Photo by Susan Lahey

By Susan Lahey
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

In a session Sunday between Evan Smith and Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of Ireland, Smith lumped the Taoiseach with leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau: young, progressive people, moving their countries forward in a world where many leaders seem to be peddling hard backward. Varadkar, at 39, is the youngest Prime Minister of Ireland and one of the few openly gay heads of state in the world. Elected only a few years after Ireland became the first country to legalize marriage equality by popular vote, he is facing a future in which relations between Ireland and the U.S. are strained by President Trump’s proposed trade restrictions, and in which Brexit threatens to create tensions again between the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Varadkar is a diplomat who believes the problems can only be solved by continuing to talk. Historically the Irish Prime Minister visits the U.S. president on St. Patrick’s Day as a symbol of the relationship between the two countries. Some members of Varadkar’s parliament encouraged him not to visit Trump.

“That’s an extreme view,” said Varadkar. “Those same people would encourage me not to talk to Russia or China either…half the world.”

Smith continually pressed Varadkar to say something controversial about either Trump or British Prime Minister Theresa May, but Varadkar remained restrained, saying he liked May and they had a good relationship…until he finally said, “If it wasn’t for Brexit it would be a great relationship,” and then tipped sideways, laughing as the crowd joined him.

“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” Rejoined Smith.

Uniting Not Dividing

Relations between Ireland and England have been strained for hundreds of years, a period of violence known as “The Troubles” until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 when the two parts of Ireland came together over peace accords. Varadkar noted that while the majority of Northern Irish were in favor of remaining with the EU in the Brexit vote, the fact that Northern Ireland would now no longer be part of the European Union and would thus have different rules about immigration—among other things—might reestablish a more firm border between the two parts of Ireland.

When both countries were part of the EU it eased a lot of the difficulties. But what’s worse than the actual border between them, Varadkar said, was people who are deliberately trying to drive wedges between people of different countries. “There’s no way we can accept that.” His solution is “to ensure that whatever the new relationship is it is so close that we don’t need to have a hard border….”

Asked if he would address President Trump regarding Vice President Pence’s reputed support for conversion therapy for homosexuals, he said he intended to. In Ireland, not only is marriage between gay people legal but transgender citizens can decide what gender they want listed on their state issued documents. During the election for marriage equality, he said, a large number of gay people came out to their friends and family, visiting them especially in the rural areas and “asking them, ‘Will you vote to treat me as an equal citizen in my own country?’” The referendum passed by 62 percent.

In speaking to President Trump, he said, he will point out that the U.S. has always been a world leader for individual freedom, including the LGBT movement and “It’s really tough to see a country built on individual freedom not being a world leader in that space anymore.”

Varadkar also said there would be a referendum in May legalizing abortion in Ireland, which is a constitutionally Catholic country.

This is a different issue than gay marriage, he said, because people “generally consider marriage a good thing, to be celebrated; and I don’t think anyone thinks abortion is a good thing or to be celebrated. But it’s something people need access to sometimes.”

A former doctor, Varadkar also said he hopes to overhaul Ireland’s health care system which, like that of the U.S., consumes an enormous amount of money and still leaves people trapped in crowded waiting rooms or waiting months for operations they need. One of the problems, he said, is that a lot of Irish health care still operates on paper, rather than digitally, which causes costly errors like people missing appointments. He was inspired, he said, by the preponderance of health tech at SXSW.

Varadkar, whose mother is Irish and whose father is Indian, said he was the only person in his neighborhood growing up who had a “perpetual tan and a funny name” but that his heritage taught him that there was a world outside not only Ireland and the UK but outside of Europe. It gave him a broader perspective. In Ireland, he said, 17 percent of the population was born outside of Ireland and “we’re all the better for it. “

Varadkar spoke to a packed audience. He stopped in at SXSW before a scheduled meeting with President Trump on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.