Last Sunday, on the morning of his 36th birthday, Leo Varadkar posed on the steps of the RTÉ Radio Centre, a bottle of water in hand, deep, tired circles under his eyes and a smile on his face. The deed was done. "I am a gay man . . . Looking back now, I always knew, but I didn't know in my own mind really until maybe a year or two ago. I'm not sure why that is or was, but that's just the way it is."
At around the same time a young gay Dubliner based in Germany rang a friend, euphoric: “The difference this is going to make at home . . . Dad’s a huge fan of Leo . . .” The interview had resonated with many people, gay and straight, and across generations.
And so the first Cabinet Minister to declare he is gay came out to a symphony of admiration, affection and gratitude. It should have been a simple decision, if indeed a decision was required at all. Yet the plan to go public had been dragging on for months. Varadkar scrapped plans to make the announcement last summer, when Enda Kenny promoted him to the Department of Health, in case it became a distraction. Then there were concerns about overshadowing the budget.
In December he intended to make the announcement and then leave for a holiday, until the tragic case of a pregnant woman on life support overrode all else. A date for early January was scuppered by Lucinda Creighton’s announcement about her proposed new party.
Meanwhile, the pressure had been building, as the media sensed an announcement was imminent. Feverish rumours of a relationship with another well-known figure, patently false, were symptomatic of the pressure-cooker atmosphere. Regular inquiries about his relationship status were coming into the Department of Health.
Before Christmas Varadkar was uncharacteristically agitated, sleeping and eating poorly, spilling his concerns and asking advice of colleagues around the Dáil and elsewhere. It was clear that something was coming to a head. There was also a sense that if he didn’t make the announcement, someone else would.
Up to that point no media outlet could have defended as a matter of public interest the publication of such deeply private information about a deeply private man. Issues were coming up the line, however, that might have provided a cloak of respectability for any such argument.
In his radio interview with Miriam O’Callaghan last weekend he mentioned two that fell under his ministerial responsibility, surrogacy and the ban on blood donations from gay or bisexual men, saying, “I just want people to know that, whatever decisions are made on any issue, I’ll make them according to what I believe is in the public interest and my own conscience. I won’t be allowing my own background or my own sexual orientation to dictate the decisions that I make.”
And because he is a proven straight-talker, and people believe him when he says he is a “crap liar”, they believed him now when he said that seeing friends getting married and having babies was a big impetus to his announcement. “I started to wonder, What does the future hold for me? Do I really want to be alone?”
Swot at school
It makes sense. Varadkar is neither a loner nor naturally gregarious, according to one person who knows him – at least not in the style of the hail-fellow-well-met politician. A swot at school, at the King’s Hospital, in Dublin, he threw himself straight into his medical studies and into politics, leaving little time for socialising. He was only 24 when he was co-opted on to Fingal County Council.
Some perceive him as "a bit odd" socially; he has never been seen to work a room, for example. But a couple of years ago, it seems, he paused and decided there was more to life. It was then that he began to show another side of himself, socialising with backbenchers and others, forcing himself out of his comfort zone in a way that made the Fine Gael hierarchy suspicious that he was positioning himself for a run at the leadership.
But the timing suggests it could have been exactly as he said: getting older, feeling more comfortable about coming forward, looking at where his life was leading him personally.
“He has a real innocence about him. You might even say he’s a bit childlike. You want to mind him,” says a party insider. “He has a huge IQ, he’s very, very smart and he’s genuinely sincere . . . And he’s probably one of the very few politicians I know who has doesn’t really have an ego. That’s one thing he shares with Enda.”
But what the public see as merciful straight talking many in the party regard as a dangerous inability to engage his brain before his mouth. “Leo shoots straight because he’s not capable of doing anything else. It’s how he’s made,” says another insider. “But isn’t that exactly what we want in a taoiseach in the new political era?”
Still, there was deep suspicion of his motives when he first began to befriend the backbenchers. Now the paranoia is in the stratosphere, given his huge appeal to a public profoundly weary of spin.
And that was even before the manner of Sunday’s announcement, which is perceived within the party to have been a real fillip.
A few in the conservative wing of Fine Gael murmur privately that the leadership might be a problem for him now. That only matters if the polls say it matters.
For career politicians something else about Varadkar baffles them: he is not wedded to politics. This makes him a strange fish in Leinster House. In about 15 years, he says casually, he plans to move on, try new things.
He participated in the 2010 heave against Kenny but was one of the three – with his great friend Creighton and Brian Hayes – to get immediate absolution and return to ministerial rank. It says something about perceptions of him that, while the other two were regarded as trouble, he was seen as the young lad who had just tagged along.
Now he turns out to be not only the great survivor but also someone with the nous to build a "dream team", as one Dáil denizen describes it, at Health. The young group comprises a highly regarded secretary general, Jim Breslin (still in his early 40s), Brian Murphy, Varadkar's special adviser, Nick Miller, his media adviser, and Philip O'Callaghan, his policy adviser. They operate as a tight, almost rigidly structured unit, with Tuesday meetings regarded as sacrosanct.
This is a tad ironic given that Varadkar is not regarded as a team player. He is seen as more loyal to the public than to colleagues. Yet John Lyons, the Labour TD for Dublin North-West, describes him as "exceptionally accessible. He responds to texts, is very frank and doesn't promise the moon and the stars . . . He comes back with an answer in a couple of days, and sometimes that's all you need: to be kept in the loop."
As a new phase begins in Varadkar’s life a spotlight is also thrown on the Irish public.
Sunday’s outpouring of affection contained no little self-congratulation for our live-and-let-live ethos. Yet the fact is that, in 2015, a 36-year-old man felt it necessary to declare his sexual orientation on air.
It’s 20 years since homosexuality was decriminalised and nearly 30 since the first openly gay person – David Norris – was elected to public office. But of the four openly gay people in the Dáil today none is on the Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or Independent benches. What are the chances?
Of the four, Lyons, who is about 18 months older than Varadkar, and Dominic Hannigan, the 49-year-old Labour TD for Meath East, were already out when they arrived in the current Dáil.
Jerry Buttimer, the Fine Gael TD, who was then a backbencher from Cork, came out a couple of years ago, at the age of 45, saying, "I am a TD who just happens to be gay. It is just one little composition of the story that is me, and I will continue to be the politician I was yesterday."
Nonetheless, colleagues perceived it as a particularly brave decision.
Being the Gay Person
What all that probably tells us is that publicly identifying as gay can still be a big deal in Ireland.
Lyons says it’s not the big things that worry you coming out. “It’s the little things, things you do day to day, such as going to the local shop, how you will be viewed on the street, the fear of not being seen as ‘one of the lads’ any more, that point where you take off your public hat and you’re back to being you.
“There is still a big element of being seen as the Gay Person and that you fancy every man you see, that every man you talk to you must be chatting up. A TD is seen walking down the street, and he’s gay, so that man you’re walking down the street with must be your boyfriend . . .
“There is a level of wariness from some who know little about it and think you fancy all men, but that would be from people I would call ignorant . . . There was a stage when I thought that’s what everyone else was thinking, but those thoughts go in time. They take up so much of your head and eventually they vanish.”
If the lead-up to Varadkar’s announcement was long and fraught, well before that he had to tell his parents. His mother was concerned initially that he would be beaten up on the street or lose his seat, but ultimately she just wanted him to be happy, he said. The trouble with bigotry, however, is that it’s arbitrary and unpredictable, as his mother clearly knows.
Lyons says his own beloved mother "cried and cried" for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because he resembles her the most and she feared she was never going to know what his children looked like. Last Monday she cried again after watching him debate the marriage-equality referendum on Claire Byrne Live, on RTÉ One. "She gets so concerned for me. She says she's 'afraid they're going to hurt you'."
For nights like that, when he senses “hostility” in the atmosphere, Lyons has learned to numb himself against the hurtful implications of people’s arguments. “It’s not that you prepare to become numb; it’s a part of you.”
At one point he says he thinks that “most people are live and let live. I really do.” But later in the conversation, when mentioning his partner of a year, he talks about the “whole checklist” of things they mentally run through while in public, to avoid placing themselves in danger.
They’re nowhere near being able to walk down Grafton Street hand in hand, he says. “I want to give a kiss or a tight hug to him when we’re parting . . . and I do it, because you have to do it to push the barrier, but at the same time you’re always checking yourself. A long time ago I read a quote from a human-rights activist that asked, Why are we more comfortable to see two men holding guns than holding hands?”