He has thrown down the gauntlet to Theresa May on Brexit and his country is enjoying one of the most remarkable economic revivals that the EU has seen. But Leo Varadkar is not above queueing for a table at a mid-priced Chicago restaurant. Or taking a selfie with the travelling Irish waitress who didn’t recognise him and stuck him at what she later described as a “tiny table”. The story of that encounter between Ireland’s prime minister and 20-year-old student Emma Kelly went viral in Ireland last week. Meanwhile, the wider world ruminated on the implications of Mr Varadkar’s recent warning that his government was “not going to design a border for the Brexiteers”, and the news that, only seven years after a painful bailout, Ireland’s borrowing costs are the same as France’s. The negative impact on trade could be completely offset by companies flocking to the country
The gulf between the international headlines and the local ones is familiar territory, even two months into Mr Varadkar’s leadership. When he became Ireland’s youngest ever Taoiseach, the world marvelled at a conservative Catholic country being led by the openly gay son of an immigrant — so much so that Mr Varadkar’s mother Miriam lamented in the Irish Times: “Why can’t they just write on the newspaper, ‘Handsome, beautiful 38-year-old doctor becomes the prime minister of Ireland’?” The Irish cared more about how he was going to handle the country’s economy, an acute property shortage and healthcare and childcare crises. “The campaign [for Mr Varadkar’s leadership] was very much around domestic issues here in Ireland and reforms Fine Gael needed to undertake as a party,” says his campaign manager Eoghan Murphy, who is now Ireland’s minister for housing, planning and local government. Mr Murphy, who is aged 35, is circumspect about the role youth played in Mr Varadkar’s selection by the Fine Gael party as the successor to 66-year-old Enda Kenny. “Simon [Coveney, who ran against Mr Varadkar] is a young guy as well,” says Mr Murphy. “What was exciting for the party and those paying attention to campaign was the generational shift in Irish politics.”
Certainly, Mr Varadkar’s leadership looks very different to Mr Kenny’s. He tweets to 70,000 followers, runs adventure races, takes visiting heads of state for a jog around Dublin’s Phoenix Park, and has been known to take team meetings outside when it’s sunny. Politically, says Eoin O’Malley, a professor at Dublin City University, Mr Varadkar is “probably more centre-right as opposed to a non-ideological person which Enda Kenny was”. “He’s less interested in being liked in the way that Kenny liked to be liked,” Mr O’Malley adds. Mr Varadkar’s directness goes back a long way — a classmate from Kings Hospital school says that the Taoiseach’s ethnicity was not his most prominent feature in a population that was still relatively homogenous in the 1980s. “If he did stand out, it was more so because he was tall and very bright and never had a problem with speaking his mind.” Mr Varadkar’s remarks on Brexit are a case in point. Mr Murphy argues that “the approach hasn’t changed” on this issue, but that “the clock is now ticking and we’re in a different position” to when Mr Kenny was in office. Publicly, Ireland has been anti-Brexit, fearing any disturbance to the precariously balanced status quo in the north, and because of the potential economic harm to the UK, which buys 13 per cent of Irish exports and supplies 24 per cent of Ireland’s imports.
But the fact that Ireland’s debt is now trading so healthily suggests that investors are not overly concerned about the potential hit to Ireland’s economy, which has been the fastest growing in the eurozone for the past three years. Dermot O’Leary, chief economist at brokerage Goodbody, says it is possible that over a decade the negative impact on Ireland’s trade could be completely offset by a positive impact from companies flocking to the country. Dublin, along with Frankfurt, Paris and other big cities in the EU, has been vying for business from companies who will move some operations away from the UK so that they can continue to have access to the single market. Financial services is particularly fertile ground and Ireland has done especially well at attracting commitments from financial services firms, according to the latest count from S&P.
Most of those firms dealt with Mr Varadkar’s predecessor, but he has met some bankers and plans to meet more soon. “He seemed very straightforward actually,” remarked one who had met the prime minister. International banks are often where high-ranking politicians end up once their political careers are over. Ireland’s former EU commissioner Peter Sutherland, for example, went on to become chairman of Goldman Sachs International. Mr Varadkar used to say he “definitely” wanted to have a career outside politics, but changed tack when running for the Fine Gael leadership, pledging himself to politics for the “long term”. Still, it is hard to imagine him spending another 30 years in office. Does he ever talk about the future? “No, never,” says Mr Murphy. “He has given a huge amount of himself to politics . . . I couldn’t imagine him even thinking beyond that current challenge and opportunity . . . It is in the blood of his fingertips.”