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Northern Ireland news

Leo Varadkar says 'prejudice has no hold on this republic' as he is elected leader of Fine Gael

Leo Varadkar makes a speech at the Mansion House in Dublin where he was named as the new leader of Fine Gael. Picture by Brian Lawless, Press Association
Brian Hutton, Press Association

LEO Varadkar declared yesterday that "prejudice has no hold on this republic" after he was elected the new leader of Fine Gael.

The 38-year-old son of an immigrant Indian doctor is now expected to become Taoiseach after winning a leadership battle against Simon Coveney.

Mr Varadkar, the Republic's first openly gay cabinet minister, had the backing of most of his party's elected representatives but Mr Coveney (44) had stronger support from grassroots membership.

The Dublin TD is now expected to be appointed Taoiseach if he gains the backing of the Dáil, which sits again on June 13.

Amid jubilant scenes in Dublin's Mansion House, the social welfare minister highlighted the significance of his win.

"If my election as leader of Fine Gael today has shown anything, it is that prejudice has no hold on this republic," he said.

Mr Varadkar said he would set about making the party more democratic and more inclusive.

"When my father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed his son would grow up to become leader," he said.

"And despite his differences, his son would be treated the same and judged by his character, not his origins or identity."

He added: "Every proud parent in Ireland today can dream big dreams for their children. Every boy and girl will know there is no limit to their ambition, to their possibilities, if they are given the opportunity."

In a signal that he would try to reunite his party - which was split between the ordinary membership and the parliamentary party over the leadership race - Mr Varadkar said he hoped to gain the trust and confidence of those who did not vote for him.

Turning to the runner-up Mr Coveney, he said more united than divided them and "I know we are going to work together to bring Fine Gael and Ireland forward".

Mr Varadkar also paid tribute to outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny for passing on a party and country "in a much better place than he found it".

Mr Kenny announced last month he was stepping down after 15 years leading Fine Gael.

With the party leading a potentially unstable minority government with the support of independent TDs, he had been under sustained pressure within his own ranks to allow a successor to be elected to allow it to prepare for the next general election.

Mr Kenny congratulated Mr Varadkar last night and also paid tribute to Mr Coveney, a TD for Cork.

"This is a tremendous honour for him and I know he will devote his life to improving the lives of people across our country," he said.

The new Fine Gael leader does not have strong links with the north.

However, he has called for Northern Ireland to have special status after Brexit, allowing it to remain in the single market.

Last year Mr Varadkar also said he expected to see a united Ireland in his lifetime - but he did not know at what point.

"Fine Gael is a united Ireland party and that remains an objective," he told the MacGill Summer School in Donegal.

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