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World How Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is charting a new course for Ireland

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar speaks with Globe & Mail Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley and writer John Doyle during a meeting at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, Ont. on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The Prime Minister of Ireland does not have an opinion on how many rounds Conor McGregor will last against Floyd Mayweather in Saturday's big fight in Vegas.

I canvass his opinion, as one has to, in the circumstances. It is Ireland's UFC champ in his first professional boxing match against the top undefeated boxer. When asked, Leo Varadkar laughs, raises his eyes to the heavens and says, "I don't know. And I don't know if I've ever seen a UFC match, to be honest."

And for a fleeting minute, I feel sorry for him. He came all the way to Canada to do official business creating jobs and investment, and here was some local Irish guy asking him about Conor McGregor. He then points to my laptop satchel, which has "Euro 2004, Portugal" on it. "I was at the Euro in Poland in 2012, saw two of Ireland's matches," he says.

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I ask if he was at the soccer team's famous loss to Spain that the Irish supporters had turned into a huge party. He can't remember if he had been at that one.

Rugby is his sport. And the triathlon. He gets up early four days a week and runs or swims. He looks it, too – he is tall and slim, and a plain but slim-fitting blue suit looks good on him. He is 38 years old, and in the short time since he became the Republic of Ireland's Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, by winning the leadership of the Fine Gael party, he has been feted as an avatar of youthful, change-driven politics. He is a year younger than French President Emmanuel Macron and seven years younger than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He is different. He is exotic: gay and of mixed-race in a conservative country that is more than 90-per-cent white.

The status does not sit easily on Mr. Varadkar. When he enters the room, he looks downward first before sizing up the situation. Wariness, not instant charisma, emanates from him. You suspect that turning on the charm is still a chore.

He tries, though. In the few minutes of chat about sports, he comes across as likeable, a conventional politician trying to put you at ease, even if he, himself, is not.

He is a fascinating figure – exotic in one context but a conventional conservative in the general scheme of things. He is a progressive on some issues and represents progress in his elevation to Prime Minister. Simultaneously, he is a fiscal reactionary who, not long ago, railed against "welfare cheats" in Ireland.

This is very much an evolving leader, and watching him grow and govern will be enthralling. In the confusions and contradictions he embodies, he might well be the archetypal political leader of the near future, not just in Ireland, in a postidentity-politics world.

He also has a lot on his mind right now. Brexit, for a start. It leaves Ireland in a gnarly situation. The almost invisible border with Northern Ireland – a hard-won circumstance – looms as a solid barrier between a European Union member state and a non-EU state. Jobs and trade on the island of Ireland, not to mention the delicate peace in Northern Ireland, hang in the balance.

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He wants to be clear about where Ireland stands: "Ireland's place is at the heart of Europe. There might be skepticism in some EU countries about the value of it, but there isn't in Ireland. It works for us. We are small, growing economy. Trade and revenue are vital to keep it growing."

Trade is why Mr. Varadkar came to Canada. In Montreal – where he marched with Mr. Trudeau in the Pride Parade – and in Toronto, his mission is to seek investment in Ireland and increase the country's profile, or "footprint," as he calls it. Brexit offers both opportunities and problems for Ireland, as he sees it. His strategy on Brexit has been to suggest that Britain get its act together. Britain needs to have a "deep free-trade agreement" with the EU after exiting, and anything else is "unrealistic." It's a shrewd tactic – giving Britain a common-sense plan that would, if the bait is taken, ease the massive disruption that a hard border would cause in Ireland.

Shrewdness is what is coming to define him. That is the public perception.

But in person, he lacks the insouciance of Mr. Trudeau and, noticeably, when he talks to a journalist, he does not look entirely relaxed, rubbing the knuckles of one hand with the other hand almost constantly. One does not know whether to tell him to chill or to be leery of the intensity.

He arrived in Canada with the issue of Ireland's abortion laws on his heels. An amendment to the Irish constitution passed as recently as 1983 effectively outlaws abortion. Women's groups, internationally, used Mr. Varadkar's ascent to PM to put pressure on the Irish government to change the situation. Mr. Trudeau was asked to have a word with him about it. But Mr. Varadkar's journey here was preceded, shrewdly, by his announcement that he wanted a referendum on the issue early in 2018.

In fact, with some astuteness, he envisages a series of referendums in the next two years to let the public decide what to do about anomalies in the Irish constitution.

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I put it to him that Ireland is a hard country to change. It is a small nation-state with deep traditions and does not shift direction with ease.

He acknowledges, reluctantly, that there might be truth in that. He notes the Irish can be "deeply proud" that the country legalized same-sex marriage without fuss, but yes, it is also bedevilled by endless boom/bust economic turmoil. "If we should have learned anything from the last 20 years of not solving our problems, it's that changes must be made."

He is referring to, among other things, Ireland's health-care infrastructure, a shambolic combination of public and private systems that looks stunningly inept and expensive to a Canadian. He was minister for health earlier in his political career, and is a medical doctor.

"The system certainly isn't something you'd invent," he says ruefully.

"But we're stuck with it. Private health care brings €700-million [about $1-billion Canadian] into the system every year. Wipe it away and you have 700-million less in the system and not a single patient is helped."

In Ireland, Mr. Varadkar is viewed by many as a neo-liberal who favours deregulation and lower taxes. His platform for the leadership of his party included prioritizing the needs and ambitions of "people who get up early."

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By that he means the middle-class. "It's a metaphor," he says with a smile, and I can see him begin to relax at this point, and warming to his theme. "It refers to people who get up early, work hard, pay their taxes and obey the law. They've taken a hit in the last few years. They pay too much in taxes. Too much."

He is warming to a theme that will decide his political future when he faces a general election in Ireland: staking out his ground as the defender of solid Irish middle-class values – paying your fair share, not more. The Republic of Ireland is still an economic mess in many ways, just coming through a bailout by the EU and a period of fierce, forced austerity measures after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy in 2008. The fury of a people deprived of countless government services, and paying higher taxes, has rained down on every government since then.

"There are people who were squeezed more than others," he says. "They deserve relief. If you listen to the left, the only way to solve most of our problems is to throw money at them, raise taxes and spend government money. I think there are people who deserve to pay less income tax, not more."

When he uses the phrase "the left," there's an edge in his voice.

That is the sound of the retail politician he has to be. The phrase "republic of opportunity" comes to his lips easily, too, as he tries to sell the idea of an Ireland that transcends the current internal rancour about easing austerity measures.

You can see why some in Ireland are suspicious of his real motives. He has the air of a technocrat who sees austerity as a bracing experience for everyone, not the reduction in living standards that it is in reality for many.

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Before he concludes our exchange, he wants it known that he has a plan to increase the minimum wage in Ireland. His target figure would actually take it above the controversial $15 an hour proposed in Ontario. And he is darned pleased to hear this.

He also wants it known that he would like to see Ireland fulfill its commitment to take in 4,000 Syrian refugees. And perhaps increase the number. I had told him that it seemed shameful that, to date, Ireland had accommodated so few. He knows his responses make him seem less heartless than the technocrat who might have emerged in the chat.

Then we have the awkward banter about Conor McGregor and the big fight in Vegas.

The next morning, I watch Leo Varadkar turn the sod on the development of Grasett Park in Toronto, which will memorialize George Grasett, a doctor who died while selflessly tending to Irish Famine emigrants in 1847. Mr. Varadkar spoke briefly but with ease about this connection between Ireland and Canada.

Then there was a short media conference for Irish journalists. He was able to confirm that TD Bank has picked Dublin for its new EU trading hub post-Brexit. And I noticed him rubbing his knuckles again as he answered questions, even delivering good news.

Not for the first time, it struck me that being exotic does not make his job any easier.

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If he is the embodiment of the future, of politics beyond personal and national identity, maybe he also embodies nervousness about that. At least nobody among the travelling Irish media asked him about Conor McGregor. They know better – the issue of tax brackets is more his thing.

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