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NIAS Europe Studies
Ireland: Four reasons why Prime Minister Leo Varadkar resigned

  Padmashree Anandhan

On 20 March, Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced his resignation stating Ireland’s coalition (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party) government would be a better position in the re-election under a different leader. He said: “My reasons for stepping down are both personal and political.” Following the resignation, Fine Gael party would begin the nominations on 21 March and the parliament is expected to vote on 09 April after the result are published. 

During his speech in the news conference, Varadkar highlighted his achievements in improving the unemployment rates, economic recovery efforts which shifted the deficits to surplus and his efforts in achieving referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion. He also mentioned his work in improving the affordability of childcare, and increased spending on international development and public infrastructure. 

Why did Varadkar resign? 
First, decline in public support for Fine Gael. In 2017 when Varadkar was appointed as the first “openly-gay” Prime minister it was a sign of modernization of Ireland. While the Fine Gael party had already spent six years in powers with brimming domestic issues of housing crisis, health and education. His tackling of public finances during the COVID-19 and determination to balanced budget and addressing the cost-of living crisis was seen positive. Although the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and continued departure of the policies passed by the government under Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to impact the affordability of the housing and to invest in school and hospital infrastructure was rebutted by the Irish. A 40 per cent of income tax at entry level and the inadequacy of his Land Development Agency (LDA) to meet the housing crisis was a bigger blow among the middle-class Irish.

Second, rise of right. The Fianna Fáil, centre-right consisting of conservatives and Christian democrats was one of the successful parties since 1927. The decline in support for Fianna Fáil began after the 2008 crisis from the struggle to cope up with the credit crunch and gang violence. Fine Gael to some degree and Sinn Féin to a larger extent benefitted from the decline, but Fine Gael other than the year 2011, the party never won more votes than Fianna Fáil. Therefore, Sinn Féin witnessed a breakthrough between 2011 and 2020 rising from 14 to winning 37 seats in the elections. The rise was not possible only due to decline in support for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil but due to its campaign focus on failure of the government to address the housing and health problem. It was also heavily backed by online campaigning (observed 10 times more than competitors) and distribution of transfers. The tactical distribution of surplus left no Teachta Dála (Member of lower house of Parliament) for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Although combined can still form another coalition excluding Sinn Féin like 2020 elections adding Green Party to secure the government, the perception of people is slowly changing towards Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as complacent. As of 2023 poll published in Financial Times Sinn Féin continues to lead as single majority party and the Irish reunification remains its “raison d’être” (reason for being).

Third, Ireland’s everlasting housing problem. In November 2023, riots sparked in Dublin after an attack took place in the site of an asylum-seekers centre. It was seen as a reaction of the Irish against the immigration but reflected the underlying problem of racism and a booming housing crisis. According to The Guardian report, only 66 per cent of houses were owner-occupied a decrease from 79 per cent in 1991. The collapse was found among the lower-income and younger generations despite increase in wages and employment rates. An average rent in Dublin was priced EUR 2,102 which was a 60 per cent increase in Ireland since 2015. The major reasons behind the spiralling prices were not due to investor behaviour but from government’s policies. One of the most impactful ones being, its levy on taxes added by incentives for homes developed through investor funds. As of 2022, 58 per cent of homes in Ireland were built by investor funds and many people ended in depending on investing in these funds rather buying a home. This only resulted in the investor funding companies to extract high rents than selling. The next leads to the government’s failure in letting the no-fault eviction ban lapse in April 2023. The no-fault eviction was a rule followed by the private landlords to remove the tenant if they found the rents paid not enough and by March 2023 15,000 were issued. By 2023, Ireland was recorded the highest in homelessness with an estimate of close to 75,000 people. Evolution of the housing crisis began with the Irish government adopting the UK practise of shifting from public housing to selling it to private entities in 1980s. This was followed through the economic crisis 2008 as a recovery option rather changing the “housing model.” Under Fine Gael party between 2011 and 2016, delegated the social housing to maximum level to local private vendors understating the need of home.

Fourth, fatigue in the Fine Gael party. Increasing retirement calls among the Fine Gael and coalition party members could also be one of the limitations for Varadkar to steer head. 11 members of the parliament have announced to retire which is one-third of the party and more are expected before 2025. Ciaran Cannon Teachta Dála (TD denotes to a member of the lower house of parliament), of Galway East also added to the quit list stating the “toxicity” in Irish politics. Cork North West TD and former Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said: “Politics by its nature requires renewal and it’s time for me to move on.” Many of the members who had long stood in the party no longer show interest to continue in an expectation to pass to the younger generation while those who entered early are observed to prioritise their health and time to family as they believe politics is simply a “24/7 job.” This led to larger criticism and challenges for Varadkar to manage the party despite effort to shuffle and limited support from inner circle resulting in resignation.

About the Author
Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

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