JUST for a minute, Leo the Unflappable let down the guard which he had so carefully kept in place throughout the last two and half tumultuous, hectic weeks under the white-hot scrutiny of party members and the media. He had stuff to say which he had left unsaid throughout the contest, things he felt deeply about, writes Lise Hand.
The new leader of Fine Gael was a bit tentative at the beginning of his acceptance speech in a stiflingly hot Round Room of the Mansion House. His team had been reasonably confident since the gung-ho beginning of the campaign that their immaculately-prepared man would prevail. But then again, so many recent elections and referendums in other jurisdictions have thrown up shock results. And his opponent Simon Coveney had proven to be more resilient and feistier than anyone had expected.
Leo looked out over the melee of party grassroots, party colleagues, friends and supporters, many of whom were cheering and waving signs bearing his name. It was unlikely he could’ve spotted the couple standing quietly to the back of the crowd. “I think if my election as leader of Fine Gael today shows anything it is that prejudice has no hold in this Republic,” he said.
The cheering grew louder. “My father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever thought his son would one day grow up to become its leader. Despite the differences, his son would be treated the same and judged by his actions and character and not his origins or identity,” he said, and briefly there was a glimpse of just how much this victory meant to him on a personal level.
The political rise of Leo Varadkar had piqued the interest of media outside Ireland, and the headlines had inevitably contained the words ‘gay’ and ‘ethnic’ alongside his name. Not so in Ireland. These personal details didn’t take centre stage. They weren’t even lurking in the wings of the national consciousness.
Leo and his family weren’t the only citizens who have taken a long journey. The country has travelled a hell of a long way too, 20 years after homosexuality was decriminalised, and two years since the joyous passing of the marriage equality referendum.
Down among the crowd, the pride was only pouring out his mum and dad; his father Ashok is Mumbai-born, and his mother Miriam is from Dungarvan.
By the end of his speech, Miriam was wiping tears from her eyes. “I never thought this day would ever happen,” she said. Beside her, Ashok was sporting a mile-wide smile. “He’s a proud son of India,” he declared. They described how even as a little boy he had taken an interest in politics, following American politics in particular with his dad.
They had both kept a deliberately low profile during the campaign, despite intense interest from Indian media. “They wanted interviews and to get some childhood photos, but we decided to keep out of the spotlight,” said Miriam.
But their son is firmly in the spotlight now.
Simon fought a good fight, and first blood at the count went to him, taking 65% of the grassroots votes, a clear message that the Housing Minister’s policies resonated with the local members, and also that they were displeased with the set-up of the voting system which almost deprived them of a contest at all, such was the blistering blitz by Leo at the start.
The councillors’ vote was close, but not close enough for Simon, who entered the hall even as his slim last-gasp chance was ebbing away, However a cheer went up from Camp Varadkar as soon as the final vote from the parliamentary party was counted. Leo had swept the board, 51 votes to 22. He even picked up an extra vote, alongside the undecideds. “I know who it is!” announced a jubilant Paul Kehoe as he hurtled into the crowd.
A rolling maul broke out as Leo swept into the room, surrounded by supporters and cameras. He and Simon paused, shook hands for the cameras. But off-camera, a few of the vanquished parliamentary crew looked apprehensive. For all the show of post-contest unity, some might fall foul of Varadkar the Vengeful when it comes to handing out jobs.
And there will be divisions for Leo to heal. Two downcast Cork women watched Simon gamely shake hands with the winner. “He’s too much of a gentleman, that’s his problem,” concluded one.
But it was straight down to business with the new leader taking questions from the media. “It’s still a bit surreal, still a bit sinking in, I thought I might go to bed tonight and wake up as Transport, Tourism and Sport Minister and find that the last two years didn’t happen,” he joked.
However, Leo was ready for this moment. He’s been ready a long time, this ambitious politician with what he dubbed his “unlikely story”. A Japanese journalist stood to ask a question.
“Arigato, konnichi wa,” said Leo. Thank you and hello. He had spoken earlier of how “every proud parent in Ireland today can dream big dreams for their children”.
Many of those proud parents fight all sorts of inequalities — economic and social — every day. And they’ll be looking to what the new Taoiseach does next.
But last night was the time to think of long journeys, and some special milestones which have been reached along the way.
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