Defiant Simon Coveney wins hearts if not actual votes

‘All it takes is for six or seven to change their minds who had previously declared for Leo’

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney tells Harry McGee that he is the underdog in the Fine Gael leadership contest, but he is still confident he can win. Video: Enda O'Dowd


The morning mist is beginning to rise from the Glen of the Downs, a lush, oak-filled valley in Wicklow, as Simon Coveney and Simon Harris ready to host a coffee morning for 50 Fine Gael members in the Glenview Hotel.

Coveney cuts a tall, slightly patrician figure, but when he starts talking he just does not come across like that. Yes, he is earnest, often painfully so, but he is nowhere near as bland and faltering as satirist Oliver Callan’s wicked caricature.

Most significantly, there is an edge of defiance in his manner, which has not really been apparent before in the Corkman, already a near 20-year veteran in Dáil Éireann.

So far it is not a great surprise that the party’s wealthier supporters and urbanites back the cosmopolitan Leo Varadkar, while, in general, the rural members and what passes for its proletariat back Coveney.

So are we going to have a Trump versus Clinton phenomenon – one where the grandees go in one direction, but the rank-and-file go in another? If so, Varadkar will win the race, but Coveney will be the one to have won hearts.

Within 24 hours of the campaign starting, Coveney faced a major crux: the parliamentary party, which enjoys 65 per cent of the vote in the electoral college, was already lost; but the councillors and the grassroots were still in play.

Anecdotal evidence

By then, there was already some anecdotal evidence that members in a few places felt their vote had been rendered redundant by the decision of so many of the parliamentary party to declare early.

There was also evidence that more of the party’s grassroots might favour a more traditional, and slightly more conservative, figure. That feeling was borne out by the Ipsos MRBI opinion poll for The Irish Times, published on Thursday.

Coveney has shown grit, taking encouragement from the numbers of party members who have turned up at his campaign gatherings: 600 in Cork; 300 in Tipperary; 350 in Athlone; and 300 in Cavan.

In the beginning, both men insisted they would not criticise the other side, but they did, anyway. They just did so in code – where each agreed with an assertion made by the other man, but then disagreed with it in the very next sentence.

For Coveney, the classic has been his take on Varadkar’s assertion that Fine Gael should be the party of those who rise early in the morning. Of course it should, says Coveney, but it should also fight for those who do not have beds.

The campaign has moved on, as illustrated by Thursday night’s sometimes combative, often revealing exchanges between the two in the Red Cow Hotel on the outskirts of Dublin.

“What happened if I’m honest is that some people in the middle ground felt that a few high-profile people came out for Leo. He got momentum and then they went with him. It was frustrating for us, as a week earlier it was very much 50-50.”

Moment of transubstantiation

Now, he wants to move on, letting the members respond to their respective pitches. If they respond by telling their TD or Senator they prefer Coveney, he believes a moment of transubstantiation can occur among TDs and Senators.

“When they are voting in a private ballot all it takes is for six or seven people to change their minds who had previously declared for Leo and [then] all of a sudden we have a contest again.”

So it’s a ground war or a peasant’s revolt? “You are talking war,” replies Coveney, who insists that what is going on is more of a conversation where he wants to talk about substance and competence, and the delivery of big ideas.

“There were people suggesting I quit in the first weekend because the mountain was too high to climb. I owe it to the membership. The councillors voted at an ardfheis. I am determined to make this a contest,” he tells The Irish Times.

The early declarations have put him at a disadvantage, he accepts: “What happened in the first 48 hours has exposed a flaw to be honest. I don’t blame my colleagues, people had their reasons. I don’t bear grudges.

“If I were to redesign this, I would have the first hustings on the first night. On day one we should have a big hustings where the membership is pulled directly in and there is a conversation going with everybody in the party,” he says.

“I am not an also-ran here. If I thought I was I would not be involved in it. Anybody who thinks I am doing this for the sake of the party to give the members a say, that is not the position.

“I also think I can win. Yes there is a challenge. I’m not used to being an underdog in races like this,” he says. “But if half a dozen people decide to change their mind in the privacy of the ballot box and if the membership and councillors split to me 60-40, then I can.”

It is a long shot; but to his credit, Coveney has succeeded to this extent at least – Leo Varadkar may still win the race to be the next leader of Fine Gael and Ireland’s next Taoiseach, but it is no longer a procession.