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Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar unexpectedly quits

2 min

Leo Varadkar said on Wednesday he would step down as Ireland's prime minister in a surprise move, saying the country's coalition government would stand a better chance of reelection under another leader.

Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar, Reuters/Carrie Davenport

Leo Varadkar said on Wednesday he would step down as Ireland's prime minister in a surprise move, saying the country's coalition government would stand a better chance of reelection under another leader.

Varadkar said he had asked his Fine Gael party to elect a new leader ahead of its annual conference on April 6, following which parliament would vote on that person succeeding him as prime minister after the Easter break.

The shock departure of Varadkar, who became the first gay prime minister of the once-staunchly Catholic country in 2017 and returned to the premiership just 15 months ago, does not automatically trigger a general election. A vote must be held by March 2025.

"My reasons for stepping down are both personal and political," Varadkar, 45, told a hastily arranged news conference at government buildings in Dublin, sounding emotional as he spoke.

"But after careful consideration, and some soul searching, I believe that a new Taoiseach (prime minister) and a new leader will be better placed than me to achieve that (the coalition government's re-election)."

His successor will have 12 months to try to claw back the wide opinion poll lead the main opposition Sinn Fein party, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, have over both Fine Gael and their main coalition partner Fianna Fail.

Polls suggest the current three-party coalition also stands a chance of being re-elected. 

Bookmaker Paddy Power made 37-year-old Higher Education Minister Simon Harris, the country's health minister during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the clear odds-on favourite to take over from Varadkar.

Other contenders include Enterprise Minister Simon Coveney, a former deputy prime minister, Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Justice Minister Helen McEntee.

"The problem is that there is no natural stand out, one of the problems of being in power for so long is that all of them come with the baggage of longevity in office," said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin.

"Harris probably has the edge. He's a great communicator and could make a difference in the election"

"NO POLITICAL PLANS"

Varadkar's government has overseen a sharp economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic but has struggled to tackle a decade-long housing crisis and more recently the pressure on services from record numbers of asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees.

Ireland voted to remove a ban on abortion under his leadership. He announced publicly that he was gay in a radio interview during the 2015 referendum campaign that successfully legalised same-sex marriage.

However, he suffered an embarrassing defeat this month when a large majority of voters rejected proposals to replace constitutional references to a mother's "duties in the home".

The leaders of Varadkar's coalition partners said they were surprised when he let them know of his plans at a regular weekly meeting on Tuesday, adding that they would both work with his successor to fulfil the government's mandate.

A small crowd watched from the gates of government buildings as Varadkar made his announcement. Officials, including one junior minister from the Green Party, looked out of open windows onto the courtyard of government buildings as Varadkar spoke.  

As recently as last weekend, Varadkar was in Washington where he met U.S. President Joe Biden for St Patrick's Day celebrations and talks on subjects including the Israel-Hamas conflict and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Varadkar said it was the right time for him to step down and that there was no "real reason" behind his decision. 

"I have nothing else lined up. I have nothing in mind. I have no definite personal or political plans," he said.

Ahead of Varadkar’s surprise departure, Reuters World News daily podcast recorded a special episode looking at the debate around Irish unity.

By Padraic Halpin, Graham Fahy

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