Saturday 15 June 2019

With a little help from his friends: An Taoiseach turns 40

As Leo Varadkar prepares to mark his 40th birthday, Philip Ryan profiles the friends, family and wider circle of backers who have helped shape his career

Family affair: Varadkar with his parents Dr Ashok and Miriam, and his sister Sonia at the hustings for the Fine Gael leadership at the Red Cow hotel, Dublin in 2017. Photo by Arthur Carron
Family affair: Varadkar with his parents Dr Ashok and Miriam, and his sister Sonia at the hustings for the Fine Gael leadership at the Red Cow hotel, Dublin in 2017. Photo by Arthur Carron
Brian Murphy
Stick and carrot: Relations have improved between Varadkar and Simon Harris since the leadership election. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Party planner: Varadkar with partner Matthew Barrett in New York. Matthew is organising Leo's 40th birthday bash
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

A WhatsApp group was recently set up by Leo Varadkar to invite friends, family and political colleagues to celebrate his 40th birthday.

The Taoiseach wrote into the group that his partner, Matthew Barrett, would be organising an event to mark the milestone birthday which falls on January 18. A venue for the party has yet to be named but the ensemble of Varadkar's closest confidants was asked to be on standby for the big occasion.

Varadkar is not one for marking birthdays with big celebrations. He prefers more intimate affairs such as dinner with close friends followed by drinks. During his university years he tended to have joint parties with his friend Kate Cullen and Young Fine Gael contemporary Lucinda Creighton whose birthdays fall around the same time.

For his 38th birthday, Varadkar organised a party in the little-known celebrity haunt, the Hacienda Bar, which is tucked away down a back street in Dublin's Smithfield. It was a shared celebration with his partner Matthew Barrett who had just turned 30.

Stick and carrot: Relations have improved between Varadkar and Simon Harris since the leadership election. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Stick and carrot: Relations have improved between Varadkar and Simon Harris since the leadership election. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

The rustic inner-city drinking hole on Little Mary Street is a regular hang-out for stars who want a quiet pint in the capital away from the public's glare. Ed Sheeran is known to pop in when he is in town as are Hollywood actors Saoirse Ronan and Anna Friel.

The birthday bash in January 2017 fell as Varadkar prepared for the most significant year of his political career - six months later he would become Taoiseach. Next Friday, Varadkar will be 40 years old. Those close to him say the party will be a "low-key" celebration.

Despite the perception he is obsessed with his political image, the Taoiseach does not feel the need to be centre of attention in his personal life. He has a reputation of being painfully awkward in social settings but he has worked to shake off this image for the sake of his political career.

Many of those he invites to his 40th will be people he has turned to for advice and support throughout his political career. However, he also has a close group friends such as the previously mentioned Kate Cullen, along with Mark Finan and Nollaig Crowley who are sure to make the guest list.

Family is also important to the Taoiseach and his upbringing in the Dublin suburb of Castleknock had a significant impact on his political outlook. Both parents, Ashok and Miriam, encouraged an interest in medicine in their son - it was hard to avoid when the family home doubled up as a doctor's surgery.

But his interest in politics and current affairs comes from his father. Even as an 11-year-old, Leo would sit around the kitchen table with his father discussing electorate systems and elections results in far-flung places around the globe.

Party planner: Varadkar with partner Matthew Barrett in New York. Matthew is organising Leo's 40th birthday bash
Party planner: Varadkar with partner Matthew Barrett in New York. Matthew is organising Leo's 40th birthday bash

Ashok's family is steeped in the spirit of rebellion from their days fighting Britain's colonial rule in India. Two of his brothers, Madhu and Manohar, served time in prison for protesting against the British Raj before the country won independence.

They were later decorated for their efforts during the struggle to free their country from British rule. Varadkar's uncles won't be attending his birthday celebration, but some would suggest the Taoiseach continues to fight their war in Brexit negotiations with today's British government.

The Taoiseach's two sisters - Sophie and Sonia - will undoubtedly make the celebrations if their busy schedules working as health professionals allow. Sophie, who used to describe herself as her brother's 'little mother', works in Great Ormond Street Hospital in London as a consultant paediatrician while Sonia is a midwife working in Dublin. The Taoiseach is closer to his younger sister, Sonia, and almost caused a family row by first opening up to his older sister Sophie about his sexuality.

When it came to coming out publicly, Tiernan Brady, the brains behind the Yes campaign during the marriage equality referendum, was one of the people whose advice Varadkar sought. Brady is currently canvassing support to run for Fianna Fáil in the European elections this May. However, he was one of very few people consulted ahead of Varadkar's decision to reveal all about his sexuality live on RTÉ Radio One with Miriam O'Callaghan.

The Taoiseach and Brady were recently photographed attending a Kylie Minogue concert with their partners. Also in the photograph was Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) director of communications Stephen McNamara who is friends with the Taoiseach and his partner Matt.

Varadkar has a tight-knit team of political advisers who have been his kitchen cabinet throughout his career. Central to the operation is the towering political giant Brian Murphy who serves as the Taoiseach's chief of staff. Murphy, a former chair of the Fine Gael national executive, was signed up as special adviser when Varadkar was appointed as Minister for Transport in 2011.

Murphy is the Taoiseach's closest confidant and offered sage-like political advice to Varadkar at key points during his career. Murphy would prefer that the Taoiseach listens to his advice more often and cause less needless controversy through his growing number of political gaffes.

The Taoiseach's loyal and affable press secretary Nick Miller is also likely to be a guest at the mystery birthday party. Miller joined Varadkar's inner circle around the same time as Murphy and is another top-ranking lieutenant in the Taoiseach's backroom team.

Miller's often unheeded advice to Varadkar during his early ministerial years was to always be seen to be concentrating on the job at hand rather than political advancement. This was often unavoidable as Varadkar was continuously being dragged into the debate surrounding the succession of Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader.

Varadkar, of course, encouraged some of the chatter about his leadership ambitions but Miller was always anxious that he be seen to focus on his portfolio. Miller also had the task of marrying Varadkar's image of being a sharp-shooter who says what he thinks with trying to keep him on message. Free-speaking was fine while Varadkar was in opposition or even a cabinet minister, but it is perhaps something of an Achilles heal since being appointed as the unelected leader of he country.

John Carroll is another significant member of the Taoiseach's team. The two are friends since their days in Trinity College and Carroll worked for Varadkar in the Department of Transport but left shortly before he was promoted to the Department of Health

He was brought back into the fold ahead of the Fine Gael leadership campaign during which he provided strategic and logistical support. He was rewarded for his efforts with a lucrative special adviser job in the Department of the Taoiseach after the contest. Philip O'Callaghan and Sarah Meade from the Taoiseach's Office will also be on the guest list.

Lisa Tavey and Mary Donoghue are the engines behind the Varadkar machine who ensure his Dublin West constituency is not forgotten when he is off playing statesman with his international counterparts. Tavey's kitchen was the setting for some of Varadkar's first local election campaign meetings in 2004 and both she and Donoghue have worked alongside the Taoiseach since.

Other local supporters such as long-time director of elections Henry Minogue may be on the guest list as well as Varadkar's friend since primary school Andy Garvey.

It is worth remembering Varadkar entered national politics little more than 12 years ago when he was first elected a TD at 28 years old. His career has skyrocketed in the years that have passed. Along the way there were many political mentors and confidants who helped mould the man who became the country's youngest-ever Taoiseach.

One politician present in the Hacienda Bar two years ago had quite an influential role in Varadkar's career spanning back a lot further than the last decade. Former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald gave a young Leo Varadkar his first taste of politics when she gave him a week's work experience as her assistant in Leinster House when he was in transition year. The careers of the two politicians have been intertwined since.

Fitzgerald was first impressed by Varadkar when he helped her draft a policy on national security while he was still a college student. They would later find themselves on the opposite sides of the heave against former Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. Fitzgerald picked the winning side, and ahead of the recent leadership contest considered taking on Varadkar himself for the top prize. However, the Taoiseach was forced to accept his Tánaiste's resignation less than six months in office when Fianna Fáil threatened to table a motion of no confidence in Fitzgerald over her handling of issues relating to garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has become an integral part of the Taoiseach's team since the Fine Gael leadership contest. Donohoe's support was a significant advantage during the one-sided campaign and the Taoiseach rewarded him by giving him responsibility for the merged Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. Varadkar showed even more faith in Donohoe by recently appointing him as Fine Gael's director of organisation for general elections.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy was one of the first politicians Varadkar approached about his plot to become Fine Gael leader. Murphy ran a meticulous and secretive campaign which ensured the contest was over before it started. He will be disappointed not to have been appointed to the election role given to Donohoe, but he has more pressing matters in his department.

The burden of office and lack of progress on the housing crisis has weighed heavy on the once gregarious Murphy. Murphy is more on edge in recent months and is a much-changed politician to the bright-eyed Cabinet minister he was two years ago.

Murphy's political insights are still valued by the Taoiseach, but there is a frustration among Fine Gael ministers and backbenchers over his failure to get a grip on the housing shortage. No doubt, Varadkar will invite him to the party, if for nothing else, to kill off suggestions of a rift between Murphy and himself.

Cabinet reshuffle

In the book Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach, Varadkar revealed he had a "strange relationship" with Health Minister Simon Harris before the leadership campaign. Harris was a little all over the place before the internal contest. At first, he seemed to be supporting Frances Fitzgerald and then considered a run himself before finally deciding to back Simon Coveney.

Varadkar was under pressure to sack him after the contest, but resisted following pressure from Coveney, and reappointed Harris to the Department of Health. Relations between Varadkar and Harris have improved in the intervening period, so awkward exchanges at the bar will be less likely if the minister is invited to the birthday party. Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee and Culture Minister Josepha Madigan are also likely to be invited.

A more unexpected guest would be former Tánaiste Mary Harney who struck up a friendship with the Taoiseach when he turned to her for advice when he was appointed as Health Minister. Former Taoiseach John Bruton also provides occasional counsel to Varadkar.

There could be other surprise guests on the night as Varadkar likes to keep a wide circle to bounce ideas off before he makes important decisions. Those not invited, especially those in political circles, will wonder where that leaves them in the Taoiseach's plan - especially ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle due in May.

Philip Ryan is co-author with Niall O'Connor of 'Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach'

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