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Ireland's New Prime Minister Reflects Changing Face Of The Country


Tomorrow, Ireland swears in a new prime minister who reflects the changing face of the country. Leo Varadkar is Ireland's youngest leader ever. He's 38. He's also biracial, the son of an Irish mother and an Indian immigrant father, as he noted in his election night victory speech.


PRIME MINISTER LEO VARADKAR: I know when my father traveled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed that his son would one day grow up to become its leader and that despite his differences, his son would be treated the same and judged by his actions and character, not his origins or identity.

SHAPIRO: And his election is historic for a third reason. Varadkar is openly gay. He publicly came out during the debate over Ireland's same-sex marriage vote two years ago. Henry McDonald covers Ireland for The Guardian newspaper and joins us now. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: Apart from these three history-making facts, give us a quick sketch of who Leo Varadkar is.

MCDONALD: Well, Leo Varadkar followed his father into the medical profession. In fact, his father met his mother in a hospital, actually, in England - in Slough in England. And Leo Varadkar studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. He practiced medicine as a GP. His partner is also, in fact, a doctor as well. So there's a big medical tradition in the family. And he's a member of the Fine Gael Party.

He's the leader of the Fine Gael Party, one of the parties born out of Irish independence and the civil war of the 1920s. And he is, as you say, the youngest ever taoiseach, as we call him, the prime minister of the state. So he gets three strikes for making historic turns in Irish history. He's making history three times.

SHAPIRO: Does that in some way reflect the changing demographics of Ireland today?

MCDONALD: Well, very much so on two levels - liberalization and Ireland becoming more cosmopolitan. And let's take the latter. Well, when I was a student in Dublin in the 1980s, it was a very basically manly, white and Catholic Ireland with a few people from the developing world studying at the universities. Dublin now, for instance, the north inner city of Dublin, up to 20, perhaps 25 percent of the population are non-Irish nationals.

I think around maybe a quarter of recent births have been to non-Irish national couples and women. So it's a changing environment. And he represents that, albeit his father came to Ireland much earlier.

SHAPIRO: I understand the controversy surrounding him in the Irish media is less about his being the son of an immigrant or being openly gay or being young and actually more about his politics.

MCDONALD: It is. And in a way, I mean, I was talking to the editor of Gay Community News in Dublin. And he said it's not a healthy thing. The Irish media are not obsessed about his sexuality or his racial origins, they're obsessed about the fact that he - they're trying - some people label him a Thatcherite. They think he's a kind of a son of Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister.

SHAPIRO: Sort of right of center.

MCDONALD: Right of center, very pro-free market - you know, in the style of Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan, if you like, you know, smaller state. But I still think the gay thing is important because I remember 25 years ago reporting on - it was only back in 1992 when homosexuality was decriminalized in the Irish Republic.

So it shows you, in a couple of decades, the Republic has changed massively, both in terms of its liberalization towards issues like gay rights and also, of course, we do have this taoiseach who's biracial, how cosmopolitan the country's become.

SHAPIRO: Henry McDonald of The Guardian newspaper, thanks so much for joining us.

MCDONALD: Pleasure to be on the show. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 13, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous Web summary for this story, we incorrectly stated that Leo Varadkar's father is a Pakistani immigrant. In fact, his father is an Indian immigrant.