“Prejudice has no hold in this Republic”, Fine Gael’s new leader Leo Varadkar has said after sweeping to an historic election victory.
The new Fine Gael leader — the son of an Indian immigrant — is set to become Ireland’s first openly gay Taoiseach despite failing to win the majority of grassroots members, a situation which risks undermining his new leadership.
After a 16-day campaign during which Mr Varadkar was always the front-runner, the Dublin West TD won an overall 60%-40% victory over leadership rival Simon Coveney.
Mr Varadkar gained 70% of the parliamentary party vote; however, he lost the grassroots vote with 65.1% going to Mr Coveney.
In a succession speech littered with imagery at Dublin’s Mansion House shortly before 7pm, Mr Varadkar said his victory shows “prejudice has no hold in this country”.
Citing his family’s background, Mr Varadkar said his father would never have “dreamed” his son would become leader of Ireland when he was a new immigrant decades ago.
“Prejudice has no hold in this Republic,” he said. “Around the world people look to Ireland as a country where it doesn’t matter where you come from but where you want to go.
“I know when my father travelled 5,000 miles to make his home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed that his son would one day grow up to be its leader.
“That despite his differences, his son would be treated the same and judged by his actions and character not his origins or identity,” he said.
Mr Varadkar — whose victory was hailed by outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, British prime minister Theresa May, and DUP leader Arlene Foster — also reached out to leadership rival Simon Coveney. After the result was announced Mr Coveney raised Mr Varadkar’s arm aloft in victory, and both candidates stressed Fine Gael is “united”.
However, despite the remark and the insistence by Mr Coveney he will support his rival’s leadership fully, Mr Varadkar’s incoming reign as Taoiseach — which will begin on June 13 — came without grassroots support.
While Mr Varadkar eased to victory among the parliamentary party — taking home 51 of the 73 TD, senator and MEP votes in a landslide among the political elite — he was widely rejected by grassroots members, whose votes were not as strongly weighted.
Speaking to reporters in his first press conference as Fine Gael leader last night, Mr Varadkar denied a split has occurred and that he will win over those who do not currently believe he should be in power.
“I don’t think it’s a split, there is a difference of opinion between the elected members and the ordinary members,” he said. “We are not going to get absorbed with internal issues when we have so many challenges ahead.”
The attention of Mr Varadkar will now turn to the practicalities of power, with the Taoiseach-in-waiting questioned on a series of issues he will now be forced to address as leader during the same press conference.
While saying it would be “inappropriate when you are in the middle of a waltz or tango to be looking over that person’s shoulder to see if anyone else is lining up against the walls”, he said he could not “honestly” rule out coalition with Fianna Fáil in the future.
Mr Varadkar will speak with Mr Coveney today to address disagreements during the campaign, before meeting Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin early next week.
His election win was last night welcomed by outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Independent Alliance.
In statements seconds after the announcement — highlighting the stark reality of being in power — Fianna Fáil warned the new leader to address the health and housing crises, and while Labour called on him to tackle the garda crisis, while Sinn Féin told him to call an election immediately.
Votes in numbers
Incoming Taoiseach Leo Varadkar officially won the race to replace Enda Kenny by an overall 60% to 40% despite a clear split between how politicians and ordinary grassroots members voted.
Under the Fine Gael leadership election rules, the parliamentary party — consisting of TDs, senators, and MEPs — accounted for 65% of the vote; councils 10%; and ordinary members 25%, with the figures adding up to the overall victory for Mr Varadkar.
However, when the three sections are examined, a slightly different story emerges.
In last night’s vote results, Mr Varadkar won the parliamentary party vote by a 70%-30% split.
This is based on the fact Mr Varadkar won support from 51 of the 73 TDs, senators and MEPs compared to Mr Coveney’s 22, indicating the vast majority of the six undeclared parliamentary party members backed Mr Varadkar and that Mr Coveney failed to steal back votes.
Among the 223 county and city councils electoral section, both candidates were near equal, with a 55%-45% split in favour of Mr Varadkar coming from the 123 to 100 vote in his favour.
However, among the 10,823 grassroots Fine Gael members who voted in the leadership contest, the tide was clearly in favour of Mr Coveney, with a 65.1%-34.9% split in his favour based on 7,051 votes for Mr Coveney and 3,772 votes for Mr Varadkar.
The vote breakdown — which had been widely predicted in the latter stages of the campaign — means that Fine Gael is effectively split between the views of its grassroots and those of its most senior politicians.
While both Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney stressed the party is united in their respective speeches last night, the division between two key sections of the party is likely to be raised when members are asked to choose constituency candidates in the next general election.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved