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Thursday, 8 June 2017

The PM-in-waiting: On Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s new leader (The Hindu - 8 June 2017)

     Ireland’s new leader Leo Varadkar will have to oversee issues of Brexit and social reform

    Leo Varadkar, the son of an Indian immigrant, is set to be Ireland’s Prime Minister after he won an internal contest to lead the centre-right Fine Gael, the senior coalition partner in the Republic’s minority government. The outspoken Mr. Varadkar, the incumbent Social Protection Minister, is to take over the reins of the party and country from Enda Kenny, who is stepping down after heading the party for 15 years and the country for six. Mr. Varadkar will be Ireland’s first-ever openly gay Prime Minister with minority and immigrant roots. He is just 38 years old, and thus in a club of young world leaders with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau. While it is indeed remarkable that a person of Mr. Varadkar’s background has been elected to lead Ireland, what is even more striking is that during the ruling party’s elections voters focussed not on his background but on his policies. This speaks volumes for how far the country has come on its social attitudes. Ireland is deeply religious. Catholicism, the state religion, has a far-reaching influence on many aspects of Irish life, including birth, death and marriage. Abortions, except to save the mother’s life, are illegal; divorce, legalised in the 1990s, requires a four-year separation; and gay marriage was legalised just recently.

     As Prime Minister, Mr. Kenny steered Ireland out of the financial collapse of 2008-2010 and campaigned, successfully, for the European Union (EU) to recognise Ireland’s unique position during the forthcoming Brexit negotiations between Brussels and London. The Republic of Ireland is contiguous with Northern Ireland, and therefore the only EU country that shares a land border with the U.K. Mr. Kenny leaves office having convinced the EU to address the fallout for Ireland during Brexit negotiations. He also leaves Mr. Varadkar a vastly improved economy, with an unemployment rate close to 7%, about half of what it was in 2012. Mr. Varadkar will now have to build on his predecessor’s success and address his failures, including a severe housing shortage and a police service that has demonstrated an ability to collude with other public agencies to punish whistle-blowers and cover up corruption. As regards Brexit, Mr. Varadkar will have to ensure that the Common Travel Area, a mechanism by which British and Irish citizens can live and work in the two countries, is maintained, and that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is not reinstated. He will also have to manage the economic impact of Brexit on trade and jobs in the event that the negotiations diminish Britain’s access to the European single market. Finally, as Prime Minister, he will be expected to shepherd further reforms in laws relating to divorce and abortion if he wishes to further align the Republic’s values with those of the EU and other liberal democracies.

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