ALISON O'CONNOR: Leo Varadkar is young to be Taoiseach, but old enough to know himself

In the packed Mansion House Roundroom last Friday, a couple of Leo Varadkar supporters did just what you’d expect when an election has been won — they lifted their man high into the air.

It’s not that the new leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach-in-waiting grimaced, but it was just too easy to imagine his internal disquiet at being given the political equivalent of the birthday bumps. That was too much tactility and spontanteity.

Varadkar’s not, by traditional criteria, a natural politician, and yet he has won the highest political mantle in the land. The glad-handling, pint-buying, and flesh-pressing, which would mark out what Irish people recognise as a political animal, are not Varadkar’s forte. Sure, he’s been working on these things, on his own personal and political journey, to use the modern parlance, but they don’t come naturally.

I heard of someone meeting Varadkar at a function. To break the ice, the person said they were from near where some of Varadkar’s down-the-country relatives live. Now, this would be grasped as a golden opportunity for a typical Irish politician to break into a “seed, breed and generation” type of discussion. But the response from Leo? Dead air.

Last week, at the tender age of 38, he achieved his ambition after a really well-executed campaign. That is young for political leadership, but, as far as life goes, you’ve usually got a fairly good handle on yourself at that point; you’ve worked out who you are, what you stand for, and what your attitudes are to certain things.

But not so Leo Varadkar and that is the kernel of what is fascinating about him. He remains a work in progress. As he said himself, at his first Q&A with journalists, last Friday night, he is “evolving”.

This comment was in response to a question (from me) asking how he felt about senior colleagues saying, during the leadership campaign, that he had changed a lot in the last two to three years. Many of them had commented: “He’s matured”.

It’s interesting to think of senior cabinet members handing the top job to a colleague they believe had only recently matured.

The obvious question is whether there might be more maturing to be done, on the job, as it were, and how this could affect attitudes to policy, or indeed relationships within government.

On Varadkar’s website, it says: “Is Mise Leo”, a nod to another change, his newfound ability to speak Irish, after taking classes. But despite having worked with him for a number of year’s, his colleagues don’t really know which Leo they have signed on for.

This is a concern/curiosity they have chosen to overlook, in opting for Leo’s X factor and his ability to communicate so effectively with the public.

He may have to practice the back-slapping, but when it comes to an ability to directly talk to the voters, his political skills are virtually incomparable.

That the Leo project continues to evolve is hardly a surprise. After all, it is just over two years since he said publicly that he was gay, and he played a big role in the same-sex marriage referendum. Just seven years ago, Varadkar gave an interview to Hot Press in which he made it clear he was not in favour of gay marriage, and, possibly, reading the comments, not assisted reproduction, either.

“Marriage in our Constitution is very clear that it’s a man marrying a woman, largely with a view to having a natural family, and if they are unable to do that, obviously then they can adopt.

“And I would be of the view that it doesn’t have to be the case for everyone, but that the preferable construct in a society is the traditional family, and the State, through its laws, should protect that and promote that,” said Varadkar.

In recent weeks, Varadkar indicated that he would be in favour of abortion, in instances of fatal foetal abnormalities and rape. But in another interview, in 2010, he said he was against a woman being allowed to terminate a pregnancy in a case of rape.

The conservative TD and medical doctor, as he was described at that time, in a report in this newspaper, went on to give a really good example of why his colleagues would have considered him immature.

Elaborating on the abortion question and the thousands of Irishwomen who travel to the UK for terminations each year, he resorted to the offensive flippancy that used to be one of his hallmarks. He essentially compared abortion to gambling and prostitution. It was rather a wow moment.

“People travel overseas to do things overseas that aren’t legal in Ireland all the time,” he said. “You know, are we going to stop people going to Las Vegas? Are we going to stop people going to Amsterdam? There are things that are illegal in Ireland and we don’t prevent people from travelling overseas to avail of them.”

It’s worth a final, further delve into that interview to remember how he said that, as then Fine Gael frontbench spokesman on enterprise, he “went easier” on tánaiste and enterprise minister Mary Coughlan in the Dáil, “because she is a woman”. This was in an effort to dismiss claims that he had been sexist towards her.

These handful of examples show the personal and professional journey that the new Fine Gael leader has been on. It is a pity we live in a society in which he felt he had to make an announcement on radio about his sexuality, but it did push him further along a particular road, freed him, changed him, made him more comfortable in his own skin, confident in going after what he wanted.

Speaking of which, we haven’t imagined seeing him looking fitter of late, either — he has lost 25kg — so the change has not just been internal.

It’s always interesting to observe a new leader of the country, but it is impossible to say how anyone, despite their record, longevity, or even their consistency, will perform in that role.

But in the case of Leo Varadkar, it feels like it might be more interesting than most.

The obvious question is whether there might be more maturing to be done, on the job


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