Ireland: Once seen as Ireland's Justin Trudeau, progressive credentials of Leo Varadkar now in doubt

When Ireland's youngest prime minister, Leo Varadkar, took office in June, he broke through two glass ceilings at once. He became both the first gay and first mixed-race person to lead the country.

Varadkar also joined leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and London Mayor Sadiq Khan — young, photogenic, progressive-seeming men with a keen aptitude for communications. Their respective arrivals to power were seen as push-backs to the growing tide of populism in the U.S. and across Europe.

The Irish prime minister's rise to power got an enthusiastic reception in the international press, which made him the poster boy of an Ireland that is rapidly emerging from a conservative past dominated by the Catholic Church and embracing a new, progressive era. Time magazine even put him on the cover, with the tagline: "An island at the centre of the world."

Three months after his feted nomination as leader, or Taoiseach, as the position is known in Ireland, those lingering doubts are centre stage as parliament returns from a summer recess this week. Ireland's love affair with "Leo" is fading.

In his June inaugural speech, Varadkar promised to "build a 'Republic of Opportunity' …  in which every citizen gets a fair go and has the opportunity to succeed." Significant groups in Irish society, however, now feel excluded from that "republic."

Varadkar's first wobble as leader came when he named his cabinet in June. Of the 34 ministers he chose for it, only seven were women — compared with Trudeau's evenly gender-balanced cabinet.

Since announcing that a referendum on abortion will be held next year, Varadkar has remained silent about when exactly it might happen, its scope and the possible language it might contain. His own position on abortion remains ambiguous.

"I think there's an assumption that if someone is LGBT, that they are therefore going to be with us [progressives], and that's a bad assumption," said Lorcan Nagle, another volunteer on the Abortion Rights Campaign.

"I can't help but feel that the fact that he's gay is used as an arguing point to say: 'Look, we're being progressive. We have a gay leader now.' But his sexuality doesn't make his policies any better. He's still astonishingly neo-liberal." Read more via CBC