"Don't mind your press releases," a Fine Gael source was told by a more experienced hand on their first day in Leinster House; "If you want something out there, just say it in the PP [parliamentary party meeting]."
It’s a truism of Irish politics that these meetings - especially those of the two larger Government parties - leak like the proverbial sieve. This got worse during Covid, when virtual meetings meant members were unencumbered by the need to even appear interested, and journalists were freely briefed in real time. The content of the meeting, coupled with the observations of parliamentarians - arch, knowing, and unfiltered - populated twitter streams and news copy.
So, when Simon Coveney’s remarks about his surprise at the meeting between the Russian ambassador to Ireland and the head of the defence forces were promptly headline news, it can’t have been too much of a shock. “He knows he’s speaking at the leakiest meeting in Leinster House,” observed a source present.
On January 21 the Ambassador of #Russia to #Ireland Y.Filatov met with the Member of the Chief of Defence Staff of Ireland S.Clancy. Parties discussed the issues of relations and international agenda, as well as prospects of contacts between armed forces of two countries. pic.twitter.com/lR9GuwBFjG— Russia in Ireland (@Rus_Emb_Ireland) January 21, 2022
Still, some in the room thought when Michael Creed raised the issue, Coveney would just "warble on like you normally do". Instead, after a gap of several minutes while other questions were fielded, the Minister for Defence bit down. He said he was "surprised to put it mildly", several sources present said, and questioned the judgement of it.
Afterwards, sources close to Coveney quickly asserted the Minister meant the tweet from the Russians, and the accompanying picture, were the issue, not the meeting. But multiple sources at the parliamentary party interpreted it as referring to the meeting, and what’s more, as a direct rebuke to the chief of staff. “The tone I got was he was f***ing livid,” said one source.
Either way, the remark was leaked, it was controversial, and early the next morning, Coveney was mending fences in the Dáil, expressing confidence in Seán Clancy and contrition for having brought him into the line of political fire.
A kind interpretation, offered by some at the meeting, is that he feels honour-bound to respond fully to questions from parliamentary colleagues. There is likely truth to that. But equally, many believe he would have known his comments would have been controversial, open to interpretation as a rebuke to the head of the Defence Forces, and that it was meant as a shot across the bows.
Others postulate that - perhaps more worryingly - he didn’t detect the political risk inherent in the remarks, which the Opposition would say had undermined the Chief of Staff . “Simon should have known this was going to result in public comment,” said another person there.
That, in truth is the bigger concern - that Coveney’s bad run of form is down to a blunted political dexterity. “You’d know by the way he said it he wasn’t trying to cause controversy,” one colleague said - adding that it was, however, evidence of Coveney’s new knack of “making small problems into big ones”.