The son of an Indian immigrant has made Irish history by becoming the nation’s youngest and first openly gay prime minister.
Leo Varadkar, 38, was formally elected taoiseach at a confirmation ceremony in the Dail in Dublin after he won the Fine Gael party leadership earlier this month.
Former Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, who stepped down after six years, said his successor represented a “modest, diverse and inclusive Ireland.”
The former doctor, son of an Indian father and Irish mother, faces a number of challenges as he takes over the only EU nation that has a land border with the UK as it prepares for Brexit.
The nation might experience an impact on prosperity and trade across the open border as it works toward restoring a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.
Abortion will be another big issue for Varadkar, specifically demands for a referendum on the future of the eighth amendment of the constitution.
Pro-choice reformers say the nation cannot liberalize its strict anti-abortion law until the eighth amendment, which gives equal citizenship to the fetus in the womb, is abolished, but a second referendum would be needed.
One of the first world leaders Varadkar planned to call after being appointed taoiseach was British Prime Minister Theresa May, when he would convey the sympathy of the Irish over the loss of life in the Grenfell Tower fire in London.
In his first speech as taoiseach, Varadkar told the Dail: “The UK has been through some terrible tragedies over the past few weeks, so we offer them our sympathy and solidarity.”
In a tribute to Kenny, who led a coalition after losing Fine Gael’s majority in last year’s election, Varadkar said his decision to call the 2015 referendum on marriage equality had meant he could marry his partner.
“His leadership enabled me to become an equal citizen only two years ago,” Varadkar said.
He also quoted Seamus Heaney’s The Republic of Conscience.
“At their inauguration, public leaders / must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep / to atone for their presumption to hold office,” he said.
He vowed to approach the job as taoiseach with “profound humility and respect for what has gone before.”
Varadkar won the vote by 57 votes to 50, with 47 abstaining.
Micheal Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail, the Dail’s second-largest party, outlined why the party had abstained.
“As we showed repeatedly last year, our preference in this Dail was for Fine Gael to be removed from government. We continue to oppose core Fine Gael policies as outlined in its manifestos and its approach to government,” Martin said. “However, because we wish our country well we also wish Deputy Varadkar well, and we hope that he is successful in significantly changing the performance of the government he is a member of and which he will now lead.”
Varadkar becomes the EU’s youngest national leader, with 38-year-old Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas and 39-year-old French President Emmanuel Macron joining him as a trio under 40.
Watching in the public gallery above the parliamentary debating chamber was Varadkar’s mother, Miriam, who met her husband Ashok, from Mumbai, when they worked in an English hospital in the 1960s.
His partner, Matthew Barrett, who is a doctor, was also watching.
There was a bizarre moment during the opposition speeches when Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams remarked that he attended the same Pilates course as Varadkar, which produced wry smiles from the new taoiseach and Kenny.
Varadkar later thanked Adams for revealing “their little secret.”
He suggested Adams was better at Pilates because he might have been used to being in a “tight squeeze” — a reference to the time Adams spent in prison.
Varadkar studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and completed his six-year degree in April 2003.
He is the first graduate of the college to be elected taoiseach.
On graduating he worked as a junior doctor for several years at St James’ hospital, a Trinity teaching hospital and Connolly hospital in Dublin.
After the Dail approved his nomination, Varadkar was taken by ministerial car to Phoenix Park in Dublin, the official residence of Irish President Michael Higgins, who handed over the seal of approval that officially marked the Fine Gael head as Irish taoiseach.
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