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Leo’s back: Varadkar returns as prime minister of Ireland

Leo’s back: Varadkar returns as prime minister of Ireland

by host

DUBLIN — Lawmakers elected Leo Varadkar as Ireland’s prime minister for a second time Saturday in agreed succession to Micheál Martin as the government partners vowed to defend the center ground of Irish politics against the nationalists of Sinn Féin.

“The distinguishing feature of centrist democrats is the ability to respect differences, find points of agreement, and cooperate. This is what we have done,” Martin said as he backed Varadkar’s nomination as Taoiseach, a core commitment in their coalition pact struck in 2020.

Under terms of that agreement, the nearly century-old rivals of Irish politics — Martin’s Fianna Fáil and Varadkar’s Fine Gael – formed their first joint government with support from a junior coalition partner, the Green Party. All three agreed that Martin would lead for the first 2 ½ years, Varadkar for the rest of an expected five-year administration.

They joined forces in common opposition to Sinn Féin, which topped the popular vote in 2020, has consistently led all opinion polls since, and regularly tests the coalition’s majority in hopes of triggering an early general election.

At a special weekend sitting of Dáil Eireann, the lower house of parliament, members voted along party lines 87-62 to give the top job back to Varadkar. He last served as Taoiseach — Gaelic for “chief” — from 2017 to 2020 as leader of a minority Fine Gael government backed externally by Fianna Fáil. That, too, was a novel arrangement shaped by the electoral rise of Sinn Féin.

Varadkar planned to announce a reshuffled Cabinet roster Saturday night. Martin was expected to become foreign minister, replacing Varadkar’s Fine Gael colleague Simon Coveney, who could fill the post of trade minister being vacated by Varadkar.

Varadkar, a 43-year-old Dubliner, and Martin, a 62-year-old Corkman, overcame early behind-the-scenes tensions to lead a stable Irish coalition buoyed by exceptionally strong state finances fed by U.S. multinationals.

On Saturday, they entered the Leinster House parliament building together, surrounded by well wishers. They were joined by Martin’s wife and three children and Varadkar’s parents, an Indian doctor and Irish nurse who met in a Dublin hospital.

In his victory speech Varadkar noted that, when he became Ireland’s youngest-ever Taoiseach in 2017, much attention focused on “what it represented and symbolized” that he had become both the country’s first leader of ethnic immigrant stock and its first openly gay prime minister.

This time around, he said, leading a nation “where you’re free to be yourself” would mean fixing the biggest problem in Ireland’s buoyant economy and fast-growing population — the scarcity and unaffordability of housing, particularly in a capital where average monthly rents top €2,300.

“We are failing some of our citizens. It’s essential to our success as a country that we spend the next two years doing all we can to put this right,” Varadkar said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who declined to put herself forward as a candidate in the leadership vote, accused Varadkar of spending his past 11 years at the Cabinet table defending “the insider class” and housing policies designed “for wealthy investors and corporate landlords.”

She told Varadkar and Martin across the chamber they were “essentially the one party now” — and would suffer a twin defeat whenever the next election is called.

“You can stand in the way of change,” said McDonald, whose party is already the largest in Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. where Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do not contest elections. “You can make the people wait a little longer, but you cannot and will not stop that change. … The old ways are on borrowed time.”

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