"Varadkar" is certainly not an Irish name, but a man who carries that surname could potentially become Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland one day. Leo Varadkar, the son of an Indian doctor from Mumbai and an Irish nurse (who met while working together in a hospital in Slough, England), currently serves as the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in the government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny of the center-right Fine Gael party. Only 34 years old, Varadakar is himself a trained physician (educated at King's Hospital School, Palmerstown and Trinity College- Dublin) and has represented the Dublin-West constituency in parliament since 2007.
Despite his sterling background and qualifications – indeed, he might even be considered the “Bobby Jindal of Ireland” -- Varadkar's relatively short political career has already been marked by a number of controversies. For example, he was once accused of racism when he suggested that jobless immigrants in Ireland (apparently, black Africans) should receive compensation from the government in order to return home. In September 2008, while serving as Fine Gael’s spokesman on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, just after national jobless figures reached a 10-year high, Varadkar told a committee of parliament that unemployed immigrants should be paid to leave the country, emphasizing that such a scheme would be voluntary, not mandatory. "Would there be a case at this stage for giving an offer to foreign nationals the opportunity to receive, say, three or four or six months of benefits, if they then agreed to repatriate to their country of origin and then forego benefits beyond that?" he asked.
The proposal was slammed across the board -- an official of the rival Fianna Fail party, MP Thomas Byrne, declared in response that "politics in this country has reached a new low when Fine Gael are suggesting a voluntary repatriation scheme,” equating Varadkar’s idea to that of the far-right, anti-immigrant, British National Party [BNP]." Similarly, An Foras Áiseanna Saothair (FAS), Ireland’s national training and employment authority – an organization Varadkar had criticized – blasted his proposal as unrealistic and impossible to enforce.
Other called his idea racist. Social and Family Affairs Minister Mary Hanafin (of Fianna Fail) strongly suggested Varadkar was referring to African immigrants in the country. "All European nationals have free movement. The only people [Varadkar] could be talking about are non-EU nationals, which must mean he was talking about the Africans, which means it's a racist comment,” she told an assembly in Dublin. "He would want to think where he's putting his foot before he puts it in his mouth. It is undoubtedly racist to do it. We are delighted to have these people; they are making a contribution to our economy. The Irish were never rejected anywhere when things got difficult for them." Varadkar did not take the criticism lightly, branding Fianna Fail as "a bunch of hypocrites" and denied he was targeting Africans specifically or that he was a racist. Indeed, comparing Varadkar’s proposals to those of the BNP (as MP Byrne did) were likely excessive, given that Varadkar’s views were not all that different from the right-wing of Britain’s mainstream Conservative Party.
Strangely, Varadkar’s ancestry – as the son of an Indian immigrant – was never publicly mentioned during the debate over repatriating migrants from Ireland. But there were more fireworks to come.
In early 2010, Varadkar condemned then-Prime Minister Brian Cowen (of the Fianna Fail party) of "destroying the country" by allowing the national debt to triple under his leadership. Adding to the insult, Varadkar suggested that rather than lead the government, Cowen should instead be "writing boring articles in The Irish Times [newspaper]." A leading official with his own Fine Gael party, Fergus O’Dowd, condemned Varadkar’s comments as “insulting” and “disgraceful.” Amazingly, later that year, Varadkar was one of a number of Fine Gael officials who passed a “no confidence” measure against party leader Kenny (who survived and eventually became Prime Minister). Nonetheless, Varadkar was later named as spokesperson for Communications and Natural Resources.
His later appointment as sports minister triggered some derision, given that he previously had evinced no interest in athletics whatsoever. "I know a lot of facts. I don't play the sports," he quipped to the Irish Independent newspaper. "I ran 10km through the park on Sunday and went to the gym, so I'm participative in sport.” Then, in May 2011 -- only six months after Ireland received an €85 billion bailout from the European troika -- Varadkar waded into more serious matters when he suggested that the Republic would need another such bailout, angering colleagues who worried about the impact his statements would make on financial markets. Kenny, who had just assumed office as Prime Minister, calmed things down by denying Ireland needed anymore financial relief from Europe. However, the PM warned government ministers not to make public statements about the country’s financial condition (a likely dig at Varadkar).
However, Varadkar’s gaffes continued. In late 2011, he criticized Ireland’s tourism industry, complaining it was substandard for a developed western country. "I would like to see an improvement in customer service. Irish people are very friendly, very inquisitive, but I think our customer service isn't great," Varadkar said at a tourism conference in Country Clare. "When I go to the United States, I am impressed with a lot of simple things. You get free refills in coffee and free refills in Diet Coke and yet in Ireland, you get ripped off if you want a little bit more than this coffee." Varadkar has also called for the privatization of three state-owned airports in Ireland to enable them to compete against each other. As one of the more prominent party spokespersons, Varadkar has advocated for the elimination of waste and mismanagement in government. Still, despite his history of gaffes and controversies, Varadkar is a rising star in the Fine Gael firmament and may one day become Ireland’s Prime Minister.
David Farrell, professor of politics and head of school at University College-Dublin, told International Business Times that Varadkar, who allies with the “socially conservative wing” of Fine Gael, could become the leader of the party and win national election as PM some day, perhaps sooner than later. "He is seen generally as capable and quite effective as a minister,” Farrell said. “He speaks directly on the issues and doesn’t pull any punches. He is one of a handful of current Fine Gael officials who is well equipped to take over party leadership.”
Dr. Timothy J. White, Professor of Political Science at Xavier University in Cincinnati, and an expert on Irish politics, told IB Times that Varadkar is a very important politician who has risen to prominence at a young age. “He is seen as a very intelligent, straight talker who sometimes gets himself into controversy for being a bit blunt,” White said. White also noted that the awarding of a cabinet position to Varadkar after he supported the losing side of an internal party leadership contest attests to his abilities and effectiveness as a lawmaker Farrell also indicated that Varadkar’s ethnic identity has not served as an obstacle at all in his career trajectory.
“The Indian population in Ireland is quite small,” he noted. Indeed, according to newspaper reports, there are an estimated 30,000 Indian people currently living in the Republic of Ireland (less than 1 percent of the country’s total population), in contrast to much larger numbers across the Irish Sea in Britain.
White also said that there is some awareness among the Irish public that Varadkar is half-Indian, partly due to his surname, but that matters little in a political context. “He has spoken about being half-Indian once or twice on radio or TV but it is non-controversial and he himself has never pointed to it as an obstacle,” White said. “I don't think most Irish sees this is a major point of how they identify him. If anything his ‘difference’ helps him stand out.” Varadkar, White points out, is nonetheless viewed as “Irish” by the Irish. “He is a very important politician who has risen to prominence at a young age,” White added. “He is seen as a very intelligent, straight talker who sometimes gets himself into controversy for being a bit blunt.”
In the meantime, White indicated, Varadkar is a candidate for promotion in the cabinet reshuffle in 12 months and could even become minister for finance. White believes that Varadkar’s principal rival in become the next leader of Fine Gael is Simon Coveney, the current Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. “Coveney has done great work in the cabinet and is well thought of in the party,” White commented. “He is seen as more socially and politically skilful and sensitive than Varadkar.”
Meanwhile, the Irish electorate is likely far more worried about the state of its economy than the ethnic identity of its leading lawmakers. With the next general election not scheduled until spring of 2016, Varadkar has plenty of time to prepare for a possible future as the first Indian PM of Ireland.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.