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Comment: Why a spouse in the picture is seen as important for political leaders

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Simon Coveney with his wife Ruth at the wedding. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Simon Coveney with his wife Ruth at the wedding. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Minister Simon Coveney with his daughter Beth (6) at Government Buildings. Photo: Arthur Carron

Minister Simon Coveney with his daughter Beth (6) at Government Buildings. Photo: Arthur Carron

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Simon Coveney with his wife Ruth at the wedding. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Newspaper photographs of the two Fine Gael leadership favourites attending a colleague's wedding in Dublin at the weekend were telling.

Ministers Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney happily posed in separate press photographs at the wedding of former Fine Gael senator Eugene Regan and Janne Storgaard.

Neither of the highly ambitious and media-savvy politicians appeared to have had any qualms about posing for pictures as speculation heightened over a leadership race. The fact it was a private event certainly didn't stop them.

But what really stood out was the fact that Simon Coveney was pictured with his attractive wife Ruth, his arm protectively draped around her. A happy, glamorous, glowing couple.

And Leo was pictured on his own.

Image is very important in politics and it is always assumed that our leaders will fit into a traditional stereotypes.

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Simon Coveney with his wife Ruth at the wedding. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Simon Coveney with his wife Ruth at the wedding. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Simon Coveney with his wife Ruth at the wedding. Photo: Gerry Mooney

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Right through Irish history, and indeed in most countries around the world, leaders have had the support of loyal spouses of the opposite sex. It is something that the electorate and public are used to and expect. It is a comfort to them.

This is despite the fact that the role of political spouse can be a demeaning one - unless you are the US First Lady with your own office, staff and schedule.

Political wives in particular are often reduced to being paraded on foreign visits and at party conferences, on hand to give the husband a peck on the cheek after the keynote speech.

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Leo Varadkar at the wedding of former Fine Gael senator Eugene Regan and Janne Storgaard. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Leo Varadkar at the wedding of former Fine Gael senator Eugene Regan and Janne Storgaard. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Leo Varadkar at the wedding of former Fine Gael senator Eugene Regan and Janne Storgaard. Photo: Gerry Mooney

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It is not as bad for the men. I can't remember Denis Thatcher popping up on stage to shower Maggie with post-speech hugs.

And Angela Merkel's husband Joachim Sauer is notoriously private and is never seen in public with his wife. One exception to this was his rare appearance at the G7 summit in Japan last May. It made headline news in Germany as it was the first time the elusive Professor Sauer accompanied Ms Merkel to an international summit abroad.

In Ireland, we have come to expect our leaders to be settled, married, family men (not women).

Enda Kenny has had his wife Fionnuala supporting him during his many years as party leader and Taoiseach.

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Leo Varadkar with his partner Matt Barrett. Photo: Facebook pic

Leo Varadkar with his partner Matt Barrett. Photo: Facebook pic

Leo Varadkar with his partner Matt Barrett. Photo: Facebook pic

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen had a private but strong wife in Mary. She appeared when it mattered.

Even Bertie Ahern, a separated man, famously took his then partner Celia Larkin with him on a State visit to China. Garret FitzGerald's wife Joan, while in the background, was said to have had a huge influence on him.

Simon Coveney is on a winner if the traditional stereotype is the decider in the leadership contest. He is a devoted husband and father of three young daughters.

Another Fine Gael minister who has not ruled out declaring for the party leadership race is Health Minister Simon Harris. He is unmarried but is on the way. He recently announced his engagement to a nurse, Caoimhe Wade. There is nothing the Irish public would love more than a royal wedding - the nuptials of a sitting Taoiseach.

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If Leo Varadkar fulfils his ambition and wins the Fine Gael leadership contest, it will be a shift from what we expect of our leaders' private lives. There won't be any wife doing photo calls with him on the plinth of Leinster House if he is victorious. No-one hopping on stage to peck him on the cheek after a party conference speech. And you can be sure the international headlines won't be "Doctor elected Irish prime minister". The headline will be: "Ireland elects gay prime minister."

It is wrong to expect that a loving partner is a necessary requirement to hold the job of Taoiseach or leader of any country.

But gay or straight, and no matter what job or role a person has in life, having the back-up and support of a loving partner is always an advantage.

Leo Varadkar, a talented minister in a traditional conservative party, won the hearts and minds of the country when he came out in a radio interview with Miriam O'Callaghan in January 2015. Doing this so publicly, and having the country accept it, was a sure sign that Ireland was maturing.

He has found love, and has been dating another doctor, Matt Barrett, for the past 18 months. The couple have holidayed together, have met each other's families, and recently had a joint birthday bash attended by several ministers and celebrities. If Leo does win the Fine Gael leadership battle, he will be the country's first openly gay Taoiseach.

And it would be another step forward in our maturity as a country if, on the day of his election, he can walk on the plinth of Leinster House holding hands with his partner, and proudly show Ireland and the world that he has a love and special person to support him in the challenge ahead.


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