A senior Cabinet minister in Ireland has announced he's gay, becoming the first openly homosexual government figure in the history of the traditionally conservative Catholic country.

Sunday's announcement on state radio by Health Minister Leo Varadkar received widespread praise for its straightforward honesty.

Varadkar said he decided to declare his sexuality before several government initiatives this year to advance gay rights. These include plans to legalize gay marriage, permit homosexual men to donate blood, and create greater parenthood rights for gays in surrogate-pregnancy cases.

Varadkar made his announcement on his 36th birthday. He says his family, friends and many colleagues long had known or suspected he was gay.

He said he gave his parents advance warning because he didn't want them to hear the news first at Sunday Mass.