Why has Leo Varadkar suddenly resigned as Irish prime minister?

A disastrous referendum result on modernising definitions of ‘family’ and women’s roles was a major factor.

Ireland's taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, speaks to the media as he announces his resignation, in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland on March 20, 2024 [Damien Eagers/Reuters]

Leo Varadkar’s decision to step down as prime minister of Ireland was so surprising that, according to reports, not even colleagues from his centre-right party, Fine Gael, saw it coming.

The Republic of Ireland’s taoiseach (the Irish Gaelic word for “chief” or “leader”), who will resign his post as prime minister as soon as a successor is chosen by his party and then approved by the Irish parliament, cut an emotional figure as he made his announcement on the steps of government buildings in Dublin on Wednesday after serving two terms as Irish premier – the first from 2017 to 2020 and the second since 2022. He will step down as his party’s leader with immediate effect.

With his party floundering in the polls, the 45-year-old said that another leader – and therefore another prime minister – would be “better placed” to tackle the next Irish general election, which must be held no later than March 2025.

“I believe this government can be re-elected,” he said. “I believe a new taoiseach will be better placed than me to achieve that – to renew and strengthen the top team, to refocus our message and policies, and to drive implementation. After seven years in office, I am no longer the best person for that job.”

Who is Leo Varadkar?

As the dramatic manner of his resignation suggests, Varadkar has not shied away from making political waves during his time as a front-line politician.

Indeed, when the former medical doctor became taoiseach in 2017 at the age of just 38, he immediately made history as the youngest, the first mixed-race and the first openly gay politician to occupy the premiership of Ireland, a European Union member state steeped in Catholic heritage.

Varadkar, who was born in Dublin to an Indian immigrant father and Irish mother in 1979, first went public with his sexuality during a radio interview with Ireland’s RTE Radio 1 in 2015 while serving as Irish health minister.

“I am a gay man. It’s not a secret, but not something that everyone would necessarily know but isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before,” he told listeners.

“It’s not something that defines me,” he added. “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am … it is part of my character I suppose.”

Why is he stepping down now?

Varadkar’s attempt to modernise references to family and women in the country’s 87-year-old constitution in a dual referendum earlier this month resulted in a humiliating and heavy defeat for the taoiseach and his political allies.

The first question in the referendum asked Irish voters for permission to widen the definition of family by amending wording so it read that families can be established “on marriage or on other durable relationships”.

The second question asked citizens whether the clause – “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home” – should be deleted and another – “The state recognises that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved, and shall strive to support such provision” – added.

Varadkar had described the polls, which deliberately fell on International Women’s Day on March 8, as a chance to do away with “very old-fashioned, very sexist language about women”.

In the end, however, the nation disagreed with him and, while Ireland’s main political parties all campaigned for a “Yes, Yes” vote, Varadkar was particularly criticised for leading a “gimmicky” and “confusing” campaign.

“There are a lot of people who got this wrong and I am certainly one of them,” he said after the referendum results were announced.

Tom McTague, political editor of the UK’s UnHerd, summed up Varadkar’s immediate legacy by writing that he “resigned as all political leaders do: dispirited and unpopular, the sheen of his early years long since wiped away by the grinding realities of government. His party, Fine Gael, now trails badly in the polls. Ireland’s housing crisis borders on the obscene”.

Varadker and Biden
Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, right, presents United States President Joe Biden with shamrocks during a St Patrick’s Day reception at the US White House, on Sunday, March 17, 2024 [Stephanie Scarbrough/AP]

What were his career highlights as Irish taoiseach?

Varadkar’s time at the top of government saw him serve five years as Irish prime minister and two as deputy prime minister (between 2020 and 2022).

When he first became taoiseach in 2017, Ireland’s nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, had recently voted to quit the European Union in its so-called Brexit referendum of 2016 – which also triggered the resignation of a prime minister, the UK’s David Cameron.

But after then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May declared that Britain’s departure from the EU would also mean its withdrawal from the bloc’s single market and customs union, the spectre of a hard border between EU member the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, loomed large.

Northern Ireland’s sensitive political history of sectarian conflict known as the Troubles – which lasted for nearly 30 years and ended in May 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement – became a major issue for Varadkar, who wanted to keep the flow of goods moving between the two jurisdictions without the need for security cameras or border posts dividing the island of Ireland.

Varadkar was at the centre of negotiations between the UK, the EU and Ireland on this issue, which saw a deal finalised after Northern Ireland was made to align with EU trading rules.

Varadkar namechecked this deal, which was recently modified as part of a deal to resume Northern Ireland’s devolved power-sharing government in February, as one of his main successes in his resignation speech.

“We prevented a hard border between north and south and protected our place in Europe,” he stated.

Varadkar oversaw the lifting of a near-total ban on abortion in 2018 when the country voted overwhelmingly in favour of reform of the country’s strict laws.

In recent months, Varadkar has publicly criticised Israel’s ongoing military campaign against the Gaza Strip.

Following the Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 last year, the physically imposing premier (he stands 1.9m or 6ft 4in tall) departed from the Western narrative when he criticised the Israeli state’s military motives in the face of the rising Palestinian death toll, which has since surpassed 31,000.

“What I’m seeing unfolding at the moment isn’t just self-defence. It looks, resembles something more approaching revenge,” he said during a visit to South Korea in November 2023. “That’s not where we should be. And I don’t think that’s how Israel will guarantee future freedom and future security.”

When multiple nation donors suspended funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) after Israel accused it of employing members of Hamas, Varadkar was among the few leaders who pledged to continue sending money in February.

On March 15, just five days before he announced his resignation, Varadkar urged US President Joe Biden to work towards an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza during a St Patrick’s Day meeting in Washington with the American leader, who frequently refers to his own Irish heritage.

Simon Harris
Simon Harris, minister for further and higher education, research, innovation and science, leaves Dublin Castle after a cabinet meeting in May 2021. Harris is the favourite to replace Varadkar as Ireland’s taoiseach or prime minister [Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Who will succeed Varadkar as Irish PM?

Ireland’s minister for higher education and former health minister, Simon Harris, is being widely touted as the favourite to succeed Varadkar as leader of Fine Gael, and become Irish prime minister.

At just 37, a victory for Harris would see him trump Varadkar as the youngest-ever Irish taoiseach if Fine Gael declare him as its new party leader on April 6, and he is voted in by the Irish Parliament after the Easter break.

Others initially seen as possible contenders, including enterprise minister Simon Coveney, minister for justice Helen McEntee and minister for public expenditure Paschal Donohoe, have ruled themselves out.

Source: Al Jazeera