Irish Face Up to Brexit Talks With ‘Rock Star’ Prime Minister

  • Openly gay, immigrant’s son Varadkar set to become leader
  • Varadkar may take more agressive line on Brexit negotiations

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Leo Varadkar visited Galway last year, spending a day-and-a-half checking out state-sponsored jobs programs in the west of Ireland before heading to Eyre Square for a late-night snack.

The 38-year-old social protection minister, who was confirmed on Wednesday as Ireland’s youngest-ever prime minister, was quickly mobbed by revelers enjoying hamburgers, recalls Peter Feeney, a local councilor accompanying Varadkar on his trip.

Leo Varadkar

Photographer: Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images

“He was like a rock star. He stood there, no problem, taking selfies for as long as it took,” said Feeney. “He has that X-factor.”

The rise of the openly-gay, Indian immigrant’s son chimes with the emergence of a more youthful generation of leaders ranging from Justin Trudeau in Canada to President Emmanuel Macron in France. Even so, his appeal lies in his ability to combine bolder positions than his rivals with a reputation for plain speaking. Varadkar, who admits he “has been known to talk too much,” has already started to sketch out a new approach to Brexit, the biggest foreign policy challenge facing Ireland in 50 years.

Last week, Varadkar said Theresa May’s poor performance in the U.K. election represents a potential opportunity for Ireland to win a better deal on Brexit, a break from the assiduously diplomatic and even-handed approach his predecessor Enda Kenny took.

During his campaign to succeed Kenny, Varadkar advocated “special arrangements” for Northern Ireland during the Brexit process, allowing the region to remain in the single market after the rest of the U.K. exits. That clashes with the position of Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who has argued against any special status for the province.

Foster, currently putting the finishing touches to a deal to keep May in power in London, is set to meet Varadkar in Dublin as soon as Friday.

‘Boom Boom’

Varadkar’s words have occasionally been used against him. In the run up to the 2011 general election, Varadkar said a new government wouldn’t give Irish banks “another cent” unless losses were widely imposed on investors. In the end, the state spent another 25 billion euros($28 billion) bailing out the financial system, with most bond holders escaping any losses.

A doctor in a profession that in Ireland tends to be dominated by teachers like Kenny, Varadkar is also very different from what’s gone before. While Kenny was once spotted playing air guitar at a Bruce Springsteen concert, his successor is more likely to be at a dance festival rocking out to dance tunes like the Vengaboys hit “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.”

In 2015, the then health minister came out as the first openly gay cabinet member in a Catholic country that until the 1990s banned homosexuality. When Varadkar told Kenny that he’d be making the announcement, the prime minister said it was none of his business before inquiring if Varadkar had ever been to the Pantibar, one of Dublin’s best-known gay bars, where the premier had earlier attended a function.

“I said ‘no I haven’t,”’ Varadkar said. “He said, ‘there you go Varadkar, I’m ahead of you already.”’

Fractious Ties

At times his relationship with Kenny was fractious. First elected to parliament in 2007, he was a key member of a failed heave to oust Kenny in 2010. Yet when Fine Gael formed a ruling coalition with the Labour Party in 2011, Kenny appointed him transport minister. Varadkar later took over the health and social protection portfolios, backing Kenny’s economic and pro-business policies.

Despite being a member of parliament for a decade, his policy positions are unclear, critics say.

“Varadkar’s views on the challenge of building a lasting peace, prosperity and unity on this island are largely unknown,” said Micheal Martin, leader of Fianna Fail, the largest opposition party. “The same is true about the development and reform of the European Union, industrial policy, education policy and even the future of health services.”

Still, Michael O’Leary, chief executive officer of Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest discount carrier, endorsed Varadkar during the campaign to succeed Kenny, crediting him with helping slash travel tax.

“I don’t expect major shifts over the coming years,” said Dermot O’Leary, an economist at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin. “His pro-European stance will gain him kudos at a European level, important in the context of the Brexit negotiations to come.”

Soft Brexit

Varadkar may already have caught a break with Theresa May set to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power, a development which may make a hard Brexit less likely even as gaps remain between him and Arlene Foster on how’s that achieved.

Still, his first real test as prime minister will come when talks on the U.K.’s departure start in earnest.

“It will be a baptism of fire. Sometimes he can be a bit off-the-cuff, a bit too quick to make a statement and that can get him into trouble. He might need to hold his counsel a bit,” said Feeney. “But he speaks well, he’s a quick learner and hopefully, when it comes to the talks, he’ll be pushing an open door. ”

— With assistance by Peter Flanagan

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