Updated: 7:18 p.m. EDT
Leo Varadkar, a gay lawmaker, was elected the leader of Ireland’s ruling Fine Gael party on Friday, making him the country’s prime minister-elect, set to take power after the Irish parliament reconvenes in 10 days.
Varadkar, a doctor who served as health minister, came out about his sexuality during a live radio interview in 2015. Born in 1979 to an Indian doctor from Mumbai and an Irish Catholic nurse from County Waterford, he will also become Ireland’s youngest-ever taoiseach — the Irish word for “leader” — and the first son of an immigrant to lead the nation.
While Varadkar is a member of a center-right party, his election seems to confirm a rapid shift in Irish society away from social conservatism and narrowly defined nationalism.
After he made his sexuality public, Varadkar campaigned in favor of a ballot initiative that legalized gay marriage the same year. When that referendum passed by an overwhelmingly majority, the final total — 62 percent in favor and 38 percent opposed — alerted the world that Ireland had changed dramatically.
Varadkar has been criticized, however, for not moving quickly enough to repeal Ireland’s ban on abortion, which was reinforced in 1983, when 67 percent of the country voted for the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s constitution, adding language that made “the right to life of the unborn” equal to the “right to life of the mother.”
He told The Irish Times last year that he disagreed with that amendment, but supported keeping right to life language in the Constitution. “What we have at the moment,” he said, “is this kind of absolute right to life where the unborn’s life is equal to that of a pregnant mother, I don’t agree with that. I think that is too restrictive.” He suggested that a broader definition of threats to the health of a mother should be considered.
Activists, including Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty Ireland, began pushing Varadkar on the issue immediately after victory.
As the Irish journalist Naomi O’Leary noted, in Ireland, the response to Varadkar’s imminent leadership of the country was far less about his sexuality or background than his conservative politics, which horrify many on the left.
It is frankly pretty cool that Ireland is heading towards having a gay, half-Indian taoiseach, and all anyone is discussing are his policies— Naomi O'Leary (@NaomiOhReally) May 20, 2017
True to the campaign Leo Varadkar's being gay and having an Indian dad is only news internationally, in Ireland he's just a politician.— Naomi O'Leary (@NaomiOhReally) June 2, 2017
The Irish Times, which did not mention his sexuality in its own headline on Varadkar’s election, even ran a sidebar remarking on the fact that newspapers outside the country did: “Varadkar set to be ‘first openly gay Irish PM’, say world headlines.”
Ireland’s state broadcaster, RTE, which did not use the word “gay” in the main news report on its website, reported that Varadkar committed to holding a referendum on abortion next year in remarks to reporters after his victory.
He also told an RTE journalist that his top policy priority would be dealing with the implications of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
“In terms of the priorities in the next couple of months, obviously first among those has to be Brexit and Northern Ireland,” Varadkar said, referring to the thorny question of how the island of Ireland will once again be divided, along a now invisible border, once the British-ruled north leaves the E.U.