead.

"I want to also thank and pay tribute to Simon Coveney for making the Leadership Election a real contest. This has been a wonderful exercise in democracy for the Fine Gael party. Fine Gael supporters all over the country really enjoyed the experience of participating in the election of a new leader, in a new way.

"As I said when I stepped down as party leader, I will now provide a brief but appropriate period for Leo Varadkar to engage with groups and members supportive of Government, and with other Parties in the Dáil, regarding provision of Government for the future. 

"The most important priority has to be the continued progress of our country led by Fine Gael in Government. I know that Leo has the capacity to provide the leadership required in order to achieve this."

Who is Leo Varadkar?

Leo Varadkar has never been shy about his ambitions.

As a precocious seven-year-old he declared his lofty intention to be Minister for Health one day.

That achievement came when he was just 35 and with his progression through the cabinet ranks he steadily began to cement himself as the clear favourite to succeed Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael and as next Taoiseach.

Mr Varadkar is Ireland's first openly gay cabinet minister and the son of an immigrant doctor from India.

Some in his inner circle suggest he has been working on his challenge for the last six years, methodically building relations with parliamentary colleagues while relentlessly maintaining his career trajectory.

He is only 38.

And it is a combination of his youth, background and straight-talking that the party faithful think will be a major selling point in elections if his face is emblazoned on posters up and down the country.

Mr Varadkar is a Trinity College qualified doctor and he has been in a relationship with another medic for about two years.

While his centre-right politics are clearly conservative, he portrays the image of a new, progressive Ireland, symbolised best in May 2015 when the Republic voted overwhelmingly in favour of gay marriage.

It came just a few months after Mr Varadkar himself revealed in a radio interview that he was gay.

When the result of the referendum was known, the then health minister declared: "To me this had the feeling of a social movement or a social revolution."

In his relatively short time in the upper echelons of Irish politics Mr Varadkar has set himself apart with a straight-talking attitude.

As transport minister he broke ranks to praise two garda whistle-blowers as distinguished - a remark in stark contrast to former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan's description of their actions as "disgusting".

But it is this same shoot from the hip attitude that creates enemies and something that could cost him.

In 2007, not long after he won a seat in national politics for the first time, he lashed out at Bertie Ahern while he was mired in controversy over his financial affairs.

Mr Varadkar took a swipe at the beleaguered taoiseach of the day claiming the gutter was his "natural habitat".

In the contest for the Fine Gael leadership Mr Varadkar declared himself as the candidate for "people who get up early in the morning".

And while his public remarks are said to be drilled and scripted to the last iota, that is the kind of statement that could dramatically backfire in a general election.

One of his drawbacks is that he is seen as being to much of a Dublin man. 

Joe McHugh, a ministerial colleague who has been firmly in the Varadkar camp, brought him to the heart of his Donegal constituency in the days before the campaign proper began and spoke in glowing terms about his intellect, communication skills and willingness to learn.

"He has a craving to try and understand things," he said.

"No-one is going to know everything. And there is a humility there. He will accept that if he's successful. 

"He will have that awareness, that emotional intelligence as some people call it, to know that he still has a lot to learn."

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