Wednesday 20 November 2019

Leo Varadkar uncovered

Minister Leo Varadkar,TD, ,the Minister for Transport,Tourism and Spor speaking at the announcement of the next phase of developments at the National Sports Campus in Blanchardstown.Pic Tom Burke 20/3/12
Minister Leo Varadkar,TD, ,the Minister for Transport,Tourism and Spor speaking at the announcement of the next phase of developments at the National Sports Campus in Blanchardstown.Pic Tom Burke 20/3/12

Catherine Murphy

His willingness to state the unpopular has earned him the nickname 'Gob Almighty', yet when it comes to his love life, Leo Varadkar is not for the talking, says Catherine Murphy

His willingness to state the unpopular has earned him the nickname 'Gob Almighty', yet when it comes to his love life, Leo Varadkar is not for the talking, says Catherine Murphy

Leo Varadkar tells me some of his favourite things. He lists his three favourite restaurants, bars, TV programmes and sports with relative ease.

But when I ask which actresses he fancies, it's a step too far; the Minister doesn't want to answer.

He's already satirised on a fake Twitter account as an adoring Madonna fan but, apart from confirming that he won't be attending an upcoming Madonna gig in Dublin, he'll say no more.

Why, I ask, will he list some of his other favourite things, but not his favourite actresses?

No answer.

The thing about Leo is that he's not big on small talk. He doesn't like reading personal details about himself in newspapers, preferring to talk about policy.

Since becoming Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, he has become even more protective of his personal life.

To some extent, he says, he has a private life and he wants to keep it private.

According to his friends, there isn't much of a private life to talk about. He's married to the job, they say, focused and single-minded, too busy to meet anyone.

On top of all that, he's only 33 -- what's the rush to meet someone?

They can recall Leo going out with a few girls, but don't remember ever meeting a significant other in all the years they've known him.

It's unusual, some of Leo's pals think, when every hot-blooded, right-of-centre female in the country classes Leo as Ireland's most eligible bachelor.

The only hint there might be that a whiff of romance in the air is when he talks about trying to get a table in Sabor, a pricey Brazilian restaurant off Dublin's Camden Street.

"I've heard it's very romantic," he says. "Though, of course, I'll be going for the food. But it's really hard to get a table."

Last year, RTE's 'The Naked Election' documentary showed Leo arriving home at night to an empty apartment and putting a ready meal in the microwave.

It's an image that has lingered in people's minds.

It takes me more than a week to secure a brief meeting with Leo. Eventually, he squeezes me in on the Saturday morning of the Fine Gael Ard Fheis, but he's half an hour late.

Apart from when he's shooting his mouth off on matters of national importance -- earning him the nickname 'Gob Almighty' -- he has a reputation among friends for being reserved, even shy.

When he steps out of the car, he expresses his unease with personality profiles. "Don't be too hard on me," he says almost instantly.

The first thing I notice is how tall he is -- six feet four inches -- and how young he looks -- only 33, Fine Gael's youngest Cabinet member.

He's slimmer than I thought, too.

"People always think I'm shorter and older," he tells me later.

Since becoming minister in 2011, he has taken up running and now runs three or four times a week.

"That bloody thing," he says, pointing to his mobile phone, "is beside me at all times; it's beside me in bed at night.

"When I go running, I can get away from it and use the time to make decisions. They may not always be the right decisions, but I feel great about it afterwards."

Phrases such as 'future leader of FG', even 'future Taoiseach', tend to get bandied about in certain quarters when Leo's name comes up.

His rise through the Fine Gael party was swift, and the manner in which he simultaneously forged careers in both medicine and politics has been striking.

He started out studying law at TCD, but switched to medicine after being awarded extra points.

During the first two years of his studies, he got involved in politics, joining Young Fine Gael at the age of 18.

He might have preferred an economics or business course, but his parents -- a GP and a nurse -- favoured a profession such as medicine, law or civil engineering.

But politics, say colleagues, was his big love, and he continues to have a massive interest in European and American politics.

It's a little-remembered fact that at the age of 20, Leo ran unsuccessfully in local elections in Mulhuddart, a tough ward that other party members shied away from.

In 2003, the year that he graduated from Trinity, he was co-opted on to Dublin City Council when FG colleague Sheila Terry left to become a senator.

Although then only 24, Leo's work rate and ambition saw him move quickly up the ranks, and while Sheila Terry didn't get a nomination to run in the 2007 election, Leo did and was elected in Dublin West.

Despite being involved in the internal heave against Enda Kenny in 2010, he was handed a front-bench position.

One political journalist, who spoke to him on the day the Cabinet was announced, said he was more shocked than anyone to find himself within the fold when he had expected to be doing time in the sin bin.

Some insiders speculate that Leo was simply too talented to be kept out of Cabinet; others say it was a matter of Enda Kenny keeping his enemies close.

Said one insider: "In their early days in the Dail, Leo and Lucinda Creighton were used to bait Bertie Ahern. There was definitely an element of that.

"Now, Enda sometimes sends Leo out to say unpopular things, messages to the electorate that will paint him as the demon."

Leo himself says: "I'm willing to go out and say things that might be considered unpopular."

"I'm a team player and, for example, when Phil Hogan was taking a lot of heat over the Household Charge, I thought it was important to back him because he will do the same for me at some point.

"I don't want to be one of those hand-wringing politicians who talks a lot, but says nothing," Leo continues.

"One of the things that annoyed me most about politics was that politicians don't answer questions. I'm determined to tell it as it is, to tell people the truth."

Leo is considered by observers to be partisan, often giving his own personal view of things rather than the party's.

"I always pay particular attention when Leo is about to speak in the Dail," says one political commentator, "because he's unpredictable; you never quite know what he's going to say next.

"I sometimes wonder if the party even knows what he's going to say next."

When he first started making a name for himself in national politics, Leo Varadkar's outspoken views were seen as refreshing.

When he was barely a wet week in Dail Eireann, he famously infuriated Bertie Ahern by questioning his finances and later rounded on Brian Cowen.

But more recently, he's been variously nicknamed 'Varad the Impaler' and 'Gob Almighty' for his annunciations on the Troika, referenda and the Household Charge.

Leo is perceived as somewhat arrogant and aloof, particularly following a recent remark that Irish families could afford to take a holiday in 2012.

He denies it was a gaffe, saying the media misinterpreted what he meant.

Leo's path to success in life hasn't always been smooth.

He failed and had to repeat two exams in the second year of his medical degree -- anatomy and physiology.

"Too much politics," he says. "But I didn't have to repeat any other exams after that".

In his early political days, he was nicknamed 'Councillor Scrubs' by a political rival for turning up to a council meeting dressed in junior doctor garb.

"It's an urban myth that I was dressed in surgical scrubs," Leo insists. "I was working as a junior doctor in Blanchardstown's Connolly Hospital and left in the middle of a long day to go to a council meeting.

"I was wearing a jacket that junior doctors wear. I put a coat on over it and went to the meeting.

"It was 3.30pm, the middle of a long day, not the end of a working day for me as it was for some of them; I was going back to work in the hospital afterwards," he explains.

Leo also got it wrong three years ago when he celebrated his 30th birthday at the Odessa Club in Dublin.

While sending an invite around to FG deputies, he inadvertently sent the email to Fianna Fail TDs.

Did any of them show up?

"No," he says. "I got a few emails saying thanks but no thanks."

On a fake LeoVarad Twitter page that consistently pokes fun at him, he's depicted as a self-loving, David Cameron-style Tory who wants to sell off Ireland's assets and, rather more hilariously, as loving 'Fair City' and Madonna.

But in a sense, Leo Varadkar is exactly what it says on the tin: a middle-class, private-school- educated guy in his 30s.

He socialises in Myos in Castleknock, the Exchequer in Dublin city centre and likes the Stag's Head, where he went as a TCD student.

He drinks Coke Zero and coffee, and enjoys a drink when socialising.

Leo loves japanese food and eats out in the Elephant & Castle or, for finer dining, at l'Ecrivain. He goes to gigs, most recently Kings of Leon and Dolly Parton, which he was dragged to by a friend and enjoyed.

His favourite TV programmes are 'Family Guy', 'Law and Order', and 'Downton Abbey'.

It irked many that our Minister for Sport had no involvement in the GAA when he was appointed. Not very Irish, not very grassroots.

"I saw him at Croke Park recently," says one political rival. "But sure, he might as well have been at Wimbledon."

This middle-class boy prefers cricket (his father is a big fan) and rugby -- he plays on the Oireachtas rugby team.

And he has started attending GAA matches -- he tells me proudly that Dublin have won every game he's attended.

His move into running and fitness are a purposeful attempt to be more sporty, as befits a Minister for Sport.

He takes his role seriously and will this summer visit the Kerry gaeltacht to brush up on his Irish.

Leo's current home is not far from where he grew up in Roselawn. His father Ashok, a GP, came from Mumbai in India and met his wife Miriam, a nurse from Dungarvan, Co Waterford, while working in the UK.

The couple settled in Dublin and had three children, of whom Leo is the youngest.

Leo has two older sisters, Sophie and Sonia, both of whom hold senior medical positions.

"Leo's parents were dubious about his interest in politics," says one FG member.

"They felt Leo should have followed Sophie into a big consultant's job in London, that he was a great loss to the medical profession when he chose to work in politics. But the whole family is now very proud of Leo's achievements," they add.

Leo attended the fee-paying Kings Hospital in Palmerstown, and St Francis Xavier National School alongside friends such as Andy Garvey, who's now vice chairman of the West Dublin constituency and who worked closely with Leo on his 2007 election campaign.

Leo was, Andy says, very intelligent and always that bit ahead of the rest of the class, but, otherwise, a normal kid.

Both Varadkar sisters are married with two children, but their young brother shows no sign of following in their footsteps.

"Is that something you want for yourself, children?" I ask. He begins what seems to be an answer, but it trails off into nothingness.

In an interview two years ago, Leo talked about being absolutely single. In a pre-election interview last year, he talked about his ideal woman, but said he wasn't particularly looking to meet anyone.

Leo has described himself as not being a people person, and some friends report that he is better in one-on-one conversations.

Kate Cullen, who works in financial services and is a long-time friend of his, says that Leo's public and private persona don't always match.

"It doesn't always come across," she says, "but Leo has an excellent sense of humour, dry and a little bit sarcastic. He laughs at the fake Twitter account. His only worry is that people will think it's really him."

Another friend says: "Leo is also seen as a good employer by those who have worked for him, even cooking for them one Christmas."

His special adviser Brian Murphy would probably agree with that. Leo caused a stir when he asked for an annual wage of €135,000 for Brian, the same amount he had earned in the private sector.

The amount was rejected by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, and Brian now reportedly earns €105,000.

While now a registered GP and continuing his medical education in case he ever wants to go back to practising medicine, Leo's ambition and efficiency in politics mean that other aspects of his life have to be put on hold.

"I'm conscious of the fact that this may be my only opportunity to be in Government," he says. "And I want to do all I can to help turn things around while I'm there."

Surprisingly, for someone who is touted as a future party leader, he claims he likes to keep his options open.

"I find it scary when people talk about me as a future leader. It's like putting a big target on your back," he says.

"I love what I'm doing and I intend staying in politics, seeing where it can take me, but I wouldn't want to be tied to it. I won't necessarily stay in politics forever.

"One of the things that I did a few years ago and really enjoyed was voluntary medical work in Mongolia, and that's something I'd like to do in future -- voluntary medical work overseas, that's an area in which an individual can make a difference."

Whether Leo wants to work in medicine in the future or is simply trying to tone down his image as an uber-ambitious politician with his eye on the leadership is another thing.

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