Monday 23 April 2018

Varadkar to be Taoiseach but Coveney wins popular vote

Leo Varadkar with his partner Dr Matthew Barrett at the count centre yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren
Leo Varadkar with his partner Dr Matthew Barrett at the count centre yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren

Kevin Doyle, John Downing and Niall O'Connor

Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrant, is set to be Ireland's next Taoiseach. In news that has made international headlines, the 38-year-old was elected leader of Fine Gael, saying: "Prejudice has no hold in this Republic."

Mr Varadkar defeated Simon Coveney by 60pc to 40pc - but failed to win the popular vote.

Of the party members 7,051 sided with the Cork candidate compared with 3,772 who voted for Mr Varadkar.

This leaves the Housing Minister in a strong position to seek the position of Tánaiste when they meet today to discuss the fallout from the campaign.

Last night, Mr Varadkar:

Ruled out an early general election;

Indicated he would leave Independent ministers in their positions;

Promised an abortion referendum in 2018;

Continued to back the Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan;

And refused to rule out a future 'Grand Coalition' with Fianna Fáil.

Mr Varadkar's victory was sealed by massive support from Fine Gael's 73 TDs, senators and MEPs. He secured the votes of 51 members of the parliamentary party, the maximum predicted by his campaign team.

At his first press conference the Social Protection Minister denied the result had split the party. He refused to engage in questions about the make-up of his new Cabinet but said he would be "happy" for the Independent ministers in government to remain in their current portfolios.

Mr Varadkar said there was "absolutely no plan for an early general election". Asked what the result meant for him personally, Mr Varadkar said he hoped his "unlikely story" would inspire others.

In his acceptance speech a clearly emotional minister said: "Around the world people look to Ireland as a country where it doesn't matter where you come from but where you want to go.

"I know when my father travelled 5,000 miles to make his home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed that his son would one day grow up to be its leader.

"That despite his differences, his son would be treated the same and judged by his actions and character not his origins or identity."

In an effort to diffuse the tensions between himself and Mr Coveney, he said his rival had gained the admiration of Fine Gael members and fought a "spirited and persistent campaign".

Read More: Coveney lacked the killer instinct needed to secure the biggest job in Irish politics

"We're going to work together to bring Fine Gael and Ireland forward," he added.

Mr Coveney told the crowd: "I am so proud of everybody in Fine Gael, of the way we have conducted a competitive and sometimes sparky contest."

He described his rival as a "worthy winner" and said he would work "side by side" with him in government.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny did not attend the count in Dublin's Mansion House but issued a statement offering "heartiest congratulations" to his successor. Mr Kenny also paid tribute to Mr Coveney for making the leadership battle "a real contest". The Taoiseach said he would now provide "a brief but appropriate period" for Mr Varadkar to engage with the Independent members of Government and the Opposition.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said his party was committed to underpinning the minority Coalition led by Fine Gael which was formed a year ago.

He stressed the focus on the Fine Gael leadership succession had taken away attention from the business of government over the past year. But he said his party needed considerably more progress on key issues including housing, health services, education and mental health care if it was to continue support for the Government, under Mr Varadkar's leadership.

Read More: FF must set clear course or be left trailing in Leo's wake

In response, Mr Varadkar said he looked forward to meeting the Fianna Fáil leader on these issues. Asked about the possibility of a coalition between the two parties in the future, he said he did not "want to get into the space of speculating about coalitions of the future".

"It wouldn't be right in the middle of a tango to see who else is lining up along the wall," he said, pointing out that Fine Gael is in a Coalition that is due to run for two more years.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section