Simon Coveney and the campaign to win grassroot hearts

Despite huge TD support for Leo Varadkar, Coveney surpassed himself at the hustings

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


Two days into the Fine Gael leadership campaign, Simon Coveney had a key decision to make. The previous 48 hours had been a washout, with many of his parliamentary party colleagues siding with his rival Leo Varadkar. It was beginning to look like a rout.

Coveney spoke to his family (his wife Ruth and brother Patrick in particular), his campaign manager Damien English, Minister for Health Simon Harris, his own advisers and a band of about a dozen TDs and Senators who were loyal to him.

There were various views about his prospects, with one or two saying it did not look good. But Coveney and English both signalled strongly they were not going to go down without a fight.

Still, at that moment they were looking at a heavy defeat. Coveney thought he had received copper-fastened assurances of support from more than 30 TDs, MEPs and Senators. When he and 13 parliamentarians marched up Mount Street on Thursday, May 18th, to lodge his nomination papers at party headquarters, it was intended as an early show of strength. They were hoping the numbers would creep up to 30 by the first weekend of the campaign.

Shock and awe

Unfortunately for him, in a series of co-ordinated press events that Thursday, the rival team trumped them with a “shock and awe” demonstration of strength.

By the next day, Varadkar’s endorsements were in the high 30s – and when he held his official launch on Saturday, it was overwhelming. His team now included a number of Ministers and TDs who had privately told Coveney they would support him.

“That Friday and Saturday was the low point,” said Dún Laoghaire TD Maria Bailey, one of Coveney’s strongest supporters.

But on the Saturday night, 600 people turned out for a rally and their energy and anger gave him renewed optimism. English drove the new strategy of appealing directly to the membership, intending to win enough support among the grassroots to make five or six TDs rethink their strategy and switch from Varadkar to Coveney. It was a long shot.

A series of public meetings was organised around the country, in advance of the four hustings organised by the party. The turnouts at the public meetings were good, and Coveney also surpassed himself at the hustings. He seemed to have gathered momentum until Varadkar halted his gallop in Cork last Sunday night.

Coveney had 20 members of the parliamentary party and they stayed with him through thick and thin. But the approach was scattergun. “We just ended up throwing everything at everything,” said one, in contrast to the Varadkar campaign which had the co-ordination of a military operation.

Membership backing

However, the Coveney appeal to the membership paid off. It became clear that whatever the parliamentary party was saying, the membership was rowing in behind him. This was borne out by him winning that vote among the membership more decisively than had been predicted – by 65 per cent to 35 per cent.

Coveney continued campaigning right to the end, using every available medium. He made himself available to Vincent Browne on TV3, Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ and to virtually every local radio station.

As the week progressed, Coveney himself made most of the the phone calls to TDs who it was thought might be persuaded to change their minds. His camp said at least two had changed their minds but would not name them.

On Thursday night, Coveney spent hours phoning his parliamentary colleagues who had pledged for Varadkar, asking them to reconsider. It made no difference in the end. The final result of 51 to 22 showed there were no “shifters” and only one of the six TDs who had not declared publicly for one or other candidate – Michael Creed, Seán Kelly, Enda Kenny, Martin Heyden, Michael Noonan and Bernard Durkan – plumped for the Cork man.

If Coveney’s supporters were to identify a moment when the race was lost, they would have to go back a long way – a year at least.

“No matter what Leo says, they were preparing for this campaign since the general election, and certainly since last July,” said one Coveney insider. “They had the website ready to go and all their snazzy design work and the logistics and finances to mount a campaign and rent a headquarters in Mount Street, which is not cheap. In retrospect we should have started earlier.”

Rival’s headstart

Coveney’s campaign did not really begin in earnest until last February and his supporters say Varadkar had a headstart on him at that stage.

It was clear Varadkar had taken a leaf out of the Charlie Haughey primer, and did the 21st-century equivalent of the chicken-dinner circuit. Coveney’s supporters say Varadkar’s ministry allowed him to do that, while their man, as Minister for Housing, was hopping from one national crisis to another.

“He put the country first,” said Bailey. “He was dealing with water and housing and they had to be his priorities.”

When the final count was announced, Coveney could take consolation their grassroots campaign had energised and prolonged a contest that had looked like a dead rubber after the first two days.

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