Fine Gael leadership race: Simon Coveney

Minister for Housing may struggle to shake off ‘merchant prince’ tag

Simon Coveney “will struggle to shake off the ‘merchant prince’ tag, and there is a lingering sense that the somewhat reserved candidate does not have the ‘X-factor’ enjoyed by rival Leo Varadkar, who also has the perceived benefit of a Dublin base. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Simon Coveney “will struggle to shake off the ‘merchant prince’ tag, and there is a lingering sense that the somewhat reserved candidate does not have the ‘X-factor’ enjoyed by rival Leo Varadkar, who also has the perceived benefit of a Dublin base. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Simon Coveney and four of his siblings were on a Kennedyesque round-the-world sailing trip in March 1998, when terrible news from home changed their lives.

Having crossed the Atlantic in the family yacht Golden Apple, the Coveneys had reached the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific. Sporadic satellite communications allowed limited access to email, and a number of messages to the boat urged them to make contact with Cork as soon as possible.

The eldest sibling on board and skipper Simon Coveney, then 25, found a pay phone on San Christóbal, the easternmost of the Galápagos. He reversed the charges on a call to Minane Bridge, and learned of the death of his father, Hugh.

The former Fine Gael minister and serving TD had fallen from a cliff at Robert’s Cove in Cork Harbour as he attempted to rescue one of his dogs during a walk.

Simon Coveney put down the phone in shock, and then had to find the words to break the news to his younger brothers and sister.

The Coveneys had to pay a flying doctor to get them to South America. The journey home on commercial flights through Atlanta and New York was a blur. Within two days they were reunited with their mother Pauline, youngest brother David, then only 15, and eldest sibling Patrick, now chief executive of Greencore.

Privileged youth

While they can hardly have been described as playboys, the footloose Coveneys undoubtedly enjoyed a privileged youth. But the tragedy was a catalyst for the clan to put away childish things, with Simon particularly affected. Those closest to him felt he changed from boy to man almost overnight.

The same words come up again and again from those in Coveney’s corner when describing the man they want to see as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach: sincere, decent, genuine and honest.

The most enthusiastic cast the 44-year-old as an ideological successor to Garret FitzGerald, determined to reform Irish society after years of focus on the economy.

Some supporters also speak approvingly of Coveney as a “family man”.

Cork being a small place, Coveney first encountered his future wife Ruth Furney when they were at school. They had friends who were friends. Their paths crossed again in college, and they started going out.

They went their separate ways for a time, but married in 2008, when Coveney was 35, and now have three daughters aged seven, six and four. Furney works for IDA Ireland.

The extended Coveney family remains tight-knit. When Pauline Coveney remarried in 2001, Simon said the family was very pleased their mother had another chance at happiness with Dr Paul McCarthy.

Coveney will struggle to shake off the “merchant prince” tag, and there is a lingering sense that the somewhat reserved candidate does not have the “X-factor” enjoyed by rival Leo Varadkar, who also has the perceived benefit of a Dublin base.

Rent strategy

Appointed Minister for Housing last year, he has been celebrated within Fine Gael for facing down Fianna Fáil on water charges and rent strategy. Yet in pledging an end to hotel accommodation for homeless families by July, he is viewed as having set himself up for a fall.

His conservative views on same-sex marriage changed over the years, and he became a leading voice calling for a Yes vote as his party’s director of elections in the 2015 referendum.

On abortion, he recently professed himself “uncomfortable” with some of the proposals made by the Citizens’ Assembly.

A TD for 18 years now, Coveney has a tendency towards earnest long-windedness in media appearances.

Strange as it may seem, a speech impediment meant he struggled to string sentences together in his early teenage years. Reading out loud in class proved impossible because of his stutter, and he was often passed over by teachers.

His concerned parents tried everything to help him find ways of coping. All sorts of methods from hypnosis to singing instead of speaking were experimented with, but he eventually worked out how to deal with the stutter himself.

With time and practice he learned to think ahead while speaking, and employs a vocabulary that allows him to articulate himself with greater ease. When he comes across youngsters in schools who stammer he tries to make time to talk to them about his experience.

The young Coveney was expelled from the prestigious fee-paying Clongowes Wood boarding school in Co Kildare temporarily following a transition-year spell of drinking and partying.

He was suspended after school authorities caught him under the influence of alcohol. He later left the school to attend a party in Dublin, which proved a flop, and was expelled. While he was asked back again, his formidable father did not appreciate his teenage antics. His mother was more forgiving.

Unsure of what he wanted to do after school, Coveney began an arts degree in University College Cork (UCC) in 1993, studying economics, history, sociology and psychology.

The family farm was being run by a contractor, but Coveney saw a chance to be his own boss. Eyebrows were raised when he left UCC after a year, intending to return, and went to Tipperary to Gurteen Agricultural College, where Ivan Yates also studied.

He had never driven a tractor in his life, but was suddenly surrounded by students who had practically grown up on them.

Coveney went on to complete a BSc in agriculture and land management at Royal Agricultural University in Gloucestershire, before working in Edinburgh as an agriculture adviser.

Aged 24, he returned to work as a farm manager near Mallow. He spent a year in the post, before the prospect of getting involved in the family’s charity sailing adventure, in aid of the Chernobyl Children’s Project, prompted wanderlust.

Opposition politics

After his father’s death he won the October 1998 byelection to fill his late father’s Dáil seat. He also served as a member of Cork County Council from 1999 until 2003.

Finding the negative slog of domestic opposition politics unappealing, Coveney seized the chance to run for the European Parliament in 2004.

He found Brussels a more constructive environment, but after three years he gave up the European post to contest the general election when the dual mandate arrangement ended in 2007.

He was clearly not Enda Kenny’s greatest fan, saying publicly the Mayo man needed to up his game.

Richard Bruton propelled Fine Gael into an abortive heave in June 2010 when he told Vincent Browne: “In the swag bag of every corporal is a lieutenant’s baton.” Despite having backed Bruton, Coveney survived a reshuffle to remain on the party front bench.

After dropping one of his daughters to a creche on September 14th, 2010, Coveney observed on Twitter within minutes of then taoiseach Brian Cowen’s disastrous Morning Ireland interview that the Fianna Fáil leader sounded “halfway between drunk and hungover and totally disinterested”.

He had a relatively small number of Twitter followers at the time, and did not foresee the political explosion his candid message would unleash.

After the 2011 general election, Coveney’s appointment as minister for agriculture saw him become a front-rank politician, although naturally not all farmers agreed.

Defence was added to his portfolio, and he sent Naval Service ships to help rescue refugees in the Mediterranean.

Cork’s best-known merchant prince, the late Peter Barry, never quite made the political summit, and was subsequently ranked by many as the greatest leader Fine Gael never had. Those around Coveney are hoping that history will not repeat itself.