Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach review: Unravelling the paradox of Leo Varadkar

Politics: Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach, Philip Ryan and Niall O’Connor, Biteback, €11.99

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Dublin LGBTQ Pride Festival. Leo’s brave move to come out transformed him into a national treasure. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Dublin LGBTQ Pride Festival. Leo’s brave move to come out transformed him into a national treasure. Photo: PA

Last June, when the international media announced Ireland was electing its first openly gay Taoiseach, the narrative was portrayed as a modern-day Irish version of the American dream: the son of an Indian immigrant who – against all the odds – rises to the highest office in the land. The newly elected Taoiseach, so the story went, epitomised everything about post-crash 21st Century modern Ireland: fresh-faced, tolerant, fun, cosmopolitan, global, fashionable, handsome, charming, liberal, open, and confident.

But headlines can be deceiving, as Philip Ryan (deputy political editor of the Independent newspaper group), and Niall O’ Connor (a media advisor in the current Government) point out from the beginning of this concise, yet comprehensive, co-authored political biography.

Varadkar’s journey to become the youngest Taoiseach in the history of the Irish State is certainly an admirable one. But it’s hardly a rags-to-riches tale. Hailing from a privileged west Dublin suburb, Varadkar is privately educated; and the son of an immigrant is also the son of a successful doctor. The image of Varadkar as a carefree lily-liberal, meanwhile, is a recent PR construction.

From an early age – the authors are keen to stress – Varadkar has always aligned himself with conservative Fine Gael voters. As a TD and Minister, Varadkar backed same-sex marriage in 2015. And as Taoiseach he also put significant political expediency behind the campaign to repeal the Eight Amendment. Promoting the cause of both, however, came with initial reservations. Eight years ago, Varadkar told this newspaper he didn’t think it was double standards to tell women they must travel to the UK if they wanted to have an abortion. He’s also previously said women who are raped – in his opinion- should not be allowed to terminate their pregnancy; and that it wouldn’t be appropriate for gay couples to adopt a child. Such views seem all the more shocking when one learns Varadkar was one of the youngest TDs in the Dail at the time he was spouting this out-of-touch archaic dribble.

Our current Taoiseach, then, it appears, is a paradox of a man. Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach is a book that seeks to unravel these seemingly conflicting series of contradictions in his personality and public image. It asks two fundamental questions: who exactly is Leo Varadkar? And what motivates him in his political and personal life?

The answer is complicated. Up until very recently, even Varadkar was unable to express a credible honest answer: either to his family, to his close friends, or himself. Those closest to the Taoiseach describe him as shy and socially awkward. Indeed, as Varadkar admitted in one press conference back in 2011: “I probably should not be in politics at all. I am not really a people person.”

Years of repressing his sexual identity – so this book argues at least – accounts for much of this personal vulnerability. The dichotomy presented here between Varadkar’s hubristic approach to politics, versus his diffident personal demeanor, makes for interesting reading; and would give any clinical psychologist years of material to work from.

Varadkar’s decision to come out as an openly gay man three years ago on RTE radio was perfectly timed: just five months before the May 2015 marriage equality referendum. The brave move transformed him into a national treasure overnight. He also became a role model for thousands of other gay men and women across the country struggling to come out of the closet. Despite the clever timing, it doesn’t appear to be a populist political move.

Both authors subtly suggest that continuing to live a lie for many years was – understandably – driving Varadkar towards psychological hell.

Elsewhere, the book looks at Varadkar’s rapid rise through the ranks of Irish politics. Back in 2007, the fresh-faced young deputy publicly attacked the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, over his dodgy finances. There is significant time spent dissecting the power struggles within Fine Gael too. These heaves and leadership contests read like something out of House of Cards: where ego, treachery, and loyalty constantly change places in a Machiavellian spiderweb of ambition and deceit.

The book’s more interesting moments arise from a number of candid interviews from TDs of various political persuasions. Experts and politicos in the know from Leinster House weigh in, too. This invaluable gossip usually comes via the Dail bar, in the early hours of the morning. And the theme of the conversation remains the same: calling out Varadkar’s commitment to centre right-individualistic-political-ideals. The Taoiseach is described in unflattering terms by some: posh Tory boy, Tea Party sympathizer, and committed Thatcherite being just some of the monikers bestowed upon him. Rather appropriate when one looks at Varadkar’s track record. In 2007 he openly called for prisoners to pay for their own accommodation: a proposal that his party nearly disowned him over.

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Ryan and O’Connor clearly have a wide insight and knowledge into the inner workings of the Irish political system. And the array of primary interviews they produce are impressive: these give the reader much more than subjective opinion. The book has no secret agenda, and when comment and analysis does arrive, it’s usually measured and accurate.

Their questioning of Varadkar’s obsession with image and PR type spin is spot on: playing hurling and showing off matching socks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, being particularly egregious examples. Both authors also point to Varadkar’s cringeworthy theatrical antics on the international stage at times. His Love Actually moment during his maiden visit to Downing Street last year was a particularly embarrassing gaffe.

The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger though. There is no concluding analysis, or any kind of predications as to where the Taoiseach’s career might potentially be heading. If this was forthcoming, both authors might have added that the honeymoon period for Varadkar is nearing its end.

And, with deadlock Brexit negotiations and a deepening EU migrant crisis both looming in the distance, Varadkar will be called on to up his game significantly: where substance needs to trump style tenfold.

If not, his fall from the political spotlight could potentially be as rapid as his impressive ascent.

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