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Tuesday 25 June 2019

'I'm spending Christmas with Matt's folks in Cork' - Varadkar on festive memories, world leaders and love

In An Taoiseach's most revealing interview to date, Leo also talks about Presidents Putin and Trump, how Hillary Clinton is far from the ice queen, and he describes Bono as 'the real deal'

An Taoiseach, a big fan of Christmas decorations, relaxes beside the Christmas tree in his office. Photo: David Conachy
An Taoiseach, a big fan of Christmas decorations, relaxes beside the Christmas tree in his office. Photo: David Conachy
Leo Varadkar larking about with his partner Dr Matthew Barrett whilst on holiday recently
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

'I met your missus at Kylie." It would be difficult to imagine any Taoiseach other than Leo Varadkar addressing you with such words - delivered from behind his desk in his office in Merrion Sreet. His detractors will use this as a stick to beat him. This is of little consequence to him. He can talk to you as fluently about Lady Gaga, U2 or The Pixies as he can Brexit, Northern Ireland or foreign policy. Time magazine cover star and the youngest person to hold the office of An Taoiseach since the foundation of the State, Leo is as home in a suit as he is a Fred Perry and hipster treads. At 6'4", he is long of leg but short of hubris. (Though Theresa May may disagree with the latter, the British prime minister allegedly "loathing" him over issues Brexit-related.)

Whereas Enda Kenny always appeared to be performing in a movie only he himself could see, Leo seems more focused, and he rarely fluffs his lines. He is understanding of the public mood. Indeed, some might argue that one of Leo Varadkar's greatest strengths as a political leader is his ability to read the public mood.

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Be that as it may, how good is Leo at reading his boyfriend, Dr Matt Barrett's mood? "Not as good as he is at reading mine!" Leo laughs. "Matt definitely knows my facial expressions; he picks up when I am kind of worried or distracted or thinking about something else."

So, if Leo has had a crap day at the office, will Matt say, 'It's just politics, Leo'? "I'm not sure if it's his empathic ability or whether I just give it away so easily. Most people say that I don't hide my moods that well."

Leo Varadkar larking about with his partner Dr Matthew Barrett whilst on holiday recently
Leo Varadkar larking about with his partner Dr Matthew Barrett whilst on holiday recently

What's it like being in a romantic relationship with the Taoiseach then? It can't be easy sometimes. Being the Taoiseach is all-consuming. "We both have busy jobs. But I suppose, yeah, I am never really off."

How does Leo switch off then? "I do schedule free time."

But the fact that you have to schedule it says a lot, I say. "It's the only way. It is a bit of advice Ruairi Quinn gave me when I first became a TD. He said it's the nature of politics that there is something happening every weekend, every evening, so you have to schedule a bit of free time."

Would Matt say to Leo, 'Have you scheduled free time?' "No, but what I would do, which a lot of the time doesn't work, is that I would be trying to plan a Saturday evening long in advance or a Sunday morning and he would be a bit more casual."

Does Matt share the same politics as Leo? And does he have to? "No - he doesn't. He wouldn't be party political. He is probably more socially liberal than I would be, but that has helped me to become more socially liberal too. We would have similar views on most things - on Europe and on economic issues. But he certainly wouldn't be party political."

Outside An Taoiseach's window on Merrion Street, Christmas is bustling. Inside his head the memories of Christmas as a child are bustling too. Leo can recall, he says, "mainly travelling down to Waterford. My mum [Miriam] is from west Waterford, Dungarvan, and we'd always spend Christmas down there with my grandparents and my cousins. So I always remember packing the boot of the car and the very long drive... stopping off at all those towns that are bypassed now."

Would he go down on Christmas Eve morning? "No. My dad [Ashok] was a GP, so usually he would have surgery at least up until the 23rd or 24th; we would go down then and come back a few days later. I know I would always be wanting to have Christmas in our own house, under our own tree [in Castleknock] but looking back now it was my mum's opportunity to catch up with her mum [in Dungarvan]. So we always went down there."

Did young Leo ever fear that Santa would turn up at his house in Castleknock and wouldn't be able to find him with his presents? "I never feared that Santa wouldn't find me in Dungarvan," he said.

What were Leo's first memories of Santa? "The Santa in Quinnsworth in Roselawn in Blanchardstown. It is now a Tesco but there was a Quinnsworth on the road that I grew up on. I must have been four or five. I can't remember what I asked Santa for when I was that age."

What did Santa bring young Leo who would go on to be a doctor... a doctor's set perhaps?

"Never a doctor's set! No!" he laughs. "We definitely had Operation. Do you remember that?" Leo asks of the battery-operated game that tests players' hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills on an 'actual operation' on a toy man.

Was Leo good at Operation? "I was OK at it!" he laughs. "But I don't know what presents I would have got in those years, to be honest."

But Santa definitely brought Leo Operation? "Either Santa or one of my big sisters, I'm not sure. I definitely remember having it."

Are there any stories of Christmas dinner disasters - turkeys or puddings that emerged cremated from the oven?

"No, it all went reasonably to plan. I do remember one time - it can't be that long ago because I was driving - that my dad managed to lock his keys in the boot of the car, one Christmas. It was either Christmas Day or Christmas Eve. But I ended up having to drive back to Dublin from Waterford and get the car keys and come back again, in one night, but thankfully that was when the motorway was built, so it wasn't too bad."

Were Leo's Christmases traditional Irish ones - whatever that means - or were there elements of Indian culture because of his father? "No, it was totally Irish. The big Indian celebration is around Halloween. But Christmas was entirely a traditional Irish family Christmas.

"I have been chief Christmas tree decorator since childhood. I insisted on real trees!" he laughs. "The first year that my sister Sophie married, me and my other sister Sonia got them tree decorations for Christmas. The whole she-bang, lights, baubles. I still only have real Christmas trees at home."

How will Leo and his boyfriend Matt spend Christmas this year? "This year, with his parents. So it will be my first time not spending it with my family. But my dad turns 80 next year. He doesn't want a big party or anything like that but he wants us all to go to India together as a family at some point. So if I'm imposing that on Matt, I decided I'd volunteer to spend Christmas at his folks this year [in Cork]."

Will Matt's parents be asking Leo over the turkey and ham about why he did this or that politically this year or is politics generally off the agenda over dinner? "They're good like that. They don't talk about work too much. His dad is very much into football. So we will probably talk about that, I imagine. I imagine football will come up. It wouldn't be 20 questions on your job but I'm sure it will touch on the conversation."

What will Leo do on Christmas Eve? "I don't know. What I usually do in Dublin is I go to my local pub - Myos in Castleknock and it is a bit of a homecoming. The last couple of years I went there. The numbers have dwindled over the years and the crowd has changed a bit, but it is kind of where anyone from the area who is home for Christmas generally goes for drinks on Christmas Eve."

Did he notice that people changed towards Leo because he is now An Taoiseach? "A little bit, but not hugely. At that time of year people are more interested in catching up with their own friends than giving me advice."

Did Leo always enjoy Christmas? "Yeah. I always did. I've done the Forty Foot a few times, but that won't be on the cards this Christmas as I won't be in Dublin."

Does he help his mother with the cooking? "I'd help but I'd be more likely to be doing the fire than the cooking."

What will he and Matt be rocking around the Christmas Tree to on Christmas Day? "No idea!" U2? Lady Gaga? Nick Cave? Any of that? "No. I'm not much of a dancer."

Is Matt a better dancer than Leo? "He's actually very good. A very good dancer. He did Strictly Ballroom once."

Matt did Strictly? I say as my mouth falls open. "Yeah, one of these kinds of charity ones but he was able to do - you know, the kind of Dirty Dancing finale? You know the lift and all that? I can't do any of that," Leo adds before I ask him.

Presumably that Dirty Dancing finale wasn't Matt lifting Leo up? "No! No! It wasn't" laughs Leo. "No, no! Not my thing. I'd probably require a few drinks before he'd get me dancing. I'd be... I'm the kind of guy who dances at a wedding not at anything good."

Most people tend to pile on the pounds over the Christmas. Does An T? "Yeah."

But as Leo generally had a good year it is unlikely he would be comfort-eating? "No, no, but I try and watch my diet. I don't really bother in December because it's Christmas and there are too many things happening."

I ask him does he still do the Pilates class with Gerry Adams. "No. Nah, nah. I only did three or four of them."

What was it like to be in a awkward position physically and look up and see Gerry Adams in an awkward position looking down at him? "It was a strange experience!" For him or for you, I ask. "For both of us!" Leo laughs. "It was the Oireachtas Staff Pilates, so there might have been two or three TDs. But it was mostly staff. So I'd say it was even weirder for them. He [Gerry Adams] definitely seemed quite flexible, though."

What's Leo's favourite Christmas movie? "Love Actually."

What is it about that film that makes it your favourite? "I don't know. I'm not a romantic or sentimental person..."

I ask Leo why he isn't a romantic or sentimental person. "Why not? I don't know. I'm just not. But there are some scenes [in Love Actually] that I really do like. Like - when the Colin Firth character goes to Portugal to collect Aurelia. I really like that scene," Leo says as I wonder did that scene resonate so dreamily with An Taoiseach because he perhaps fantasied about going to collect Matt in Chicago when they were apart for a year. "And there is a really kind of sad scene when the character played by Emma Thompson gets the Joni Mitchell CD rather than the necklace."

And his favourite book of 2018? "I read Madam Politician, Martina Fitzgerald's book, which I thought was really good. I learned stuff which I didn't know about any of my colleagues."

What did he learn? "That Josepha [Madigan] went straight to Dundrum to buy a new outfit after I rang her to see if she'd be in the Cabinet!" An Taoiseach laughs. "And the stuff from Regina [Doherty] reminded me that when I appointed my Cabinet I rang her because most of the Cabinet had rung me or touched base with me to say that they'd like to be in the Cabinet. And she didn't. And we'd be quite close. So I rang her to see kind of what job she'd like to have and it was Social Protection. And that's where she is.

"I also liked Philly McMahon's book The Choice, and Hillary Clinton's book, What Happened, which I thought was really interesting. I read it after I met her."

What did Leo learn about politics from reading her book? "I am not sure I learned a lot about politics. It is a very different type of politics in America."

Was Leo as shocked as the rest of the world seemed to be when Hillary didn't win the US presidential race in 2016? "I was surprised. I really thought she would." (Leo adds later that he felt Trump, when he met him on March 17 at the White House, wasn't exactly "magnanimous" about Hillary even in defeat.)

"I hadn't met Hillary until this year, and I was really impressed by her," Leo continues. "I think, like a lot of people, like most people, you form your opinions of politicians and public figures from the media. So I kind of bought into that idea that she was - you know - cold and all the rest of it. She's not. She's extremely warm. We were here, actually right here," he says meaning at the casual chairs in his office in Government Buildings.

"We had a really warm conversation for an hour."

What did they talk about? "Everything from Chicago [where Dr Matt was based last year], friends, politics, Europe, you name it. She's really smart. When she left the room I really thought it is a really sad thing that she is not leader of the free world. And I had some of those perceptions about her that people have - that she would be cold or robotic."

What perceptions do people have of Leo Varadkar from the media? "I'd hate to say!" Leo Varadkar hoots. "I hope a lot of them are favourable! But there are negative ones as well."

Do the negative ones hurt him as a human being? "Most things don't because when you are in politics you get a thick skin and you know you are up for criticism. So long as most people are happy with the job you are doing then you're doing pretty well in politics. In elections you aim to get 30, 40pc, so you can never please everyone. Nor should you try to. Actually, you should try to but you never can.

"The only thing that ever bothers me is when people question my motivations," he says. (This has echoes of his anger when he said of Eamon Ryan and The Green Party: "They don't just disagree with you, they're also a better person than you.") "Like," Leo continues, "it's fine if you disagree with me or you don't like my politics, you don't like the way I do things. But I really dislike it when someone questions your motivations as if you are only in it for the money or the prestige or the attention because that is so not true and I don't think it's true of many politicians."

Leo could make much more money as a doctor in America one day, I venture? "Yeah, potentially... but that's not [the plan.]"

Have you and Matt watched House Of Cards? "Not together. I watched the first series. Generally, I watch that kind of thing on a long haul flight."

Are there any similarities between what goes on in House Of Cards and Dail Eireann? "No. Totally none. I kind of wish there was sometimes. I think politics is probably an exact mix between Yes Minister and The Thick Of It.

"Yes Minister really describes well the relationship you have with civil servants and The Thick Of It really describes what it can be like between media and staff."

So, there's no Doug Stamper - President Frank Underwood's cunning White House Chief of Staff in House Of Cards - around the place in the Dail? "No, but there is definitely Sir Humphrey and Sir Bernard though," Leo smiles referring to the characters played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds in Yes Minister.

What is the funniest thing he's heard or read about himself? "Oliver Callan [in Callan's Kicks on RTE Radio 1] is very funny. Cutting but funny. You can't not but laugh. I'm sure there has been Waterford Whispers stuff. A lot of Miriam Lord's stuff [in The Irish Times] is very funny too. I don't read it habitually. I don't make a point of reading it."

If it is cutting or personal and bordering on cruel does Matt get offended on Leo's behalf? "No..."

What is Leo most proud of as Taoiseach? "That's hard to know. I'm definitely proud that we were in the last year able to put that question to the people about the Eighth Amendment. I think that had been long-fingered for far too long. I'm glad to have got that done."

Would Leo be happy if repealing the Eighth Amendment was his legacy? "No," he says, "because I'd like to do a lot more. I'm proud of having done, back in February, Project Ireland 2040, which is the national development plan for Ireland for 2040 and all the investment that we are doing at the moment, health and housing and education. I'd like to be seeing that through. That would be a good legacy. I don't like to talk about legacies when I'm only in year two!" he laughs.

"But I think ratifying the European Convention on Disabilities was a big thing that I'm proud of. Being part of a government that made it happen. I don't see any of this as personal achievements. And again even this year - it is not a personal achievement; a government achievement - getting to the point where you are very close to full employment, where there is a job for anyone in Ireland who wants one, which really wasn't the case six or seven years ago."

Are there ever days when he is being roared at across the Dail when Leo thinks he didn't sign-up for this? "Generally every other Tuesday or Wednesday!" he laughs. "Of course there are bad days."

Does he ever regret saying certain things? (I'm thinking - but don't say it to Leo - of him saying that Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald sometimes reminds him of Marine Le Pen.) "Absolutely, yeah. But once they are out there, they are out there. That's one of the downsides of politics and think, as well, modern technology has every stupid thing you've ever said or written recorded somewhere."

Later that night Leo texted me a picture (see opposite) of him as a baby with his mother that his mother had found for this article and given to him: "My first Christmas. Never seen it before . She looks so young. It's hard to imagine your ma as a young woman."

What did Leo learn about Ireland from the national conversation on the Eighth Amendment? "That ultimately we are a very decent country; that we want to hear people's personal stories," Leo says. "And I found this in the Marriage Equality Referendum as well. That ultimately, while people might have their own moral framework, generally we have become a country where we want to live and let live. And maybe that wasn't always the case."

I ask Leo does he remember when it wasn't always the case. "Not in the way people describe it to me. I remember a country that was very difficult, obviously because I grew up in the 1980s, but I don't remember the country that people describe to me: you know, in the 1950s and 1960s when shame was prevalent."

Because of sexuality? "Just general. People say to me that in the 1960s and 1970s people would talk about unmarried mothers as being an embarrassment to the family. I never remember that but I have heard a lot about it."

How would Leo feel about meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin given his country's policies towards gay people in Russia? "I have met him. I met him very briefly. I met him at the Armistice Day Events in Paris on November 11 but obviously he was speaking Russian and I was speaking English. So I didn't get much of a chance to talk to him about it. And I would like to talk to him about it."

What would Leo say to Putin? "I have spoken to the Russian Ambassador about it, who takes the view that what we are hearing in the west is exaggerated. I don't believe that. So I would like to challenge him [Putin] about it, and really ask him why he thinks these policies make Russia stronger, make Russia greater. He is clearly someone who is the strongman, who wants to make his country powerful in the world again. I obviously don't agree with how he is going about that.

"But I would be curious to explore with him why he thinks that discrimination against gay people is the way to make Russia wealthier or more successful or more prestigious in the world because that is definitely his world."

Did Leo like Trump more than he thought he might when they met on St Patrick's Day in Washington?

"He is definitely more personable than I thought. A very tall man, for a start, and very friendly, which I didn't necessarily expect. But apart from that, he is the guy you see on TV. People often ask me what's he really like. He is the guy you see on TV. It is not an act. At least if it is, he was acting when I was there. He was very much the star of his own show. He gave me a lot of time. But obviously I wanted to use those opportunities strategically.

"One was to raise awareness on immigration. We are making some progress now on this E2 Visa which will allow Irish people to travel to America again and take up opportunities there if we can get it through; the second obviously is trying to explain to him Brexit, what it was and how it could adversely affect Ireland because he has a negative view of the European Union. I was trying to explain it to him with a positive view. I'm not sure I got that across. I'll try again when I get there in March.

"The other thing that I really wanted to point out, because he is very concerned about trade balances and trade imbalances, was that trade goes both ways and that there are 100,000 Americans in America employed in companies that are Irish."

The children's charity Barnardo's says child poverty in Ireland remains "stubbornly high". How does that make Leo feel? "It makes me sad that it is true. I am obviously aware that it is falling. Poverty and deprivation has been falling for the past four years. So, I'm sad that it's true; glad that it is definitely improving; and determined that we continue to go in the right direction.

"We know the reason why it has gone down in the past four years, and that's more people at work; because employment is the best way out of poverty, and obviously making whatever improvements we can around childcare and education around opportunities.

"I am determined to make sure it keeps falling but because of the way it is calculated it can never be totally eliminated because it is based on relativities."

Homelessness in Ireland is a national emergency. Does Leo take personal responsibility because he is the Taoiseach? "I take personal responsibility as head of government to make it better, to improve the situation. I mean, obviously, homelessness is caused by lots of different things, whether it's family break-up or often mental health issues, addiction, there lots of different reasons why people end up sleeping rough or become homeless. Obviously I don't take personal responsibility for all those but I do take responsibility as head of government for making sure that housing becomes more affordable, making sure that housing is more available."

There is clearly no magic fix but how long will it be before the housing crisis in Ireland will start to get better?

"It depends on the fact that the housing crisis has so many different facets. It is already the case that the number of new homes being built is increasing. 20,000 new homes and apartments built this year; aiming for 25,000 next year.

"We are already seeing that house prices are levelling off. Numbers out today show that they are slowing down. So fingers crossed 2019 will be the year when we see house prices levelling off and the number of people in emergency accommodation falling."

On a lighter note, what is An Taoiseach's film of the year? "A Star Is Born," he answers. "Lady Gaga is so talented. Great music and a good storyline," An Taoiseach says, adding an honourable mention to another film, Sorry To Bother You.

"I thought it would be a comedy about people working in a call centre; it turned out to be a sci-fi political movie."

What about the best gig Leo went to in 2018? "Body&Soul," he says referring to the festival at Ballinlough Castle in Westmeath in June. "It was my first time. Beautiful day, 26 degrees. Not too crowded and loads of bands I didn't really know of beforehand. So I didn't feel under any pressure at any particular time. I also really enjoyed Ed Sheeran in the Phoenix Park [in May], I have to confess."

An Taoiseach went to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds performing at the Royal Hospital Kilmainhan in June. What about that show? "That was good. I really went to that because Nick Miller [his PR guru] wanted to go. He is a huge fan."

Leo is a huge fan of U2. He went to see them in New York at Madison Square Garden in July. "The U2 gig in New York was good but I was there in my official role with two dozen ambassadors to speak to. I really enjoyed the Croke Park one in 2017. I love the old stuff - The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum."

What does Leo think of Bono? "I know he gets a lot of criticism but I think he's the real deal and his commitment to human rights and international development is sincere and selfless. Bono comes up with some really interesting ideas."

Like what? "Like, one, capitalism is the best way to create wealth and it has lifted billions of people out of poverty, but it's amoral; it's our job to correct that in our policies; and, two, that Europe is an idea that we need to turn into a feeling."

With that, Leo, even better than the real thing, is gone, out in the Christmas bustle of the country he leads.

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