By Debbie Saunders
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was sworn into office on Wednesday, becoming the first openly gay person to lead the largely Catholic country, as well as the youngest and the first of Indian descent.
Varadkar, 38, takes the reins of the governing Fine Gael party, succeeding Enda Kenny, who helped usher in marriage equality in Ireland in 2015. “Enda Kenny’s leadership enabled me to become an equal citizen in my own country two short years ago,” said Varadker, “and to aspire to hold this office, an aspiration I once thought was beyond my reach, at least if I chose to be myself.”
He is the fourth openly gay head of government in modern European history, following Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurdardottir, Belgium’s Elio Di Rupo, and Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel.
“What it does mean is that gay and lesbian people are now seen as incredibly ordinary,” said Andrew Hyland, director of Ireland’s marriage equality campaign. “As far as I can see, it hasn’t been an issue at all in the leadership contest.”
The former health minister is described as fiscally conservative, looking to strengthen Ireland’s ties to the EU even as the UK prepares for Brexit. He’s pledged to invest more in infrastructure and scale back plans for debt reduction put forth by Kenny.
It remains to be seen if his partner, doctor Matthew Barrett, will serve a public role. While Ireland has an increasingly diverse population and Europe’s fastest-growing economy, it’s still emerging from a conservative mindset: Homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993, and divorce two years later. (Abortion is still illegal in the country of 4.6 million.)
“The government I lead will not be one of left or right,” assured Varadkar. “The government I lead will be one of the new European center as we seek to build a Republic of opportunity, that is a Republic in which every citizen gets a fair go and in which every part of the country stands to share in our prosperity.”
In 2015, Varadkar said his sexuality, like his ethnicity, “is not something that defines me.”