Fine Gael leadership: ‘inevitable’ Varadkar victory riles base
Grassroots see party’s new election system as mixed blessing
Happier times. Some small farmers in the party favour Varadkar because they believe Coveney represents big farmers more, while others feel Varadkar has been more willing to press their flesh during constituency visits
There will be no peasants’ revolt in Fine Gael. The party does not do revolts, but, beware Leo Varadkar, not all of the party’s members are willing to sing in tune with the choirboys from the parliamentary party.
Having spoken with the party’s core supporters in five constituencies: Longford-Westmeath, Roscommon-Galway; Galway East; Tipperary; and Kildare South, it is clear that the new election system is seen as a mixed blessing by the grassroots.
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Everyone accepts that an election involving party members is a good idea, but there has been blowback too at the prospect that everything will be sealed up for Varadkar before they even get to attend a hustings, never mind vote.
If he is elected Varadkar will have to negotiate strong currents in places afterwards as there is a strong possibility the three electoral colleges will diverge – with councillors and the rank-and-file siding with Coveney and a majority of TDs and Senators favouring Varadkar.
In some places it is clear that a significant gulf has emerged between the three elements.
In Clare, for example, its two Fine Gael TDs, Pat Breen and Joe Carey, as well as Senator Martin Conway, have sided with Varadkar. Yet nearly all of Fine Gael’s eight councillors in Clare have gone the other way.
The gap elsewhere is not so extreme, but the grassroots generally has been less hasty in nailing its colours to the Varadkar mast.
The reasons are partly explained by Fine Gael’s rural-urban divide, with those from the country generally siding with Coveney – helped by his strong agricultural connections and the perception that he is more of a traditionalist.
Yet it has not been a one-way street. Some small farmers in the party favour Varadkar because they believe Coveney represents big farmers more, while others feel Varadkar has been more willing to press their flesh during constituency visits.
However, the primary reason for backing Varadkar (be they young or old, urban or rural) is that they see the Dublin TD as the one who represents change, and they believe he has a better chance of reviving the party’s fortunes.
In Longford the peat power station in Lanesboro can be seen from many miles away, with its smoke spiralling into the sky. Fianna Fáil brought the station in the 1950s, and stays strong there today. But Fine Gael also has solid roots.
In the family pub on the main street, 35-year-old Ger Farrell and his father Adrian sit into a cubicle along with local Fine Gael member Albert Cooney. Farrell has been a councillor since 2014; his father was one before him for 40 years, while his grandfather served for 14 years from 1960.
“I am on the Leo side,” says Ger Farrell. “I think he appeals to all demographics of people.” However, his father and Cooney favour Coveney. All three, however, are unhappy about the impact early pledges have had on the campaign.
“The decision is almost made without any input or say from the delegates who, at the end of the day, put the Oireachtas members in place. It’s a little bit unfair,” said Cooney.
“The format of the race should be reviewed. I think that the weighting should be 50-50 between TDs and grassroots [at present it’s 65-35]. It makes it impossible if TDs and Senators are declaring in advance. The grassroots are a very valuable part of the organisation.”
Cooney believes the split between parliamentarians and grassroots will cause issues.
“It will weaken the hand of some of the TDs who were elected. I don’t think Simon can overturn the result with more support membership. But Leo is not as popular in rural Ireland as he is around Dublin.”
From Lanesboro, it’s a short drive across the Shannon into Roscommon town. But it’s different territory here. Longford and Roscommon were once yoked together but it did not work. County was more important than party. As Albert Reynolds’s legendary fixer Mickey Doherty observed: “Votes don’t swim.”
Patricia Mullaney runs the family’s Red Parrot pub in Roscommon town. It is a quiet afternoon and there is one customer in the bar. The pub is not doing too badly, she says; though these days trade is very event-driven.
The one thing she and the pub’s customer, a Fianna Fáiler, agree on is that Enda Kenny should not have gone.
“He was doing a great job in Brussels and they just kept niggling at him,” says the customer.
“I must say I agree with that,” says Mullaney.
Looking forward to hearing the debates, Mullaney says she has not made up her mind, though Varadkar’s lead may mean that voting “might be a waste of time”.
Across the square in Gleeson’s restaurant Pauline Martin is adamantly in the Coveney camp. “I’m sorry that people are not listening to Simon’s opinion. Simon would be more for the country, not just for Dublin. When we had flooding here, Simon put on his wellies and went around and saw what was happening.”
In East Roscommon, Gerry Coffey, a farmer and estate agent, believes it is Varadkar who is the man to mark generational change.
“He has the poster boy image. People have said to me if he is leader they will rejoin and vote Fine Gael. A rising tide will lift all boats, that’s what we need. His energy and enthusiasm will bring a lot to the party.”
However, Coffey does not accept that the race is over. “If you go back to last Sunday, Tipperary were raging favourites. If there are six or seven who might change their mind, that could alter it. It’s the first time the membership has had an opportunity to elect a leader. People will turn out en masse to say they were able to vote.”
Nor does he buy the notion there is overwhelming support for Coveney in rural Ireland. “I’m a part-time farmer and under the last CAP negotiations garnered by Coveney it was a bad deal for the farmers for the rest of Ireland.”
The stop in Galway East to taste the winds in Fine Gael is in New Inn north of Loughrea and Athenry. Its most famous son is Joe Cooney, a hurling aristocrat from a quarter of a century ago, whose son Joseph now plays for the senior team.
Traditional in his beliefs, Aidan Donohoe, however, favours Varadkar. “I’m sticking by that. We had plenty of time to think about it. This has been a year in the making. Leo brings something different.”
Every electoral system will have its flaws. “I did not hear any qualms about the system prior to the contest. It was a good idea to have every section of the organisation involved. Whatever system you put in place it will never be perfect. Nobody could foresee the lead Varadkar has.”
Further south in Gort, John Metcalf remembers the flooding two years ago. Varadkar was the only senior person in the party who made contact. Again, he is not so sure of Coveney’s attraction to all farmers. “He burned his bridges with a lot of the farmers [when Minister for Agriculture].”
That said, he is not happy with the declarations by Oireachtas members. “I would have preferred if they had held their gunpowder dry until ordinary members had a say.”
Meanwhile, he worries about post-vote division. “It’s still a very conservative party.”
Ballina in Co Tipperary is not unlike Lanesboro, relying on the Shannon and its tourism, as well as agriculture. Here The Irish Times spoke to a third of the Fine Gael branch in this pretty waterside village. The branch has only nine members.
Phyll Bugler is the local councillor. A businesswoman with a PhD in chemistry, she is one of the few who has yet to declare a preference. “Nobody has cast a vote yet. They are both two great candidates. We were at Simon’s rally in the Horse and Jockey. When Leo holds one, we will go as well. I think it’s marvellous, really good for the members.”
Like others, Bugler is keen that policy is highlighted. “I am looking for a Taoiseach to pull out all the stops so that the Lakeland area would be on equal status with the Wild Atlantic Way.”
Tim Conway is not circumspect. He backs Coveney because of his rural background and instincts. “He is a country man, and he is from Cork.”
He says is wishful thinking for Coveney to think that people will change their minds now.However, the rank-and-file should have more say. “It probably should be taken up another notch to 40 per cent.”
His son, Thomas Conway also worries about post-voting division. He is a 21-year-old student studying politics and economics at TCD.
A Coveney supporter, he is, he says, one of a tiny minority of Young Fine Gael activists in the university: “The campaign actually seems to have, I won’t say ripped the party apart, but [it] has created a conflict.”
Why is he backing Coveney?
“He has a better long-term vision for the country. He is more stable. He has vast experience. He is relatively good track record.”
He is annoyed about the way things have worked out. “The fact that so many politicians have already declared is premature and unfair on the ordinary members. A lot of them have jumped on the Varadkar bandwagon once they saw the accumulating votes. I don’t think Kate O’Connell was far wrong with her ‘choirboys’ comment.”
Closer to the capital, the members from Kildare South present a more urban-oriented group, with as many commuters as farmers.
“He has approached this leadership campaign as if it were a general election. The approach he has taken has copper-fastened my view that he has the passion to be the leader.”
His only criticism is the public pledges by councillors. “If they were to keep their powder dry until we all voted it might have made it a more fair contest.”
Reilly, from Castledermot, by contrast likes the system. One member, one vote gave the British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, he said: he does not like the idea of a leader who does not have the support of the parliamentary party.
Party members, though, should have more say on policy. “We put up posters and distribute leaflets, we don’t get enough chance to influence policy. We do a lot of the groundwork, and it’s good to have an actual input. If it were a close race it would be more meaningful.”
His explanation why he is backing Varadkar illustrates how the Dublin West TD has been able to compete with Coveney in rural counties. “I would see Simon Coveney as a safe pair of hands. Leo is more of a risk and might make mistakes. He has the charisma to be leader. Unless you take risks you will not get anywhere.”