Friday 17 January 2020

'He makes me laugh. He could get a job writing Christmas cracker jokes'

In an exclusive interview, Leo Varadkar talks with extraordinary candour to Barry Egan about his boyfriend Matt, Boris Johnson, homeless families and children not getting chemotherapy treatment

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and partner Dr Matthew Barrett celebrate Christmas at the seasonal market in Dublin Castle. Photo: Arthur Carron
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and partner Dr Matthew Barrett celebrate Christmas at the seasonal market in Dublin Castle. Photo: Arthur Carron
Leo's parents Dr Ashok and Miriam Varadkar
Leo with British PM Boris Johnson at a European summit last October

Have I just fat-shamed An Taoiseach? The Christmas tree of Dublin Castle twinkling in the background, Matt Barrett and Leo Varadkar are quite the couple, both sensibly and fashionably wrapped up against the bitter cold. The latter has lost weight.

When I joke to Matt that the diet he has his boyfriend on at home is clearly working, he lets out a laugh, as does Leo.

"He is not there yet," Matt says, summoning up, of all people, former Fianna Fail Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. "I think the phrase is, 'a lot done, more to do'."

Matt, skinny as a pencil, looking impressively like one of the Franz Ferdinand band in his tight trousers and shirt, is quite the wit.

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Leo with British PM Boris Johnson at a European summit last October
Leo with British PM Boris Johnson at a European summit last October

This does not go unnoticed by his partner. "He does make me laugh," says Leo. "He's quick-witted - word-plays, double entrendres and puns. I sometimes think he could get a job writing Christmas crackers."

Be that as it may, Dr Barrett is on call on Christmas Day and Stephen's Day in the Dublin hospital where he works.

"So," says Leo an hour earlier in a private room in Dublin Castle, "that kind of puts a bit of a downer on it [Christmas]. He will probably go in to work in the mornings and then we'll visit relatives in the afternoon. We'll be in Dublin for Christmas."

Is it difficult for Matt to be involved with a man who is so well known in Ireland, and in a job where there is so much pressure, and demands around the clock? Does he ever say, 'Jesus, there are easier relationships I could have chosen'?

"I'm sure there are lots of people that are easier to be with than me," laughs Leo. "And not just because of my career choice," he adds with an even bigger chortle.

"Matt's had more serious long-term relationships than I've had. So maybe he is a bit more experienced in that sense than me, but no, I think it's fine. We both have busy jobs."

Leo's parents Dr Ashok and Miriam Varadkar
Leo's parents Dr Ashok and Miriam Varadkar

Is it ever difficult for Leo being in the public eye almost permanently?

"It's nice to get a break from it."

How?

"With a small number of very close friends who knew me before I was a TD and are happy not to ask me all the questions everybody else asks me about what's going to happen with Brexit and what's Donald Trump like and all that stuff. Even just getting out of the country the odd time for a weekend away. It's very hard to do normal things because I have gardai with me and I am very recognisable."

I ask him does he ever get down or depressed.

"Not really. But if I do momentarily - and I know it sounds like a line but it is actually true - I remind myself that this is the job that I wanted and I worked for. And it is an enormous privilege to have it. And it is not forever and when it is over I'm sure I will regret it."

If you get low you can't express it because it could be used politically against you, I say. Does that make it more difficult?

"You can express it to the people who are around you, whether it's Matt or whether it's close friends and family. You wouldn't go around telling the media or the public because it would be misconstrued, and there are a lot more people who have many more reasons to be depressed than I would have."

When was the last time he cried?

"I don't know. I honestly don't know. I'd have to think about that. It must be a long tine ago."

You don't cry at movies or funerals, I say?

"No."

No? Is he not emotional in that way?

"I'm probably not, no. It's not that I don't feel emotions. Maybe I don't express them."

I ask him to explain what he means.

"I'm probably quite reserved."

Because you have to be with the job or because you are?

"No. I think it is my natural personality, that I am reserved. I think Matt is quite similar. He does cry at movies, though."

So, are you both sitting at home being reserved, I joke?

"No!" Leo laughs. "We are both relatively reserved but I am probably a little more reserved. I do remember when we went to see Lion - you know the movie about the kid who gets lost on the train in India? And eventually in the final scene he goes back to his home village? I looked over to Matt in the cinema and I could see Matt crying. Mind you, I do remember crying at the end of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel [in 2015]. I probably had a few glasses of wine!" he laughs.

Do you and Matt live together?

"Yeah."

How does that work? You get home late and he is going out to work in the hospital?

"We have been living together since August. We have very different schedules, which is messy. Politics is a late business. I tend to work late, go home, then read the review for the next day, whereas he is up really early to be in the hospital."

What do you talk about at home?

"Everything really. We don't talk about politics much."

Does Matt have a problem being with someone who must appear at times to be the sole property of the country?

"You'd probably need to ask him but I don't think so." (That night I text Leo some questions for Matt on this very subject, and also ask him to describe Leo. "Matt pleads the Fifth to your questions," comes the reply at 11pm.)

"We met when I was a government minister," continues Leo. "So it is not that different. I don't think our relationship has ever really been about our jobs."

I ask Leo about Christmas. His fondest memories of Christmas as a child are, he says, "of opening presents. When you're a kid, so much of Christmas is about the presents. It was strange for us because we used to always go down the country to our grandmother Monica's.

"My mum used to always say that we should definitely go to Dungarvan for Christmas because it might be nanny's last year. It turns out that she lived to the ripe old age of 93 and only passed away this year."

Leo remembers "packing the car to make the long journey - in those days! - from Dublin to Waterford. We used to pass through Naas and Castlecomer. We would stop off in Kilkenny sometimes. So I remember that big journey as a kid at Christmas. Now you're there in no time, two hours."

"I love Christmas," he goes on. "I love catching up with people. I love the festivities. I love the movies. But it is also a very stressful time too. If you are working hard like me, you are trying to get everything done by Christmas Eve and that's really hard. And then obviously for families with kids there is that enormous pressure on to get everything right for Christmas; and for people who don't have families it is actually a very lonely time. So it is a very emotionally charged time of year. Full of wonder but also stress and loneliness."

Does Leo regret saying in the Dail last week that Santa will find children in emergency accommodation across Ireland?

"No, I don't. I'm sorry that some of my political opponents choose to exploit that [comment]. I'm not sure what they would say of me if I said the opposite.

"It is an occupational hazard that no matter what you say or do, people will criticise you for it, and no matter what you do people will say it is not enough. That doesn't matter to me. I was in opposition too. I'm sure I was just as bad when I was in opposition. What matters to me is getting things done and making people's lives better."

Why are so many children homeless in Ireland in this day and age? Isn't it failed government policy?

"I think it is very simple why we are where we are."

Given we are such a wealthy country?

"People say that but we shouldn't forget that it was only in the last two years that we balanced the books; in the years before that we were in an IMF programme, which is what happens to bankrupt countries. So it is amazing how quickly people decided we are a rich country again.

"It's only in the last couple of years that we've been able to invest, and we are investing more than ever in housing in fact. Like this year, for example, we will have provided about 10,000 more social housing, council houses as they used to call them."

But it's not good enough, is it?

"It's as much as we can do at the moment. It's 10,000 this year; 11,000 next year."

Is it ever good enough when kids don't have homes?

"Of course it's not. Of course it's not. But my view is: it's not good enough just to say 'It's not good enough'. What are you going to do about it?"

And what are you going to do about it?

"Already since I've become Taoiseach we have more than doubled the number of social houses being provided every year. We are going to increase them every year until we have solved this problem. I would estimate that over the next five years we can build about 60,000 more.

"If it were possible to do it quicker we would. If there was a cheque that could be signed, or a button that be pressed, a lever that could be pulled, we would have done it by now.

"But we had a crash ten years ago. The government was bust. The construction industry went bust. The construction workers emigrated. The banks were bust and couldn't lend any more. So no houses got built for about seven years. Normally in a seven-year period about 200,000 houses would be built. So it is only in the past two years that we are catching up.

"One of the things that I'm conscious of is rough sleeping. That really is the sharpest end of homeless."

How does it effect Leo emotionally to see people sleeping on the streets of Dublin?

"It is very sad," he says. "I live in Dublin. I am faced by homelessness almost every evening that I walk around the streets off Dublin.

"I have been out with people who work in the sector, the NGO Safetynet, and some of the doctors who provide medical care to the homeless, and it is really is the sharp end of it that you see.

"But it is one of the things that we've made some progress in. In the last rough-sleep count we were down to about 92 rough sleepers, often people who are hard to help. It doesn't mean you ever stop trying, but sometimes people who don't want to come in for their own reasons can be difficult to help.

"But I remember when Jonathan Corrie died - you know, the gentleman who died on Molesworth Street in a doorway not too far from the Dail in December 2014? At that time, there were 160 or 170 rough sleepers, sometimes over 200, and it is one of the areas that we are beginning to see some real progress in.

"That didn't happen by accident. It is because of the outreach teams, because of the Government funding that we are putting in, it is because of Housing First. So there are areas where we are genuinely seeing some progress, but we need to persist with that now."

Speaking on RTE Radio One last weekend, Leo admitted that it was "terrible" and "wrong" that 10-year-old cancer patient Alex O'Shaughnessy had his chemotherapy delayed because of hospital bed shortages. I ask Leo what does he say to the parents of Alex - and many others like him - who are experiencing these disgraceful delays.

"What I would say to them is that we are working night and day to come up with a solution that we face in our health service and it is something that I think about every day.

"Being a doctor, my background, being somebody who worked in Crumlin Hospital in paediatrics, [this] is something I care about deeply. It is one of the reasons why we have been driving ahead with building a new children's hospital. Despite all the trouble that we've had, despite all the controversies, despite all the opposition, we need this.

"When it comes to our maternity hospitals and our children's hospitals, we are operating out of hospitals that are 100 and 200 years old. That is not right. It is not good enough. It is a scandal that during the boom period this wasn't dealt with. It is only in the last couple of years that we've had the money again to invest in new hospitals. We are building three new hospitals at the moment. We haven't done that in a long time.

"I am determined to drive that through and get them open. When people see the new children's hospital… 100 rooms, all single rooms, which is really important - it means rooms for parents to stay overnight. It also means that we can have proper infection control. So we don't end up having to close beds when the hospital is very crowded or there is infection. I know that's not a solution for people whose [kids' chemo treatments are cancelled]..."

Has he picked up the phone to any of those parents?

Can he tell them personally that this shouldn't happen?

"I often speak to individual patients and individual parents. I know this is going to sound strange but there are actually particular rules around privacy and data protection. You can't just contact a patient. If they contact you, it's different."

After Christmas, Leo and his family - dad Ashok, mother Miriam and sisters Sonia and Sophie and their kids - are off to India for a week to mark Ashok's 80th birthday.

Did Leo ever suffer racism as a kid at school?

"Yeah. Not the kind of overt racism that I know some people do face all the time, like certain name-calling and so on. I think partially because my dad was the local GP," he says. "I think that made it a bit easier for people that I was the local doctor's kid, which was maybe different to someone who was coming in as an asylum seeker or a refugee.

"But I was the only person of colour in my class. Blanchardstown was very different in those days. Since then it would be much more diverse. It would be kind of small things, even still they happened very rarely.

"You know, because I'm, whatever, a bit darker-skinned and have a foreign surname, people would assume that you don't speak Irish or assume that you don't know anything about hurling. Even though you grew up in Ireland. Of course you do [know]!

"Or this is a small one, which, again is not intended to be racist but it is strange when people would say to you, 'Did you ever go back to India?'. The implication is that's where you are from. I actually do understand the distinction between malign and malicious racism and a large degree of racism that derives maybe from ignorance, people not being aware of these kind of things.

"So sometimes people used racially charged words that they shouldn't use, and these days there is a lot of controversy around that, but these are the kind of words that my grandfather would have used but would never have thought them to be racist and he wasn't a racist man.

"But people often don't understand these things. The same thing would apply, I think, when it comes to feminism, for example: people saying things about women or having views that they shouldn't have. It doesn't mean they're misogynist or straight out of Gilead."

I assume he is referring to The Handmaid's Tale.

"I really like The Handmaid's Tale series," Leo says. "I met Margaret Atwood when she was in Dublin recently. I will read The Testaments over Christmas."

What did Leo think of Boris Johnson before he met him?

"I knew a lot about him, because I kind of followed his progress. I had met him once on St Patrick's Day a long time ago in Trafalgar Square in London. I had an open mind meeting him. I suppose I knew him more from the TV."

You seem to get on with him pretty well, I say - those pictures of the two of you walking in the gardens of Thornton Manor Hotel just outside Liverpool in October.

"We kind of hit it off," he laughs. "He is an easy person to talk to. He is witty, intelligent."

What was going through Leo's mind when Boris kept stretching his arms back and forward like he was at the gym when Leo was talking publicly outside Government Buildings in September?

"I didn't see that," laughs Leo. "That happened when I was giving my press conference and looking straight ahead. It was only after that I saw it on Twitter, hours later. He is the person he is. He is a character in many senses of the word."

Eoghan Harris wrote in last weekend's Sunday Independent that the British election result is "about the resurgence of English nationalism. Here the big question is whether it's a benign English kind of nationalism or a malign one on the racist East European model."

Which does Leo believe is the case with Boris?

"I think Boris is actually somebody who is an economic liberal, a social liberal who is quite internationalist, and that's very much the person he was as London mayor, which is why I was a bit surprised when he embraced Brexit, and he is now the prime minister and he has to deal with the consequences of Brexit.

"So I hope he doesn't go down the nationalist track and that he wants to keep a very close relationship with Ireland and Europe and the rest of the world. That remains to be seen.

"You know, whereas I don't think he is a hardline nationalist, some of the people who always wanted Brexit are, and they are there in his party and in his cabinet and that is going to be a difficult thing for him to manage. And some people who might have been closer to him politically are now gone."

How would Leo handle it if the hardline nationalist side emerged?

"We deal with the British government, not with the factions in it."

In terms of dealing with Britain and Brexit negotiations, Leo says that "often the trickiest part is having the judgment to know at what point to make concessions and compromises because if you make concessions and compromises too late then it is too late, and if you make them too early then it is not enough and your negotiating partners come back. So it is a bit of a poker game sometimes, for very high stakes."

Does he play poker?

"I have, but not regularly."

Are you like that in decisions with Matt?

"Ah, no!" he laughs. "Not at all!"

What are Leo's core beliefs? Does he want to see a united Ireland?

"I do and I think everyone... not everyone but I think most people in Ireland aspire to a united Ireland. It's in our constitution. So I don't think anyone should are ashamed of saying that they would like to see a united Ireland; and I don't think it should be seen as a provocation, although I know some people, some Unionists feel that it is, although I don't think it is.

"But I am a real believer in the philosophy behind the Good Friday Agreement. So I don't like the idea of a border poll in which people who favour a united Ireland get one or two more votes than people who want to maintain the union.

"The whole idea behind the Good Friday Agreement is that we would have to have reconciliation and unity among people first; and that means people sharing and that means co-operation North and South; and it means Britain and Ireland being closer together as well.

"That's one thing the Tanaiste and I will be really focusing on in the run-up to Christmas and in the new year, trying to get the institution of Stormont back up and running, because that is what we should be committing ourselves to in my view. If you look at the election results in Northern Ireland in Westminster, 45pc voted for Unionist parties, 40 for nationalist parties, 15 for the growing centre ground. There isn't really a majority now for a united Ireland or for direct rule."

Does Leo miss doing Pilates in the Dail gym with Gerry Adams?

"No! I only ever did Pilates a few times and only once with Gerry Adams," he laughs. "I haven't done Pilates for years. I try to run and go to the gym."

What was the Taoiseach's gig of the year?

"Lizzo at the Olympia, definitely. It was great music and a great performance. She really made the effort. She knew her audience and knew about Ireland."

Leo, 40, said in 2015 that he might exit politics when he was 50. He since took back that comment. If Fine Gael lost the next election, would he reconsider his position?

"Well," he beams, "we are going to win the next election and I will be running again for the Dail and it will be an enormous privilege to serve for another five years as Taoiseach."

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