On June 14, when Ireland’s ruling conservative Fine Gael Party chose Leo Varadkar as the youngest taoiseach (prime minister) in the history of the state—also the first to have a South Asian immigrant parent and to be openly gay—the new leader joked that he attends the same Pilates class as Gerry Adams, current member of the Dáil (Parliament) and former guerrilla strategist and political prisoner in the Northern Irish civil war.
Varadkar described his workout colleague as more gifted at Pilates than he, and ascribed that fact to Adams’s “greater experience of being in a tight squeeze.” This is certainly true: While the hardscrabble Adams was negotiating the end of three decades of British army tanks in Belfast neighborhoods, the elegant Varadkar, a 38-year-old Dublin doctor’s son and an MD himself, was enjoying the kind of upbringing in which his intelligence and self-discipline could flourish in expensive private schools before he launched his double-track career of medicine and politics during the cash-rich years of the Celtic Tiger.
Before his latest triumph, Varadkar had served a decade in the Dáil, where he was named to three ministerial positions with portfolios in health and social protection as well as transport, tourism, and sport. “Without opportunity,” declared the newly minted head of government, “there is no hope and there can be no progress.” He humbly quoted poet Seamus Heaney’s advice that “public leaders must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep to atone for their presumption to hold office.”
Over his 10-year career in politics, the closest Varadkar has come to weeping atonement is a skill at looking sincerely moved when confronted with the facts about traumatized fellow citizens, particularly those made homeless or jobless by the consequences of Ireland’s 2008 economic cataclysm. As with Bill Clinton’s 1992 “I feel your pain” arias, Varadkar can deploy both empathic words and dog whistles, nimbly shifting from his compassion-face to declarations that he supports people “who get up in the morning” rather than those he claims live in an ”entitlement culture.”
Varadkar’s inaugural speech also announced that “the government I lead will be one of the new European center.” Here the word “European” deftly underscores the Irish nation’s secure membership in the European Union, that entity that former US senator and special envoy for Northern Ireland George Mitchell once called “the most successful peace process in history.” The word “center” might evoke a sense of equilibrium for a country spooked by Trumpist upheaval to its west and Brexit chaos to its east. Varadkar clearly intended to engender thoughts of middle-steering, straight-talking boy wonders like France’s Emmanuel Macron and himself as representing, by their lithe and lively presences, a course correction away from both the groggy lifers of Western Europe’s political establishments and the authoritarian nationalists in power farther east.
In fact, Ireland can assign much of the blame for its present financial trauma to those Eurocrats who, led by Angela Merkel, insisted on a grim reckoning after Ireland’s 2008 banking crisis, in which the average Irish family lost half its financial assets and unemployment rose faster than in any other European country. Instead of providing debt relief, the technocrats of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund imposed years of austerity budgets, which have left Ireland with a massive loss of affordable housing units, gutted health-care budgets, and imposed credit payments that eat up 18 percent of the country’s tax revenues.
Varadkar’s Fine Gael party offers barely more than a continuation of this corporal punishment of the body politic: little in the way of practical solution for the housing crisis, and no changes in the disturbingly low corporate tax rates. And for someone who’s a doctor and a former health minister, Varadkar betrays a dumbfounding lack of engagement with the minute particulars of the country’s crisis in medical coverage and hospital services. Journalist Fintan O’Toole describes Varadkar’s “tendency to talk about political issues, even ones within his own remit, as if he were commenting from the outside on abstract propositions.”
Though he’s long played the affable lad who credits rugged-individual goal-setting as the key to his success, Varadkar’s inaugural speech acknowledged the crucial job one’s fellow citizens do in creating opportunity. Two years earlier, a grassroots movement provoked a referendum that made Ireland the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage. Without that momentous event, he said, he could only have considered the office of taoiseach as “beyond my reach—at least if I chose to be myself.” Varadkar’s new government should march boldly away from Fine Gael’s fainthearted tweaks to the status quo, and toward the audacity of that people’s movement that so radically altered his own sense of the possible.