Leo Varadkar: ‘I wanted to be an equal citizen . . . and today I am’

‘I’ve no plans to get married or anything like that at the moment’

"I've no plans to get married or anything like that at the moment," a very happy Minister for Health Leo Varadkar quipped as he described the expected Yes vote in the gay marriage referendum as an historic day for Ireland.

“I wanted to be an equal citizen in my own country and today I am,” he told reporters at the Citywest referendum count centre in south west Dublin.

The vote was a “social revolution in Ireland” and of the clear majority projected supporting gay marriage, he said: “That makes us a beacon of equality and liberty to the rest of the world.”

Dublin has voted Yes by a very large margin, he said. It looks like the other cities have too and the rest of the country is about 50:50 so based on current projections we expect an overall Yes vote somewhere in the region of 60 per cent to 65 per cent.

“It’s an historic day for Ireland. We’re the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in our constitution and to do so by popular mandate. So it’s a very proud day I think for Irish people.”

He acknowledged those who opposed the referendum and said that for a lot of people who voted No it was a vote of conscience.

“I respect their vote and I don’t think for a second that they are homophobic or anything like that. I don’t think they voted against gay people.

“I think they did have genuine concerns about religious freedom in schools and about parentage and we need now to continue to re-assure them as legislation is brought through over the next number of years, that this is a vote about equality and not those other things.”

Mr Varadkar, who revealed on RTÉ some months ago that he was gay, said "one of my motivating factors in doing it was that I couldn't pretend to be objective in this campaign as it was personal.

“It was personal for a lot of people, not just gay men and lesbians, but for their friends and their families, their colleagues. It was a very personal decision and what I said in that interview was that I wanted to be an equal citizen in my own country and today I am.”

He said of the support for the referendum “it’s a very proud day for Irish people”.

Mr Varadkar said the response on the doorstep in his Dublin West constituency was broadly very positive. “Our own returns were coming out at around three to one.”

Increasingly towards the end of the campaign, No voters were much more confident in saying that they were voting No and explaining why. “That had me a little bit worried on occasion, but it was very solid support and a real enthusiastic Yes.”

He said what was different in this campaign was that he had never seen before was younger voters signing up in huge numbers. He said 1,000 people registered to vote in the last few months in Dublin West.

They turned out between 87 per cent and 99 per cent in some polling stations and “I was meeting parents in their 50s and 60s who were being encouraged by their adult children and their grandchildren to go out and vote Yes and I had never seen that dynamic before.

"It was something quite special. I'm sure I'll find a party to drop in on tonight. The enabling legislation has to go through the Oireachtas. There is always the possibility of a legal challenge to a referendum. That happened with the children's referendum. I know the Minister for Justice will be keen to do it as soon as possible."

He said surrogacy was already legal in Ireland and unregulated. “We plan to restrict it and regulate it. I’d expect to publish the Heads of the Bill (the main principles of the legislation) before the end of the year and then we’ll have a detailed conversation and debate, involving Oireachtas and public hearings because it’s not something that should be rushed.”

Mr Varadkar said he had been involved in so many campaigns in the past, “To me, this had the feeling of a social movement or a social revolution because every night in Dublin West there were 50 or 60 people turning out to canvass – young people, people in schools even in some places, gay men, lesbians, their families, political parties.

“We knocked on every single door in Dublin West. That has never happened in a referendum before in my recollection. And it engaged a huge number of people in politics. It’s really hard to engage people in politics actually, and this did because it was personal to people.”

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times