Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar arrives to attend a European Union summit on Feb. 1 in Brussels, Belgium.

Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar arrives to attend a European Union summit on Feb. 1 in Brussels, Belgium. / Getty Images

LONDON — Fresh from a St. Patrick's Day visit to the United States, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar says he will step down from that office within weeks as soon as his center-right party chooses a successor.

Varadkar announced Wednesday he is resigning immediately as head of the governing Fine Gael party, which is part of a coalition government. That sets in motion a leadership race, akin to a primary in the U.S. system.

"I am resigning as president and leader of Fine Gael effective today, and will resign as taoiseach as soon as my successor is able to take up that office," Varadkar said in an emotional speech in Dublin, using the Irish word for the prime minister's title.

He said his reasons for stepping down are "both personal and political."

"It has been the most fulfilling time of my life," Varadkar told reporters, choking up.

But he said he believes his party will do better in upcoming elections under a different leader, who would take office sometime after the March 31 Easter holiday.

Now 45, Varadkar was the youngest person ever elected Irish prime minister, when he took office, first from 2017 to 2020 and again since late 2022.

A doctor whose father is originally from India and mother is Irish, Varadkar is Ireland's first biracial prime minister. He is also the first openly gay person to hold the top office in once-staunchly Roman Catholic Ireland.

Varadkar campaigned to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015 and to legalize abortion in 2018.

"I'm proud that we have made the country a more equal and more modern place," he said Wednesday.

But Varadkar suffered a setback earlier this month, when he failed to gain public support for his efforts to amend the 87-year-old Irish Constitution to omit what he called old-fashioned, sexist language. Voters turned down his proposed changes in a referendum held on International Women's Day.

On foreign policy, Varadkar has issued some of the harshest criticism of Israel of any European leader during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Irish support for the Palestinians runs high.

Varadkar raised that in weekend talks with President Biden at the White House. The Irish leader went ahead with that White House meeting, despite an online campaign among Irish voters urging him to boycott the visit over Biden's support for Israel. Varadkar also visited Boston last week.

Ireland is suffering a cost of living and housing crisis. With Irish elections due later this year or in early 2025, Varadkar's Fine Gael party and its coalition partners, the centrist Fianna Fáil party and the Green Party, have all been trailing in the polls.

Currently leading those polls is Sinn Féin, a left-wing party with past ties to the Irish Republican Army, which has never governed Ireland before.