'Matt makes me a better man' - Leo Varadkar's most revealing interview
'I don't plan to bring my partner to State events, he has a day job'
'I was worried for a year about coming out to the wider public'
KEEPING up with the Varadkars? On Friday for lunch, no one can keep up with magnificent Miriam Varadkar.
The domestic goddess practically races around the dining room table of the family home in Blanchardstown — doling out ham, turkey, carrots, potato salad, tomatoes, coleslaw, green and black olives onto plates, ably assisted by daughter Sonia, to all and sundry.
Her husband, Dr Ashok, sits at the top of the table. To his right, is the man-of-the-moment, their son, Leo.
Beside him again are his two seven-year-old nephews, unidentical twins Eric and Alex.
Eating up his ham for his adoring mammy, Leo’s talk isn’t of his present battle with Simon Coveney for the leadership of the country — for the heart and soul of Fine Gael — but of another much more epic “battle”.
This particular fight to the death had a certain inter-galactic theme and was fought on Christmas Day two years ago here in the Varadkar family home with young Eric and Alex.
Their mother Sonia, and Leo’s big sister, gives the back-story... “Star Wars was big when we grew up,” she says. “Leo really wanted a lightsaber but they weren’t really accessible in Ireland back then. So two Christmases ago we all got one — Leo and my boys. It was a huge battle.”
“I think I was playing Princess Leia’s son…” laughs Leo.
“Leo has left his lightsaber in my house,” Sonia, who lives around the corner, adds, “so every time he calls we have a replay.”
“But I was more of a Star Trek fan growing up. I was more of a Trekkie,” corrects Leo, who lives around the corner from Sonia.
The bond between them is unmistakable. “We shared a room for many years when we were very young. I was so lazy I got him to read to me every night.”
“Enid Blyton,” says Leo, before adding that what he reads now is mostly “recommendations from either Paschal Donohoe or Richard Bruton”. (Leo’s most recent read was The Political Brain by Drew Westen.)
“Leo and I were very close,” continues Sonia. “I was very upset when I got my own room. Now my boys are at the same age as he was. My boys also go to the national school Leo went to, and have the same uniform. So cute!”
“It was like a pajama top on me!” laughs Leo.
Miriam remembers Leo going to Montessori and how he “hated the walk up Delwood Road in the cold and wind”.
“Miriam would give in on bad days and let him skip school,” Sonia says.
Leo’s other sister Sophie, who lives in London, had earlier told me that her younger brother was “a very gentle, thoughtful child. He loved his teachers in Montessori, especially Madeleine and Cathy”.
The latter first recognised Leo’s intelligence “and used to have long conversations with him”, says Sophie, adding that from a young age, Leo “always had a steady and loyal group of friends. And again in secondary school, he had a group of good friends”.
Miriam, who has taken a break from making sure everyone has enough to eat, sits down and recalls the morning Leo made his Holy Communion. He had to run down to his best friend and neighbour, David Kelly.
“I think it was the year Johnny Logan won the Eurovision and,” says Leo, “I think I was dressed like him. It was a white suit.” And it was ruined.
“He fell on the way back from David Kelly’s,” remembers Sonia, “and he ruined the knees. He was so upset that Miriam would be upset.”
Leo: “You were roaring crying.”
Leo and Miriam laugh at the story. Leo has another memory. “I remember a trip to London when I was two.”
Miriam: “You were only a toddler. You were in pull-up nappies.”
Leo: “I remember feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I remember mum and Sonia and Sophie going off to see Evita in the West End. Dad took me to Trafalgar Square.”
Dad, bursting with pride, then says: “I was very excited when he was born.”
Sonia: “He was the perfect baby.”
Miriam: “When he cried, his two sisters would cry.”
Ashok: “They used to make him cry sometimes by singing Where’s Your Mammy Gone?”
Leo, laughing: “That’s called separation anxiety. It can be cruel to play on that!”
Separation anxiety, notwithstanding, ‘The Blanchardstown Boy Wonder’ did more than OK, going to fill various ministerial posts in Government. In his early days in the Dail, newbie Leo wound-up former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern by quizzing him over his finances, before tearing into Brian Cowen. “Bertie called me a pup on the radio!” he laughs now at it all. And despite being part of the attempted heave against Enda Kenny in 2010 it wasn’t the end of young pup Leo’s political career.
“Enda quickly forgave me.”
Would Leo forgive in a similar manner if there was a putsch against him as Taoiseach? “Oh, absolutely.”
“When we were teaching him to ride a bike as a young kid on the road,” says Miriam, “he was so cautious.”
“Everyone gave up on him,” continues Sonia, “but I didn’t.
“And after weeks of going up and down the road he did it — and he is now doing triathlons!”
This is remarkable for other reasons, as his mother points out.
Miriam recalls bringing Leo to swimming lessons as a very young boy and giving up, “because he would come out of the water — and he would be crying. I would just wrap him up and bring him home”.
Leo’s other sister, Sophie, took him weekly to the nearby Coolmine Sports & Leisure Centre for swimming lessons where “he did his best to hide his fear and he did learn; and in fact is now an excellent swimmer”.
These skills lamentably didn’t extend to the home front. In 2011, RTE’s The Naked Presidential Election documentary showed an exhausted Leo arriving home at night to an empty apartment and putting a profoundly forlorn-looking ready meal in the microwave.
“I’m still there! That’s my apartment!” says Leo now. “That was mid-election and I hadn’t gone to the shops and I’d no food.”
You said in 2011: “I find it scary when people talk about me as a future leader. It’s like putting a big target on your back.”
Have you lost the fear of the target on your back now?
“I have accepted the target, actually. It will be decided next Friday,” he says in reference to the FG leadership beauty pageant that comes to a head on that day. (In possession of much passion and punch, charisma and boyish charm — albeit beneath an initially shy exterior — Leo makes Simon seem as dull as the proverbial dishwater.)
“It’s amazing that people were talking about me as a future leader back in 2011,” Leo says.
Do you think people read too much into the things you say? Is that why you said recently — “I’m waiting for the moment I’m sitting on the toilet and some commentator, somewhere, decides that’s part of some strategy?’’
“I think the funniest one was at The Glenties [The MacGill] Summer School two years ago when I talked about indexing welfare benefits and RTE reported it right away as a leadership bid. Of all things that excite the Fine Gael base, it is not the intricacies of welfare policy!” he laughs.
Leo and his boyfriend, Dr Matthew Barrett — who is in Prague doing a medical exam — appeared to have understood the intricacies of keeping out of the spotlight since their relationship became vaguely public knowledge last year. That could surely all change should Leo become Taoiseach.
Presumably, as leader, you would bring Matt to State occasions like Enda Kenny brought Fionnuala to meet world leaders etc?
“No. That wouldn’t be my plan,” Leo says.
“First of all, we’re not married. We’ve only been going out for two years,” Leo explains, “and, secondly, while that has been the tradition in politics, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
“Take Angela Merkel. She is on her third term at the moment. She has been chancellor for nearly 15 years. She has a husband [Joachim Sauer] but he has a job. He has only ever attended one occasion with her because he has his own career. I think that would be part of the generational shift in politics, because traditionally you had a male leader, a wife who had given up her job. We are now moving into an era across the world where men and couples have their own careers.”
Equally, might you be unwilling to make another kind of generational shift by not bringing your boyfriend to these events?
“No. That’s the reality of it. He was at the event last night, the hustings [at the Red Cow], and he would attend the odd thing with me. But he has a day job.”
If you become Taoiseach, Matt’s life will change as much as yours will.
“I hope it won’t too much. One thing he does say to me is: ‘When will the rules ever be the same for me?’ Because when we are anywhere in public in Ireland people are coming up to me to say hello and that type of thing. But that is just part of being in public life.”
Will you get married? “We’ve never discussed it. So it is not on the agenda. It is only two years. Not even two years!”
His other sister, Sophie, told me earlier from London that Leo “always had a very strong feeling of family. He is still close to his Dungarvan family, too”.
Would Leo like to have a family of his own and be a father one day?
“I have no plans’’ — Leo says before his own father interrupts to say: “We would love him to be a father!” Miriam: “We love the idea!”
Leo: “I have no particular desire at the moment to be a dad. I have nieces and nephews and I would like to see them a lot more than I do. And really — at this stage, my own life and the job and my career in politics is so all-consuming that I wouldn’t have the time to dedicate to being a good parent.”
I ask Mrs Varadkar what Matt is like. "Handsome, intelligent…” she says, before Sonia pipes up: “Beautiful, tall, friendly.”
Leo: “I think they like him more than me!”
Sonia: “If Matt wasn’t going out with Leo, I’d still like to know him.”
Ashok, roaring with laughter, said: “I thought you were going to say something else!”
Sonia, roaring with laughter: “I think my husband might have a problem with that!”
Miriam: “Matt is part of the family.”
Sonia: “The boys [her sons] have met him. He comes to dinner. He has come bowling. He is from a lovely family, too.”
So, how would you describe him, Leo? Long pause. “I’m terrible with the personal interviews, aren’t I?” he laughs. “Let’s talk about Brexit!”
Another eternity of a pause. “Matt is just a very special person. Someone who is unconditionally on my side, which is always great. He is the kind of person who has made me a better person. I know I sound like bloody Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, but it’s true!” Leo laughs.
Miriam: “I think he has been good for Leo.”
Ashok: “And he is going to be a top cardiologist!”
Leo: “Matt is definitely cleverer than me. Which occasionally, I can find intimidating. He is very, very intelligent. He can read faster than me. He can do calculations faster than me. He is very bright. He is a Gaeilgeoir as well. And although he is not really party political, it is amazing how quickly he understands politics. He gets it really quickly.”
If you had kids, would you want them to follow you into politics? “Oh no,” Leo says emphatically.
“Oh no.” Miriam, how did you feel when Leo decided to go into politics?
“I wasn’t terribly happy with him going into politics,’’ she replies.
Leo: “You weren’t happy at all.”
Miriam: “I felt that we were going to be put out on a slab. I thought the party [Fine Gael] would just use him. I was wrong. But I was upset at first, worried.”
I ask his mother, was she worried when Leo told her he was going to reveal his sexuality to the nation on Miriam O’Callaghan’s radio show in January 2015.
Mrs Varadkar, shaking her head, answers: “I just accepted it. That’s all you can do.”
Leo: “You were worried!”
I ask Leo was he worried? “I was very worried. I was worried about it for about a year.”
Did Leo really say at the age of seven that he wanted to be Minister for Health one day? Miriam: “He did!”
Eric — the same age as his famous uncle when he made the announcement about wanting to be Minister for Health — says: “I want to be Minister For Transport! I love trains and planes!”
Leo, to the seven-year-old: “It’s a great job!” Leo adds: “But politics was always in me, even from a very early age.”
Sonia: “When we watched the Eurovision Song Contest as kids, I would be dancing to the songs and he would be drawing the flags with a pen and talking about the people, the politics, the culture of the people of those countries on the Eurovision.”
Leo: “I loved the voting on Eurovision.”
If the vote goes against you next Friday, and you lose the leadership contest to Simon, how will you feel?
“Disappointed, very disappointed, obviously,” he answers.
“Because I really believe in what I do. Because I really believe in what I say. And I really believe in the programme I have put forward, both for the country and for the party. I genuinely want to make these things happen. But I am quite stoic about life. You do get on with it.”
Did that stoicism come from his parents?
Miriam: “Oh, yeah. We always got on with things no matter what happened. There is nothing major in the world that you can’t get [past].”
Leo: “It is a job that I would love to have. It is something that I would love to do. I think I have a lot to offer. But I don't think I'm entitled to it."