Ireland just elected its youngest and first openly gay prime minister. Leo Varadkar, 38, who is also the son of an Indian immigrant and is the first Irish leader of Indian descent, was confirmed in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday.
This is a big deal for the once staunchly Catholic Republic of Ireland. At one point, it was the most socially conservative country in Europe — for example, it only decriminalized homosexual activity in 1993. But Varadkar’s election is part of a broader transformative shift that has taken place in Ireland in recent decades — Ireland actually legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the first country to do so by popular vote.
"If my election today shows anything, it is that prejudice has no hold in this Republic," said Varadkar in early June when he became the leader of Ireland’s ruling center-right party, Fine Gael, reported Reuters.
Even though the center-right party tends to be more socially conservative, many of its top members supported Varadkar because of his personality, background, and political experience.
Outgoing Prime Minister Enda Kenny — who, now age 66, was first elected to parliament before Varadkar had even been born — endorsed Varadkar, saying that he represents a younger generation. “He represents a modern, diverse and inclusive Ireland and speaks for them like no other, an Ireland in which each person can fulfill their potential and live their dreams,” said Kenny, according to the BBC.
The fact that local media in Ireland have barely mentioned Varadkar’s identity, choosing to focus on his political qualifications instead, also shows how far Ireland has come in becoming more socially liberal.
Varadkar himself has also downplayed his sexuality after coming out during a radio interview five months before Ireland voted “yes” on the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland. “It doesn’t define me,” he said at the time.
Instead, his political platform focuses on rejecting nationalism and protectionism and extolling the benefits of global free trade and “fewer borders and barriers.” He’s given speeches about moving beyond left-wing or right-wing politics toward a new, pro-European centrist approach.
In his first speech as prime minister, he reiterated this platform:
The government I lead will be one of the new European center as we seek to build a republic of opportunity. And that is a republic in which every citizen gets a fair go and has the opportunity to succeed.
Varadkar isn’t new to Ireland’s political scene, despite now being the youngest prime minister. He launched his political career when he was a teenager by joining the youth wing of Fine Gael, and was elected to parliament in 2007. After that, he worked as Fine Gael’s minister for transport, tourism, and sport, and then as health minister. Most recently, he oversaw Ireland’s welfare system.
As he moves forward as prime minister, he will face challenges including addressing Brexit, monitoring his country’s relationship with Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK), and pushing government to run effectively. But his election is still an exciting step forward for the traditionally conservative country.