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What Leo Varadkar’s Resignation Means for Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, and the Future Of Ireland

Current Education Minister Simon Harris will be elevated to Taoiseach for the remaining term of this government

Leo Varadkar pictured in June 2021 in Dublin Ireland
Leo Varadkar pictured in June 2021 in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto

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Leo Varadkar was once Fine Gael’s rising star. Serving as Ireland’s youngest Taoiseach and the first to be openly gay or from an ethnic minority background, Varadkar was the manifestation of a changing Ireland when he was elected head of government in 2017.

Now, at only 45, the Fine Gael leader has called time on both his premiership and leadership of the party. The announcement of Varadkar’s resignation has been referred to as a political earthquake, but harbingers of this seismic shift were evident for some time.

Earlier this week Galway East TD Ciaran Cannon confirmed his exit from politics at the end of this term – he became the tenth sitting Fine Gael TD to opt out of running in the general election, representing almost a third of the party’s parliamentary representatives.

This is a party that knows the tide has gone out, and after 13 years in government a new star is cresting: Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin has emerged as a dominant political force across the island of Ireland; the only major all-island party now holds the office of First Minister in Northern Ireland and is the largest party of local government.

In the 2020 general election in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin had a ten-point increase in its first preference vote share, besting both of its conservative counterparts, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil.

Despite these results, Sinn Féin was iced out of a coalition government, and a tripartite agreement between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green party became the new – or rather not-so-new – ruling parties.

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Ireland has taken enormous strides in shirking off its conservative shroud, but conservatism has maintained its grip on politics. It is widely considered that Sinn Féin underestimated its potential for growth in 2020, with more first preference votes than candidates, it won’t make the same mistake this time.

The party has held the top spot in every poll since 2020, often with a 10-point lead on its closest rival. Breaking the cycle of conservatism is the logical next step in Ireland’s journey to being a more progressive society.

The restructuring of Fine Gael represents a recalibration of Irish politics, when a comparable number of Fianna Fail TDs opted not to run for re-election in 2011 the party’s vote collapsed, losing 51 seats, and coming in at third place.

Fine Gael is preparing for a change, the ascension of Sinn Féin – will leave Fine Gael with two options; the opposition benches, or a coalition with a party it has long detested.

A leadership contest was anticipated with several runners and riders in the mix, but over the course of just twelve hours a coronation has taken place. Current Education Minister Simon Harris will be elevated to Taoiseach for the remaining term of this government, a little less than twelve months. He will snag Varadkar’s title as youngest Taoiseach by a matter of months.

Harris will play the youth card, but what gains did Varadkar make as the youngest Taoiseach for Ireland’s young people? They still face a crippling lack of opportunities, and housing. An October General election had been mooted, that now seems unlikely, a new Taoiseach will prolong this term of government with Harris needing as long as he can get in order to make his mark on the party, and the public, before the next election.

An analysis of Varadkar’s time in office will naturally get underway, for those of us in Northern Ireland his efforts to limit the impact of Brexit and increase focus and investment in the North did not go unnoticed.

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Of his predecessors Varadkar was the most “green”, he moved the party further into its United Ireland credentials, albeit not enough. How might a new leader fair on the biggest question of the last century? Current Education Minister Simon Harris is the bookie’s favourite. At 37 – should he succeed – he would snag Varadkar’s title as youngest Taoiseach by a matter of months.

Speaking in 2021 on a border poll, Harris said, “My generation has never really been given an opportunity to get involved in a discussion about the future of our island and what a new Ireland would mean to us and our families and communities.”

What steps would Harris take to change that? Harris will play the youth card, but what gains did Varadkar make as the youngest Taoiseach for Ireland’s young people? They still face a crippling lack of opportunities and housing.

Another contender in the mix is Rural Affairs Minister Heather Humphreys, a Presbyterian from border county Monaghan. If successful, she would be the first woman to be elected Taoiseach – a milestone Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald has been vying for at the next election. Other runners and riders include Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe, and Justice Minister Helen McEntee.

As for Varadkar, being the first at anything can carry higher levels of scrutiny and pressure. With his hat-trick, Varadkar faced a constant barrage of abuse and harassment, particularly across social media, often more personalised as well as racist or homophobic in nature.

Public life comes with a cost, in the era of social media, that cost is becoming increasingly higher. Varadkar’s departure may have been a shock, particularly after a strong US visit during St Patrick’s week, in which he spoke frankly about the horrors unfolding in Gaza, and the need for international intervention, but it might not be the last. I wouldn’t be surprised if his coalition partner, Michael Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, follows suit in stepping down.

If he does, expect a strong pro-United Ireland candidate like Jim O’Callaghan to step in; That’s the undercurrent here, politics in Ireland is changing.

This next decade will be about the constitutional question, all of Ireland’s political parties aspire to unite the Island, what remains to be seen, is which party has the leadership to make it happen.

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