Ireland's New Prime Minister Assumes Office

As prime minister, Varadkar will be tasked with advancing social issues like abortion and navigating tensions in the EU.

Leo Varadkar is congratulated by colleagues after being elected by parliamentary vote on June 14, 2017.
Leo Varadkar is congratulated by colleagues after being elected by parliamentary vote on June 14, 2017. (Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters)

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister and the EU’s youngest national leader, was formally instated on Wednesday, less than two weeks after his election on June 2. Varadkar’s predecessor, Enda Kenny, announced his resignation in May after a 15-year reign as party leader. Both Kenny and Varadkar are members of Fine Gael, a center-right party founded in 1933. Kenny previously nominated Varadkar—who went on to secure 60 percent of the vote—as his replacement.

“As the country’s youngest holder of this office, [Varadkar] speaks for a new generation of Irish women and Irish men,” Kenny said Wednesday, adding that Varadkar “represents a modern, diverse, and inclusive Ireland … an Ireland in which each person can fulfill their potential and live their dreams.” Varadkar’s own speech on Wednesday seemed to echo this sentiment. “The government that I lead will not be one of left or right,” he said. “The government that I lead will be one of the new European center as we seek to build a republic of opportunity …  in which every citizen gets a fair go and in which every part of the country stands to share in our prosperity.”

Despite Kenny and Varadkar’s bumpy political relationship, their admiration is mutual. At his confirmation ceremony in Dublin on Wednesday, Varadkar thanked Kenny for calling a 2015 referendum on marriage equality, prompting Ireland to become the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. “Enda Kenny’s leadership enabled me to become an equal citizen in my own country two short years ago and to aspire to hold this office—an aspiration I once thought was beyond my reach, at least if I chose to be myself,” Varadkar said. Less than two decades ago, homosexuality in Ireland was considered illegal.

Despite his ten years in parliament, Varadkar did not reveal his sexuality until a 2015 interview with Ireland’s national RTÉ Radio. “It’s not something that defines me,” Varadkar said at the time. “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician, or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am.” In addition to being Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister, Varadkar is also the nation’s first prime minister of an ethnic-minority background (his father is Indian and his mother is Irish).

In the wake of his election, Varadkar seems intent on expanding the social progressivism of his predecessor. While addressing parliament on Wednesday, he said that Ireland would hold a referendum next year over the nation’s abortion laws, which the UN human rights committee has recently called “cruel and inhumane.” Ireland’s eighth amendment currently gives citizenship rights to unborn children, effectively banning abortion throughout the country.

As prime minister, Varadkar will also be tasked with easing tensions ahead of Brexit negotiations. As the only EU country to share a land border with the U.K., Ireland’s economy and trade negotiations will likely be affected by the U.K.’s departure. Varadkar has previously called for Northern Ireland, a British province, to remain in the EU’s single market and maintain access to EU programs even after the U.K.’s formal leave.

On Monday, Varadkar also said he would “emphasize” the U.K.’s proposed deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party in his future communications with Prime Minister Theresa May. May is currently weighing the idea of asking the DUP for support in hopes of retaining her position, but experts warn that such a deal could disrupt peace in Northern Ireland. Varadkar’s speech on Wednesday focused less on this political turbulence and more on the recent string of “terrible tragedies” in the U.K. According to The Guardian, one of Varadkar’s first calls to a foreign leader is expected to be a conversation with May, where he will express his condolences for Wednesday’s Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 12 people.

Above all else, Varadkar’s address to parliament conveyed a sense of appreciation for the responsibility he had been given. Quoting the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s “The Republic of Conscience,” Varadkar said: “At their inauguration, public leaders must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep to atone for their presumption to hold office.” His approach to the position, he said, would be one of “profound humility and respect for what has gone before.”