Fine Gael leadership contenders trade blows over policies

Varadkar continues to build strong lead among party’s TDs, Senators and MEPs

Simon Coveney characterised Leo Varadkar’s policy document as a “list of spending commitments”. Photographs: The Irish Times

Simon Coveney characterised Leo Varadkar’s policy document as a “list of spending commitments”. Photographs: The Irish Times

 

The Fine Gael leadership contest has entered a new phase, with candidates Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney exchanging barbs over policies published on Monday and over the weekend.

However, both agreed the top rate of income tax should be reduced, and Mr Varadkar set out a series of tax cuts and plans for more public spending. These proposals were criticised by Mr Coveney, who characterised Mr Varadkar’s policy document issued on Monday as a “list of spending commitments”.

He also took issue with Mr Varadkar’s statement that Fine Gael needed to be for people who “get out of bed early in the morning”, saying the party needed to represent other people too.

FG leadership tracker: track the contest and check who your local TD, Senator, MEP and councillor is supporting.

The documents published by both candidates demonstrate a clear difference of emphasis, with Mr Coveney stressing the need for action on inequality and inclusion, while Mr Varadkar stuck with his themes of enterprise and reward.

Mr Coveney also criticised the timing of Mr Varadkar’s announcement on Monday that he would introduce legislation banning public sector workers from striking in essential services if he was elected Taoiseach. However, this would only happen following a Labour Court recommendation that would be legally binding on staff and employers.

A spokesman for Mr Varadkar later confirmed he did not intend to introduce a ban on some public sector workers in vital services going on strike. The spokesman said he was not suggesting a ban, but rather making Labour Court recommendations, which is a voluntary process, binding on parties.

Listen to Inside Politics

Human right

The spokesman said Mr Varadkar “maintains his belief that the right to withdraw labour is a human right”. However, he said that where workers and employers refer a matter to the Labour Court, its recommendation should be binding for both sides.

He confirmed this meant that workers who did not choose to attend the Labour Court could not be prevented from striking.

The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia King, said earlier that a strike ban “would meet strong resistance” from workers.

Mr Varadkar has continued to build a strong lead amongst FG TDs, Senators and MEPs, with Wicklow Minister of State Andrew Doyle declaring for him on Monday. The Irish Times tracker of voting intention estimates Mr Varadkar has a 46-20 lead amongst the 73 members of the parliamentary party. If maintained this would represent an almost unassailable lead.

Seeking to generate a fightback after a weekend of declarations for Mr Varadkar, Mr Coveney told Today FM’s The Last Word that he looked for the position of Minister for Housing so he could “test himself”.

“I don’t know how Leo came to be Minister for Social Protection. I don’t try to look for an easy job so I can canvass for another job.”

Six TDs

Mr Coveney’s supporters said he was targeting at least six TDs, urging them to reverse their commitment to vote for Mr Varadkar. It is understood Longford-Westmeath TD Peter Burke, Limerick TD Tom Neville and Clare TD and Minister of State Pat Breen are to be contacted by Mr Coveney.

Mr Coveney is confident he can secure the support of the majority of the Fine Gael rank-and-file party membership and the party’s councillors.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, who is supporting Mr Varadkar, urged Mr Varadkar not to take victory for granted.

“The race is not over until you cross the finish line. I think everyone needs to be cognisant of that fact. There is still a competition to be fought.”

He denied he was offered a position by Mr Varadkar in return for his support.