DUBLIN – It was a true Irish honeymoon – short and judgmental.
The Irish did not waste any time basking in the wonder of the world, that this small country had leapt into modernity with its first openly gay and half-Indian prime minister, at 38 the youngest taoiseach in history. This, even as the United States and Britain are getting borne back into a crimped, parochial past by unpopular elders riding a wave of white-privilege nostalgia and anti-immigrant fever.
It only took three months for Leo Varadkar, a 6-foot-3 physician who is the youngest child of a Hindu Indian doctor and a Catholic Irish nurse, to be sliced down to size, which, along with hurling, is a beloved Gaelic sport.
“If we could export wing-clippers, we could solve the national debt,” Ryan Tubridy, the country’s most popular TV host, dryly told me.
The tall new Irish prime minister has run afoul of the Irish tall poppy syndrome, the need to cut down all perceived peacocking.
“I’ve got a beating in the last week or so,” says Varadkar, who has a gentle but confident presence, sitting in his office under a portrait of Michael Collins. “And that’s very much on the media. I don’t think it’s necessarily coming from the public.” But, he adds, “I don’t think they’re harder on me than they’ve been on any previous taoiseach.”
It might surprise Irish-Americans, who tend to cling to the thatched-hut, Catholic Church-dominated, fighting-and-drinking image of Eire popularized by John Ford, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in “The Quiet Man,” that the complaints have nothing to do with Varadkar’s sexuality or mixed heritage.
They’re mostly about Leo, as he’s called in Irish newspaper headlines, “swanning” around, a mortal sin here. That he has a new communications office denounced in the press as a “vanity propaganda project.” That his love of rom-coms spilled out on a visit to 10 Downing St. to see Theresa May, when he said he “was reminded of that famous scene in ‘Love Actually' where Hugh Grant does his dance down the stairs.” That he has been pictured in Lycra competing in a triathlon. That he attended the Montreal gay pride parade with his partner, Matthew Barrett, a handsome Irish cardiologist, and the terminally cute Justin Trudeau sporting tight white jeans. That he was seen eating avocado mash and crumbled feta on sourdough with a side portion of chorizo.
Varadkar might see himself in lofty terms as part of a fresh vanguard of young, attractive world leaders, along with Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron, but The Irish Times dismissively refers to them as “avocado lads.” His critics want to see substance on the homeless and housing crises, not sizzle, or the “Cult of Varadkar,” as it’s dubbed.
“I don’t care whether his partner is man, woman or vegetable,” declared George Hook, a radio host, after Varadkar’s visit to Canada.
To which Leo responded on Twitter: “George. Not swanning around Canada. 4 meetings & 4 public events today. Business. Tourism. Media. Irish community. Jobs. Trade.”
Varadkar was chosen by members of his Fine Gael center-right party, and will likely call a general election within the next 18 months.
He has the delicate tasks of leading Ireland out of the shadow of Britain, as Britain breaks from the European Union and Ireland cleaves to the EU, and trying to keep relations with Northern Ireland on an even keel as the bitter Brexit divorce grinds on. But as Ireland looks toward Europe, its young leader is also wary of cultural homogenization, making a point of going back to school to perfect his Irish language skills.
Asked how his Indian side affected his outlook, Varadkar replied, “I was always aware that there was a whole bigger world out there because as some kid growing up in Dublin in the early ‘80s, I’d have been the only person of color in my class and my dad would’ve been the only person of color on the street.”
He said his grandfather, a farmer from Waterford, was OK with an Indian son-in-law. “He went to the sister in town and asked for advice,” Varadkar recounted. “And bizarrely enough, the sister advised him that if he was a Hindu, it’d be OK and if he was a Muslim, to be very careful.” His father had to agree to learn Catholicism and bring up the kids Catholic.
Even though Donald Trump got a good chunk of the Irish-American vote, Ireland has not succumbed to the nationalist, far-right, politics of grievance sweeping many Western nations.
I wonder if Varadkar agrees that these politics are driven by a desire by some white people to keep down brown people.
“I think it’s absolutely that,” he said, calling it “racism.” “People afraid of losing their economic condition and their status.”
Will he talk to President Trump about that when he brings shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day?
While Varadkar mostly wants to explain some facts about Ireland and trade to Trump, he said that if he had a chance, he would like to get into some issues they disagree on, “whether it’s migration or climate change and rights of women, rights of people from LGBT backgrounds.” Ireland’s feminists say he needs to pay more attention to women’s rights here, and appoint many more women to his Cabinet.
Varadkar laid the groundwork for his ascension two years ago when he was the minister for health by coming out on Irish radio in an interview with Miriam O'Callaghan, surprising some family and friends. Homosexuality was decriminalized in Ireland only in 1993.
“I always thought I’d be alone,” he told O'Callaghan.
Varadkar, who has a reputation as a straight talker with a distaste for glad-handing, said he wanted to level with the Irish people so they would not think he had a hidden agenda when he supported an upcoming same-sex marriage referendum (which passed, making Ireland the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote). After coming out, the shy Varadkar had a bit of a makeover, slimming down and getting up earlier to exercise. Sitting across from me, he looks fit, wearing a dark Canali suit, beneath a sketch drawn by his partner’s brother.
I asked him if he had spent years hiding his sexuality. “Of course, yeah,” he said. “I would have kept my private life very private. Maybe didn’t have much of a private life as well. You know, a lot of people sort of turn themselves into their careers, and that’s something I definitely did, both as a doctor and a politician.”
When confronted with “those little questions that people ask, understandably, ‘Are you seeing anyone?' ‘Do you have a girlfriend?,' well, I suppose I’d be very cagey. I’d just say, ‘No,' or ‘I’m not one to answer those kind of questions.’”
But “once I’d sort of come out to myself,” he said, a cloud was lifted. “The biggest thing I say to anyone – and a lot of people would ask me for advice before they come out – is that I don’t regret it for a second. And a lot of the fears that you have are very much your own fears. And the vast majority of people don’t really care. It’s a matter of passing interest. You know, your friends and family, the people who really love you, will always support you no matter what, and those that don’t, you probably don’t need anyway.”
I ask about his mother being afraid that when he came out he would be beaten up on the street or lose his seat or get roughed up by opponents.
“Yeah, yeah, she was,” he said. “And I suppose, like most Irish moms, and I imagine American moms as well, she’d be very protective. I think, at that point, she would have preferred that I kept it to myself and kept it as something private. But I was very conscious that a referendum was coming up on marriage equality. That was really the catalyst for me. And as a government minister, you know, I couldn’t go out there advocating a change in the constitution and somehow pretend that it didn’t really affect me or that it wasn’t something that I wasn’t taking personally.
“And I do remember discussions that I would have had with other politicians, and the one that really stuck with me was another minister who was very supportive of marriage equality who talked about being generous to ‘them.’ And so it was ‘them.’ And I thought I needed to tell my colleagues that I was one of ‘them.’”
He laughs. “We’re here among you, lots of us. And secondly, the line about it being generosity. It’s actually something that we should have. So if I wasn’t willing to show leadership on this, then I was in the wrong business.”
His partner is doing medical training in Chicago. “I suppose it’s the first serious relationship I’d ever been in, and he’s somebody who’s unconditionally on my side, and I suppose your mother is that, too, but it’s very different,” he said. “Also, he’s somebody who I can confide in and somebody who can say things to me that I need to hear, if I’ve made a mistake or if I’m way out of order, and he'll say that to me. And I'll know he’s right, even if I didn’t like to hear it.
“He’s far brighter than me. When we were in Chicago, we went to a bar where they play ‘Jeopardy,' and he was pressing the buzzer before there was even time to read the questions.”
Compared with his mother, he said, “my dad was better actually, which I hadn’t expected.”
I note that his dad told Irish reporters he was “a socialist” and that he wanted to persuade his son “to look after the most vulnerable,” adding: “He shouldn’t forget about those people.”
“Ah, well, he calls himself a lot of things,” Varadkar replied with a smile, “but he’s a socialist who believes in lower taxes.”
Did the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church, once so all-powerful in Ireland, allow a more liberal attitude to develop about gay marriage? “I think the demise of the church and the various scandals that they became involved in, particularly around child abuse, did change mindsets in Ireland,” he agreed, “because people were no longer willing to accept without question the teachings of the church.” He is still, he says, “a member of the church. I only practice very occasionally. I’m not a regular practitioner, but I would go to Mass on Christmas.”
The prime minister’s progressive policy on gay marriage does not mean he’s liberal on every issue. “He is liberal enough to campaign for gay marriage but conservative enough to tackle alleged welfare cheaters, a campaign that positioned him as hard right in the eyes of many critics,” said Niall O'Dowd, the founder of Irishcentral.com, the largest Irish diaspora website.
Varadkar plans to go forward with a referendum to remove the constitutional ban on abortion. But he regards gay marriage and abortion as very different issues.
“As a doctor, I would perform pregnancy scans,” he said, “and while I don’t accept the view that the unborn child, the fetus, if you prefer that term, should have equal rights to an adult woman, to the mother, I don’t share this view that the baby in the womb, the fetus, whatever term you want to use, should have no rights at all. And there are people who take the view that human rights only begin after you’re born and that a child in the womb with a beating heart, the ability to hear, the ability to feel pain, should have no rights whatsoever. I don’t agree with that.”
In February, Varadkar became the first minister to say he “wouldn’t be keen” on Trump’s coming to Ireland. But now he says that it would be rude not to invite him, given that’s he’s going to the White House in March.
“I’m conscious that the candidate that didn’t win the presidential election got 3 million votes more,” he said, “so I don’t necessarily think that the majority of Americans agree with the president of the day.”
Varadkar said he had read “Profiles in Courage” on the beach over the summer. So I ask how he will deal with Mike Pence when he goes to the traditional St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at the vice president’s residence. I note that Pence is regarded as enemy No. 1 by the LGBT community and that while Pence was governor of Indiana, Varadkar might not have been able to get a birthday cake if the shop owner objected to his sexuality.
Would he try to talk to Pence on the subject?
“Yeah, I would,” he replied. “My experience of the very successful marriage equality referendum here was that if you want to convince people to change their minds, it’s not by shouting at them or lecturing them or attacking them personally or degrading them. That’s not how you change hearts and minds. And I certainly look forward to meeting him. I’d like to hear about his stories and his Irish connections, which he seems to be proud of, and maybe tell him a bit about my story, too.”