Miriam Lord: Fine Gael’s Got Talent runs its course

The final hustings in Cork was a battle of Simonomics versus Leo-liberalism

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney debate with each other at the start of hustings. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney debate with each other at the start of hustings. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times


After a rip-roaring nationwide run, the qualifying stages of Fine Gael’s Got Talent came to a raucous close in Simon Coveney’s home city of Cork last night.

The night should have belonged to Simon. But Leo Varadkar, who hasn’t performed brilliantly over the series, crept in and stole it.

After four nights of relatively civilised hustings, politeness went out the window in the last fraught moments of the marathon double header between the party’s leadership rivals.

Coveney accused Varadkar of lacking compassion, Varadkar fought back, calling his claims “divisive, dishonest and not a good way to seek a mandate”.

A red-faced Coveney then accused him of spending money he didn’t have. The crowd went home roaring, and sweating.

Stinging charges

These hustings began with noisy chants for Coveney. And ended with exuberant shouts for Leo, who winded his rival with stinging charges of indecisiveness and an inability to make tough choices. The Dublin man’s band of travelling support left elated.

“You’re embarrassing me,” said Leo, modestly, as the cheers rang out on his rival’s turf.

Simonomics versus Leo-liberalism.

The first, distinctly touchy-feely. The second, with a distinctly harder edge.

Simon Coveney wonders how best to “define” Fine Gael.

Leo Varadkar wants to bring “definition” to the party.

Coveney took the platform in front of a highly partisan home crowd. The conference hall in the Silver Springs Hotel was packed. It was a tough crowd for the Dublin interloper.

“I’ve always enjoyed away games most,” declared Varadkar, as Coveney’s Cork clack noisily chanted their hero’s name at every available opportunity. When moderator Gavin Duffy sternly implemented the time rule on Simon, the audience fumed.

We’re not sure what they might have done had Duffy – best known for his no-nonsense role in the Dragon’s Den TV show – been equally as rigid with Leo.

Because when Simon Says, he says it at considerable length. Not so much for his rival.

Local support

The crowd were in good spirits for what was the second weekend session in a row in the city for Coveney. A week earlier, reeling from the rapidly effective start by his rival, the Minister for Housing was buoyed by his local supporters when his campaign had hit rock bottom.

Varadkar, with a string of ministerial scalps already on his belt, seemed to be running away with the race.

But Coveney fought back. Varadkar may have the all-important majority support in the parliamentary party, but his rival’s team are confident they can persuade enough of those names to change their mind in the secrecy of Friday’s ballot in Leinster House.

“I believe that I can win this and as this week goes on I believe a majority of people in this party will believe that too,” the Corkman proclaimed, as heat levels climbed in the hall.

However, had he looked to his left and the politicians packing the front rows, he will have seen a lot of names on the Leo side – parliamentarians, presumably, he cannot sway.

The Coveneyite leapt to their feet again, chanting at the top of their voices.

A more feeble chorus of “Leo, Leo” rose up in response. But under the circumstances – think a Republic of Ireland match against Northern Ireland in Windsor Park back in the bad old days – they did pretty well.

It was no surprise when the local man likened his powers of recovery to recent Cork’s win over Tipperary. “Being an underdog means nothing if you believe in yourself,” cried Simon, as his admirers went into paroxysms.

Row like an underdog, as the O’Sullivan brothers might say.

But it was Leo who remembered to congratulate these fine sons of Cork who had landed yet more medal glory in the European Championships earlier in the day.

Gloves came off

The media contingent shoehorned into the back of the hall hoped to see some rowing like dogs too. But rowing in the sense of arguing.

The gloves came off only towards the end.

There was, of course, an edge to many of their exchanges. They are in a battle for the leadership of Fine Gael and a chance to be taoiseach.

But Simon and Leo traded the most mannerly jibes at each other early on. They undermined each other with delicacy and painful courtesy.

“If it was all just about Mum and apple pie, we would be Greece” remarked Varadkar, tartly.

“We’re both smart. We’re both on top of our briefs,” said his colleague and rival. Both were unanimous on this.

“But I believe that both candidates offer a very different road in this regard,” he observed, offering passion and compassion.

There was less of that from the other side.

“Who ya gonna tax and by how much? Those are the kind of decisions that politicians have to make every day.”

But both of them have the wide interests of the party and country at heart.

“We’re not Simon versus Leo. We’re not Cork versus Dublin. We’re not rural versus Dublin,” said Varadkar.

That’s not how the crowd saw it. But it was their night out.

The Dublin West TD got a laugh from the crowd when referring to his multi-cultural background. “Year-round tan and funny surname, just in case you don’t know.”

He also thanked, “the very large number of reps from the Munster Counties who nominated me” and glad to see them here tonight.

There was a huffy silence.

Both stood on their records.

Coveney had yellow balloons and stickers. Varadkar had stickers – and two busloads of supporters from Dublin.

Who won the night? After Coveney’s better start to the series of four, his final outing in Cork city was rather humdrum. Did he do enough to convince any waverers? Varadkar was punchier, with more substance to his plans.

But the perspiring grassroots loved it. “There is a change in the air. The jizz is back,” roared Gerry O’Connell, party executive chairman, from the platform.