When Leo Varadkar came out: delays, hesitation – and then courage

The story of how the golden boy of Irish politics decided to announce he was gay is a tale of drama, intrigue and bravery. But Leo Varadkar didn’t find it at all easy, writes Philip Ryan and Niall O’Connor


NERVES: Leo Varadkar with Miriam O’Callaghan in the RTE radio studios in January 2015 for the interview during which he publicly came out as gay. Photo: El Keegan
NERVES: Leo Varadkar with Miriam O’Callaghan in the RTE radio studios in January 2015 for the interview during which he publicly came out as gay. Photo: El Keegan
LONG MARCH: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his partner Dr Matt Barrett with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Montreal pride parade in 2017. Picture: Reuters
Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach by Philip Ryan and Niall O’Connor

Even during his first elections, senior Fine Gael figures say Leo was anxious about how he would appear on posters. “He was extremely image conscious and worried about being viewed as fat and unhealthy,” says one party figure.

But the issue of weight and image was trumped by a far greater anxiety: sexuality. From the start of his third-level studies, Leo didn’t show interest in any type of relationship. With his focus on politics and college activities, he wasn’t prepared to talk about his sexuality. Not only wasn’t he prepared to talk about it, he was in denial himself that he was attracted to men.

Leo’s friends say they never had a discussion with him about relationships. They don’t recall him ever having a girlfriend or expressing much interest in the opposite sex. But Averil Power remembers how other female students would fancy Leo.

“He is a very good-looking guy and I don’t remember him ever having a girlfriend in college, even though loads of the girls would have thought he was a good-looking guy.”

Leo admits he did have romantic encounters with one or two girls in college. But he laughs off suggestions that girls were chasing him. “I’ve met a few of them since and they were happy to know that it was me and not them,” he laughs. “I definitely was the problem.”

One person who suspected Leo was gay while he was at college is his sister Sonia. But in typical Varadkar fashion, the blunt manner in which she broached the subject with her younger brother caused him to recoil.

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Sonia Varadkar (second from right) alongside Matt Barrett, Sabina Higgins and his Mother Mirian (far left) as Leo Varadkar received his seal of office at Aras An Uachtarain by President Michael D. Higgins. Photo: Steve Humphries June 2017

“I probably asked him too straight and he probably wasn’t ready,” Sonia says. “But I would have always wondered why such a good-looking boy with a great job, a nice guy, doesn’t have a girlfriend and nobody he’s interested in. I don’t think he was ready when I asked him.”

Though Leo brushed off the questions from his sister, Sonia, so proud and affectionate about her brother, explains how during his college days she had a real fear about his future.

She dreaded the prospect that he would always be alone. That he wouldn’t find his soulmate, someone to one day share his life with. “I suppose I am a romantic. I always want happiness,” Sonia says.

“I would hate to think of Leo coming into his apartment and no one being there for him, or an empty fridge, and that used to kill me. Even when he’d come for dinner, and he didn’t notice, I have six chairs but I would take one away so he wouldn’t feel that there was no one there. I would be there with [husband] Johnny and the two boys and Leo would come for dinner, so I would get rid of a chair and he would never notice.

Leo had managed to keep his sexuality under wraps for the time being. In his own words, he ‘suppressed’ the fact he was gay during his college days.

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“That’s obviously what I did. I wasn’t aware I was doing this. But looking back on it, I definitely suppressed and concentrated even more on college and politics in Fine Gael.”

For now, Leo’s growing passion for politics was his driving force, but an internal struggle over his sexuality would eventually have to be resolved.

*******

Many years later, Leo Varadkar took to his feet in the Dail chamber to deliver his first speech on the very topic he had agonised over since his teenage years. With his close ally Lucinda Creighton beside him, Leo outlined Fine Gael’s qualified support for the Civil Partnership Bill. The bill, which was spearheaded by the Green Party in Government, gave legal recognition to same-sex couples in Ireland for the first time.

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Leo Varadkar and former Fine Gael minister Lucinda Creighton, pictured in 2011 Picture: Gerry Mooney

It was January 27, 2010 – more than five years before the marriage equality referendum – when Leo decided to set out his stall. But if campaigners on marriage equality had been looking to Varadkar to champion their cause, they were left bitterly disappointed. His first speech on the issue was guarded. His contribution was littered with caveats and reservations about the potential impact of the bill in its current form. Civil partnership could have a number of unintended consequences, he warned. But, above all, single people should not have the right to adopt a child. “Every child has the right to a mother and father and, as much as is possible, the State should vindicate that right,” Varadkar said in his Dail speech.

“That is a much more important right than that of two men or women having a family. That is the principle that should underline our laws regarding children and adoption. I am also uncomfortable about adoption by single people, regardless of their sexual orientation.

“I do not believe I as a single man should adopt a child. The child should go to parents, a mother and father, to replace what the child had before.”

Varadkar’s deeply conservative address ensured his sexuality would, for now at least, remain a secret.

In Fine Gael headquarters, officials who had got to know Varadkar since his entry to national politics in 2007 were puzzled to say the least.

“Here was our youngest TD coming out with the sort of stuff you would expect from the likes of Senator Ronan Mullen,” one strategist noted, referring to one of the country’s most conservative politicians. The official in question recalls his bewilderment when, just months earlier, Varadkar invited Mullen to attend as a guest speaker at a constituency event on the issue of civil partnership.

At the meeting, Mullen expressed his own concerns about the impact the legislation would have on children – remarks mirrored by Varadkar’s contribution in the Dail.

The Independent senator also recalls how Varadkar told his constituents how proud he was to be able to call himself a Christian Democrat.

Up until this point, Varadkar had been barely visible in a debate that he was having internally on a daily basis. But that was all about to change.

As Varadkar’s profile grew, so did his desire to keep aspects of his personal life private. His friends tell of a shy and sometimes socially awkward individual who is at his most comfortable when talking about politics and work.

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Leo Varadkar (Laura Hutton/PA)

In fact, while most people use a summer holiday to relax with a good book, Varadkar would be seen sifting through White Papers on different areas of government policy while lounging beside the pool.

Varadkar comes across as patronising, too, his friends say, which can put people off him during social occasions.

But upon getting to know Leo, they add, you are faced with someone who is inherently decent and good company.

Varadkar’s close circle of friends had for several years suspected he was gay. He never had a proper girlfriend or even gone on many dates. There were occasions on holiday when Varadkar would barely react when walking past an attractive girl in a bikini. Suspicions, both inside and outside politics, began to heighten.

While all the clues pointed to him being gay, his friends say they always believed it was his business to decide when to address the issue of his sexuality.

Varadkar’s determination to put work ahead of everything else is reflected in media interviews in which he was quizzed about his love life. In February 2011, Varadkar was described by the Irish Independent as one of Fine Gael’s most eligible bachelors, alongside his party colleague and friend John Paul Phelan.

The paper reported how Varadkar bit his nails awkwardly when asked to describe his ideal woman. “I’d need someone chatty who wouldn’t mind talking to people at events, because sometimes I find that hard to do. She could escort me to these things and look good beside me on camera,” Varadkar said. “I’d need somebody tolerant. I can be a pain in the ass. I get stressed and can be very cranky.”

The following year, the same publication carried another personal interview. It was reported that Varadkar would not answer when asked to name an actress he fancied. He also gave insights into his concerns over being a high-profile public figure.

“I find it scary when people talk about me as a future leader. It’s like putting a big target on your back,” Varadkar said.

“I love what I’m doing and I intend staying in politics, seeing where it can take me, but I wouldn’t want to be tied to it. I won’t necessarily stay in politics for ever.”

At this stage, supporters of Varadkar in both Dublin West and the Fine Gael parliamentary party were privately speculating that he was gay. Tom Curran, the party’s general secretary, had heard the chit-chat about Varadkar in Fine Gael circles.

He took note of the rumours about Varadkar’s sexuality in a personal black notepad in which he compiles profiles of all Fine Gael politicians.

Politically, momentum was building rapidly behind a referendum due to be held on marriage equality. A Red C opinion poll showed more than 70pc of the public wanted same-sex marriages to be permitted under the Constitution and put to a referendum. But many Fine Gael politicians were still deeply unsure as to the outcome of such a vote.

Fine Gael was in a coalition arrangement with Labour, whose party leader Eamon Gilmore and other senior figures were vocal about their desire for a change in the law. Gilmore would soon go on to describe marriage equality as “the civil rights issue of this generation”.

After Justice Minister Alan Shatter publicly backed Labour’s position, the pressure quickly mounted on Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Kenny had spent several months sidestepping the issue, having previously been on record as opposed to same-sex marriage. In a notorious moment outside the National Library of Ireland in July 2012, Kenny almost tripped over a flower pot when asked to give his views by TV3’s political editor, Ursula Halligan. The embarrassing episode for Kenny was later labelled “flower-pot gate”.

In the Dail chamber, Kenny was pressed for his views once more by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. “Deputy Martin will not pressurise me as a citizen, or as leader of the Government, into a box-ticking exercise,” Kenny responded.

But one week after “flower-pot gate”, Varadkar made his own intervention and became the second Fine Gael Cabinet minister to lend his support to a public vote. However, in a move watched closely within Fine Gael, Varadkar once again showed restraint.

“I suppose, depending on the proposition, if there was a referendum on it, I would probably vote Yes,” Varadkar told Today with Pat Kenny on RTE Radio 1. “I do think there is a difference when it comes to raising children. I do think that, by and large, children are best raised in a household with a mother and father but that isn’t always possible, for different reasons. But I don’t see why a same-sex couple shouldn’t be allowed to be married if they wish to. I don’t think it would damage society, I don’t necessarily think it would damage the family.”

After causing serious strain in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, a referendum on marriage equality moved a step closer.

A decision was taken to refer the matter to a forum known as the Citizens’ Assembly, which was made up of 99 members of the public.

Interventions by the likes of Varadkar and Shatter were significant factors in developing Fine Gael’s position. But these advances also meant Varadkar’s ability to keep his own sexuality under wraps was slipping away.

*******

For Sonia Varadkar, it was very much a waiting game.

Having already asked her little brother about his love life in college, she knew deep down he wasn’t ready to open up. She decided to park the issue in the knowledge that one day, probably in the near future, Leo would broach the sensitive subject of his sexuality.

For Sonia, it didn’t matter in the slightest that her brother – the star politician – was harbouring a deep secret. All she cared about was ensuring Leo would never be lonely, that he would be able to get married and have a family, if he so wished. Her only hope was that her brother would be happy.

“I’m his sister. I want it for myself – the husband and the 2.4 kids and the white picket fence. I would always want more for him,” Sonia says. “I always want more for everybody, but that would be me. We were always brought up that way.”

Sonia says that, upon looking back, Leo dropped a number of hints in his 20s that he was gay. But for a period, the penny just didn’t drop. And so, when she learned that Leo had spoken to his other sister Sophie, Sonia felt somewhat hurt.

“That was a bit of a bone of contention for me. He said he tried to tell me a few times, but I didn’t pick it up because he was probably trying to be not as direct as I am or as direct as he normally is. I think he was ready then and then he told Sophie and I think he presumed she would tell me so then we went out to dinner and I said it to him.”

But why did Leo wait so long to tell the sister he was closest to, that he was gay? “Don’t they say it’s safer when someone is further away?” says Sonia.

After telling his two siblings, Leo had many more hurdles to cross. The most immediate one was telling his parents, Ashok and Miriam. How would Ashok respond when his only son muttered the words “Dad, I’m gay”?

“He told them. I think it went fine,” Sonia says. “It wasn’t a big thing. As long as he’s happy, as long as there’s going to be someone there, because that’s always been our worry – that he goes home to an apartment with nobody there.”

*******

Around 18 months before Ireland would go to the polls on marriage equality, Tiernan Brady received a phone call from a friend.

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Tiernan Brady

Brady is a political activist and a leading campaigner for LGBT rights. The friend told him that a member of the Dail was considering coming out and asked whether he would provide counsel. Brady agreed and awaited details of a meeting. But it didn’t happen.

Brady knew that his friend had Fine Gael connections, but he had no idea of the identity of the politician in question.

Six months later, the same friend phoned again and a meeting with Varadkar was finally arranged. “We talked about what it would be like to come out in public office, because there are not a lot of people who have done it,” Brady says of the meeting.

At this point, there were just three openly gay TDs in Leinster House: Fine Gael’s Jerry Buttimer and Labour’s John Lyons and Dominic Hannigan.

According to Brady, Varadkar’s position as Minister for Health and his membership of a conservative party like Fine Gael made the decision even more difficult.

“There is a profile to the party he was a member of at that time. Your normal instinct is that this could be a negative, high-profile experience, that it could backfire on somebody.”

Brady’s advice to Varadkar was both positive and meaningful. He told him that the Irish people would support him wholeheartedly.

“There is a decency in Irish people that we sometimes forget, a real decency,” Brady recalls of the conversation. He told Varadkar: “They will see this for what it is: somebody taking a really brave step, and isn’t it sad that we have to live in a country where people feel that was a really brave step?”

Over the weeks that followed, Brady attended further secret meetings with Varadkar. A discussion took place over the forum that Leo would eventually use to come out. A decision was taken that it should be done during a radio interview.

Brady says: “He was coming out to a country. How would that make any one of us feel? How difficult would it be that the very first conversation you have on this is to an entire nation on the radio, to say, ‘By the way, I’m gay’?

“That’s horrendous. No one should have to do it. But he was a Cabinet minister and this was a big deal.”

Privately, Brady knew that the stakes could not be higher for the LGBTI community. How Leo handled this interview would have a major impact on others struggling with their sexuality.

“One wrong word and people listening to that say, ‘I don’t know if I can come out any more. Maybe I shouldn’t’.”

*******

Nollaig Crowley has known Leo since their 20s, having met while dropping leaflets for Fine Gael in Dublin West.

Kate Cullen is long-term friend and at one point had been rumoured to be dating Leo. Mark Finan is a barrister and former member of the Fine Gael national executive.

All three regularly socialise and travel abroad with Leo. They are among his closest confidants. In February 2015, each received the same text message from Leo. He requested they meet him at Peter’s Pub, an old-fashioned bar on Dublin’s South William Street.

“None of us openly guessed he was going to say he was gay. We thought it might have been he was going into a different job or something else,” Finan remembers.

Over pints, Leo told his friends he was, in fact, gay. “He just came straight out. It was blunt. We were like, ‘Grand. Get a drink in now’,” says Finan. The three friends barely batted an eyelid. The conversation switched back to politics – Leo’s default and most comfortable space.

*******

In the months that followed, Varadkar held discussions with his inner circle, notably Brian Murphy and Nick Miller, on the mechanics of coming out when you are a high-profile figure.

A decision was taken to avoid any such interview in the autumn, amid fears it would distract from key political events such as the budget. This was particularly so, given that Varadkar was engaged in another private battle: to secure more money for his department.

As the year neared its end, it was decided once again to delay the interview, given that the health service was suffering from its annual trolley crisis. But it soon became obvious to Varadkar’s inner circle that the ability to manage the decision was over time being eroded.

Nick Miller, Varadkar’s press adviser, became nervous as the number of phone calls from journalists enquiring about his sexuality began to increase. The enquiries mostly came in from red-tops, but to Miller’s surprise, even some established political correspondents began digging into Varadkar’s private affairs.

The calls were cryptic, sources say, with some reporters suggesting to Miller that they had been put up to the job by their news editors. Miller had a particularly good relationship with most political journalists and was able to perform his role as Leo’s spin doctor effectively. But, at Christmas, one publication published a suggestive piece about how Leo had been seen out socialising with a male friend. The article, albeit akin to a gossip column, only heightened concern in the Varadkar camp. Would a publication go one step further and out Varadkar as being gay?

In December, Varadkar met a number of friends for dinner in Dublin City, where he informed them that the interview was due to take place in the New Year. As Mark Finan explains, Leo was determined to avoid any scenario whereby he was accused of not being upfront about his sexuality.

“He likes the fact he has a reputation of being up front. So I think that was the primary concern, people might think he wasn’t being honest.”

Plans to stage the interview in January were abandoned after it emerged that a new party was due to be announced, led by none other than Lucinda Creighton.

While the timing of the proposed interview kept changing, Varadkar had finally reached a point where he was ready to come out to the nation.

*******

It was Friday evening in the Department of Health when Leo Varadkar summoned his closest advisers to a crucial team meeting.

For those in attendance, this was the briefing they had been preparing for over many months. Varadkar’s inner circle are meticulously tuned in to the chatter of Leinster House. They knew their boss was gay – and that the window for keeping it secret was quickly closing.

Nick Miller had already been told by Varadkar at a meeting held months previously in Ballsbridge. Nick was surprised at how comfortable his boss was at divulging that he was gay. But telling one of your closest advisers is a far cry from announcing the news to the world.

Hawkins House, the home of the Department of Health, is one of the most outdated buildings in Dublin’s south inner city. But on this July evening, the building’s sixth floor played host to a discussion that would pave the way for a more modern and inclusive Ireland.

Varadkar and his advisers spent over an hour brainstorming, as they regularly do at team meetings. But this time was different. The discussion centred not on health policy, but on how best to tell the nation that their Minister for Health was gay. The meeting was attended by Leo’s chief of staff, Brian Murphy; his parliamentary assistant, Philip O’Callaghan; and, of course, Nick Miller.

At no point in the meeting did Varadkar directly tell those present he was gay. He knew Miller already knew, but he also suspected that so did Murphy and O’Callaghan. The main objective of the meeting was to discuss the potential fallout from the most personal interview that would be given by a politician in years.

“It’s funny. He never said he was going to come out,” says O’Callaghan, the youngest member of Leo’s inner circle. “But we knew what the meeting was about and we knew what the interview was about. So it was how he was going to frame it and how he was going to talk about it and how the interview would go and what sort of style it would be. But we never discussed him saying, ‘I’m a gay man’.”

That discussion did take place, a day earlier, albeit on an impromptu and unexpected basis. The setting was the television studios in RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster. Presenter Miriam O’Callaghan had already been contacted by Miller through her producer, Alan Torney, about facilitating a ‘personal interview’ with Leo on her radio programme that coming Sunday.

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NERVES: Leo Varadkar with Miriam O’Callaghan in the RTE radio studios in January 2015 for the interview during which he publicly came out as gay. Photo: El Keegan

O’Callaghan had heard the rumours that Varadkar was gay and decided to broach the issue with him during an ad break on the Prime Time current affairs show, of which she is a presenter. Varadkar had agreed to appear on the programme to discuss what he was doing to reduce the significant number of people lying on trolleys in the country’s hospitals.

But O’Callaghan felt she needed to establish the exact nature of the ‘personal interview’ he intended to give in the nearby radio studios on Sunday.

With the programme off air for a short ad break, O’Callaghan approached Varadkar. “Minister, might I ask you something? Are you coming on my radio show on Sunday to say that you are gay?”

“Yes, I am,” Varadkar replied.

“OK. See you Sunday,” she responded.

“It was a bit of a risk for me,” O’Callaghan explains. “What if he had said, ‘No, I’m not gay’? I texted my producer straight away. It was a ‘wow!’ moment.”

Prior to O’Callaghan’s approach to Varadkar in the RTE studios, both her producer and Varadkar’s team had been engaging in a back-and-forth. But at no point was the nature of what Varadkar was about to say discussed.

“We would kind of double-speak,” says a source in the Varadkar camp. “They would say, ‘How deep do you want this interview to go?’ We would say, ‘No holds barred. He’s happy to talk about his personal life’.”

The night prior to the interview, Miller was anxious. There was concern that a Sunday newspaper had got wind of the plan and was prepared to blow their cover. It didn’t happen.

On Sunday, January 18, 2015, Leo awoke to birthday messages from family and friends. The country’s youngest member of Cabinet had just turned 36 years old. But the time for celebrations would have to wait.

As he arrived at the RTE complex in Donnybrook, nerves began to set in. Shortly after 9.30am, a casually dressed Varadkar and his advisers Nick Miller and Brian Murphy climbed the cobbled steps of the radio studios, where they were greeted by O’Callaghan and her producer.

Varadkar and his team noticed the presence of RTE’s political correspondent, David Davin-Power. Few words were exchanged, but the presence of the reporter made it clear that word had spread about his intended plans that day.

After some innocuous small talk, O’Callaghan cut to the chase. It was 10 minutes before the programme went live on air and still, no party was clear about the game plan.

“How are we going to do this?” O’Callaghan asked. Varadkar and Miller looked at each and shrugged. O’Callaghan continued, conscious that her interviewee was feeling nervous. “How about 20 minutes into the interview, I mention how it’s your birthday and yet you’re a very eligible bachelor but you’ve never settled down. That’s your cue. Tell me you’re gay.”

Just minutes before the interview, Varadkar sent a text message to Tiernan Brady, who was in New York. He told his confidant that he was in the green room ready to have the conversation that had been the subject of secret talks for months.

“The Irish people are thoroughly decent,” Tiernan replied. “This will be a great experience, don’t worry.”

But when Miriam Meets… went live on air just after the 10 o’clock news, it quickly became apparent that Varadkar was getting cold feet. After a short discussion about his father Ashok’s Indian roots, his studies at Trinity College and his experience in the Department of Health, Miriam stuck to the strategy agreed prior to going on air.

“You’re 36 today, you are by all accounts very eligible, but you haven’t settled down yet, have you?”

“No, not at all,” Varadkar replied. “I suppose I’ve always put the career, the job and politics, all of that first,” Leo said, before explaining that many of his friends were now getting married or having kids. Varadkar rambled on, prompting his interviewer to look towards the production booth.

Both Miller and Torney had their heads in their hands, wondering if Varadkar was now veering away from the most difficult public discussion he would ever have.

Suddenly, the conversation was brought back on track.

“I always thought I’d be alone for whatever reason,” Leo said poignantly. “I was kind of happy with that. It’s only in the last year or two I’ve sort of re-thought that and made time for relationships and other people,” he added.

“What kind of relationship would you be looking for?” asked O’Callaghan.

“Well, you know I’m a very private person and I still am,” Leo replied. “I keep my private life to myself and that’s going to continue. I always think that friends and family are off-bounds. I went into politics, they didn’t. But I am a gay man – it’s not a secret, but not something everyone would necessarily know, but it isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before now.”

It was a monumental – indeed, unforgettable – moment. Although slightly awkward, the delivery of the announcement struck a note of both sincerity and innocence. Social media lit up with delight as news of Varadkar’s decision instantly travelled around the world.

Ireland’s first openly gay minister had bared all on national radio.

The interview continued, with Leo speaking about how he came out to his father, Ashok, his mother, Miriam, and his two sisters, Sonia and Sophie. He said his dad came from a conservative background and that his family in India were traditional.

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Leo Varadkar with his proud parents Miriam and Ashok. Picture: Frank McGrath

As for his mother, Varadkar said she had expressed concern because gay friends of hers in England had suffered a hard time. But overall, he said, his family were extremely supportive.

“I know that’s not the case for everyone. I do know people who have been rejected by their families and treated badly in the workplace and things like that. I guess I’m lucky it’s been OK for me and I’m fortunate as well to be in a country where we can have this conversation in studio. That wouldn’t be the case in Russia, for example, or other countries.”

Over the course of an hour, Varadkar explained how he hoped him being a gay man wouldn’t prove to be a big deal for anybody listening. He added that as Minister for Health, he had to oversee the introduction of legislation in the area of surrogacy. And he also had to decide whether to enact measures that would see a relaxation of the ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood.

During the interview, Varadkar recalled a phone call he made to Enda Kenny to let him know about his plans to speak about his sexuality. Kenny asked Varadkar whether he had ever been to Panti Bar, one of Dublin’s best-known gay bars.

“He said it was my private life, and it’s a private issue, and said it was none of his concern, that he wouldn’t be commenting on it, nothing would be different and nothing would change,” Varadkar said.

“He asked me if I’d ever been to the Panti Bar… and I said actually no I haven’t, and he said: ‘There you go, Varadkar, I’m ahead of you already’.”

But Leo said his overriding motivation was the marriage equality referendum – one that, if passed, would see Ireland becoming the first country in the world to legislate for gay marriage by a way of a popular vote.

“What I really want to say is that I’d like the referendum to pass because I’d like to be an equal citizen in my own country, that country [where] I happen to be a member of Government, and at the moment I’m not,” he said.

“I don’t want anyone to think I’ve a hidden agenda or that I’m not being fully honest with them and I wasn’t going to dwell too much on the referendum – I know this is not a political programme – but that’s obviously coming up in May and I was thinking of the arguments I might make.”

After the interview, Varadkar and his two advisers went for lunch in a cafe in south inner-city Dublin. People who had listened to the interview approached Varadkar to congratulate him on his decision.

Among the 250,000 listeners that morning were Leo’s family, friends and colleagues. Leo’s parents Ashok and Miriam were visiting their daughter Sophie in London.

The family were desperately trying to log on to the internet to listen to the internet live but were encountering technical problems. In her Dublin home, Sonia Varadkar was relaying the gist of the interview to the family.

Leo visited Sonia for dinner later that day. The brother and sister emotionally embraced. Sonia told Leo how proud she was of him.

Politically, Leo’s decision was seen as seismic. By coming out, he became the country’s first openly gay minister and one of just four openly gay members of the Oireachtas. It also prompted the Yes side in the pending marriage equality referendum to bring forward their launch date in order to tap into the positive effect of Leo’s decision.

One close friend explains that Leo could not legitimately campaign for a Yes vote while allowing the rumour mill to continue in overdrive. “It was coming down the road. How could he champion it and not say he was gay? He’d lose all credibility otherwise,” the friend notes.

Former health minister and leader of the Progressive Democrats Mary Harney, a confidante of Varadkar’s, says the magnitude of his decision cannot be downplayed. She says that, “despite what people tell you”, being gay in Irish politics is a handicap.

“You know, if you’re not part of the mainstream of Irish society, it’s always a disadvantage, no matter what people say,” Harney says.

Within the Fine Gael party, some TDs say they suspected Varadkar was gay months and even years before he came out.

Colleagues had often invited him to social gatherings such as weddings and birthdays and noted that he always turned up alone. But others, who are close to Varadkar, said they were surprised. One of these is Eoghan Murphy.

Months before he publicly came out, Murphy met Leo for a drink in the Shelbourne Hotel, during which the issue of his sexuality was raised.

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Leo Varadkar and Eoghan Murphy Photo: Doug O’Connor

Murphy was surprised to learn Varadkar was gay. Varadkar was surprised his friend had not known. Varadkar told Murphy he wanted to come out publicly but he was afraid he would be accused of using the announcement to distract from his work in the Department of Health.

Others closest to Varadkar chose not to listen to the interview with Miriam O’Callaghan. To this day, Varadkar himself has never listened back.

His friends had known for many months that he was about to take this significant step. But they were angry, and indeed upset, that it was a step that he had to take under the harsh glare of the public eye.

“I was upset for him in that it’s nobody’s business but your own, but you have to go through this interview with Miriam,” one close friend says.

One of the most positive elements of Varadkar’s coming-out story was the fact that he did so predominantly on his own terms. His team, and indeed his friends, are appreciative of the fact that the media refrained from outing him.

Mark Finan recalls how members of the media were asking questions about his close friend. He says, however, that he has always been surprised that no newspaper took the chance: “Whilst it would be public titillation, it’s not a public interest story. I don’t think we are that type of nation.”

The dreaded story that Nick Miller constantly feared was never published. Varadkar and his team still aren’t sure why.

Instead, they woke on the Monday morning after the interview to headlines that made bold predictions about Varadkar’s future. ‘Varadkar on track to be first gay Taoiseach’ read the front page of the Irish Independent.

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LONG MARCH: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his partner Dr Matt Barrett with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Montreal pride parade in 2017. Picture: Reuters

But before that could happen, Varadkar had to join others in convincing the nation to make history. The marriage equality referendum was about to begin.

‘Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach’ by Philip Ryan and Niall O’Connor is published by Biteback

Sunday Independent

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