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Irish Leader Leo Varadkar Resigns as Taoiseach 

Updated: May 23

Leo Varadakar announced he would be stepping down as Taosieach and as leader of the Fine Gael party, effective immediately. The announcement was delivered in an emotional press conference at Government Buildings on Wednesday. Varadkar, a man who twice served as Taoiseach of Ireland, stated that he made the decision to resign due to reasons that were “personal and political”.

Varadkar added that he “believed the re-election of this three party government would be the right thing for the future of our country”, clearly erring on the side of stability after his bombshell resignation has cast legitimate doubts over the immediate future of Irish polity.

As with any leader, there were notable peaks and valleys throughout his time as Taoiseach. Having taken the helm shortly after Brexit, his ability to assuage both Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster were essential to mitigating the risk of a hard border being reinstated between Ireland and Northern Ireland. After this, his success was reflected in opinion polls. In June 2020, shortly after the start of the Covid-19 lockdowns, one Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll had Varadkar at a remarkable 75% approval rating.

Varadkar’s second term as Taoiseach was far more tumultuous and may be an indicator of why he stepped away. Once taking over from Micheál Martin in December 2022, various crises began to cascade. The spread of Covid-19 was a shock to economic growth prospects across the globe, and Ireland was no exception. The country’s housing crisis, a long-standing issue, had reached an inflection point following the pandemic. Today, large swathes of the public feel that the social contract has been completely ruptured. Renewed focus on the government’s failed public housing policy was the beginning of a swift decline in approval for Varadkar. 

The lack of affordable housing and strained public services, coupled with a growing anti-immigration sentiment amongst the country’s working class, exacerbated the political unrest. With the number of immigrants housed by the state jumping from 7,500 in 2021 to 73,000 in 2022, a near tenfold increase, tensions boiled over into the November 2023 Dublin riots; a clear low point in the recent political history of the country. As a response, Varadkar condemned the violence, but he also quickly pushed through updated ‘hate speech’ legislation as part of his vow “to get” those responsible. Regardless of your views on free speech rights or immigration, Varadkar’s refusal to engage with the protesters' concerns, at least rhetorically, was a sign that his administration may be too far removed from the electorate’s desires to lead effectively.

Most recently, a March 2024 referendum on language pertaining to family and care in the Irish constitution seemed to confirm this disconnect. A resounding 67% voted ‘No’ on an issue that Varadkar felt “confident” the ‘Yes’ side would take home. It was the largest ever referendum loss by an Irish government. The resignation also comes less than a week after Varadkar’s visit to Washington, where he met with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office as part of the St.Patrick’s Day tradition. The two leaders discussed the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza and agreed on the need for a ceasefire “as soon as possible”. Given Ireland’s long-time solidarity with Palestine, and the United States’ continuous aid and unwavering support for Israel, perhaps the “personal and political” reasons Varadkar referenced in his resignation speech are related to this moral dilemma. 

Either way, one can only speculate. What we know for certain is that a new era has arrived in Ireland, and the government needs to act quickly with European and local elections fast approaching. Wexford TD Verona Murphy even called for a snap General Election, stating “Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have lost the people, so the people should have their say.” Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill echoed this sentiment saying she is “clear” that a general election should be held as “it’s not a time for a rearranging of the deck chairs”. Varadkar is expected to be replaced as soon as the next Fine Gael leader is available to take his place. He requested that a new party leader be chosen on April 6, allowing the new Taoiseach and cabinet to be elected after the parliament’s Easter break. 

Image: Houses of the Oireachtas

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