Varadkar in pole position but Coveney camp fights on

Some supporters of Coveney had urged him to withdraw

 Leo Varadkar at the launch of his leadership campaign for Fine Gael Party in Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA

Leo Varadkar at the launch of his leadership campaign for Fine Gael Party in Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA

 

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney is staying in the Fine Gael leadership race, his supporters confirmed on Saturday.

Damien English, Mr Coveney’s director of elections, confirmed to The Irish Times the contest will go ahead despite earlier speculation of a possible withdrawal. Some supporters of Mr Coveney had pushed for him to withdraw from the race, but the Cork South Central TD tweeted on Saturday afternoon: “Really looking forward to a big FG rally tonight in Cork City!!”

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald endorsing Leo Varadkar’s leadership. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald endorsing Leo Varadkar’s leadership. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Leo Varadkar arriving at his official campaign launch. Photograph: Naoise Culhane
Leo Varadkar arriving at his official campaign launch. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

Mr Coveney’s closest supporters are adamant he will not pull out of the race, although some who were backing his candidacy believed he should do so.

One source in the Coveney camp said: “There are some people trying to save themselves” and that some people were attempting to “ride two horses”.

Mr Coveney was said to be consulting party colleagues earlier and postponed an engagement in Cork on Saturday afternoon but a scheduled rally will go ahead at 8pm in Cork City.

Gerry O'Connell, the returning officer for the leadership election, said the deadline for nominations had now closed, and that the contest will proceed as planned. When asked what the procedure would be if one candidate were to withdraw, Mr O'Connell said: "We are not countenancing anything other than a 16 day process. We move on from here on that basis."

Leo Varadkar took an unassailable lead over Mr Coveney on Saturday after received the backing of a series of senior members of the party including Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Mayo TD Michael Ring.

Ms Fitzgerald attended Mr Varadkar’s campaign launch today to expressed her support, saying he had blazed a trail in politics since he joined Young Fine Gael aged 18. Mr Varadkar now has the support of eight Cabinet Ministers.

Speaking at his campaign launch in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said he wanted the contest to continue and that he wanted to go to Fine Gael councillors and members to sell his message.

Mr Varadkar said that he wanted Fine Gael to be the party that represented “people who get up early in the morning” and that Fine Gael must be more ambitious and form a new social contract with the Irish people. The party must become more modern and be in a position to defend its achievements in office.

He said he was in favour of removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution, that guarantees equal status to women and unborn child. The Minister said the provision was too restrictive but insisted his view should not be enforced on the party. Mr Varadkar added he did not want an early election and was committed to the confidence and supply arrangement agreed with Fianna Fáil. Under the arrangement, Fianna Fáil has agreed to support the minority Government in Dáil votes.

Mr Varadkar refused to state whether he would be willing to retain Minister for Health Simon Harris, who is supporting Mr Coveney, in Cabinet if elected Taoiseach. However, he said he wanted Minister for Housing Mr Coveney to be part of his team. Asked whether the same status applied to Mr Harris, he declined to say.

Minister of State at the Department of Health Catherine Byrne and Minister of State for Rural Affairs Michael Ring declared for Mr Varadkar on Saturday, with Mr Ring saying the Minister for Social Protection was the right man at the right time. The Mayo TD insisted he would be a great leader of Fine Gael and a great taoiseach. Mr Ring paid tribute to Taoiseach Enda Kenny for his role in rescuing the country.

Earlier, one of Simon Coveney’s main supporters in the leadership contest criticised how some of her “choirboy” colleagues went about supporting Mr Varadkar.

At an event in Clare on Friday night, Dublin Bay South TD Kate O’Connell, asked party members to be sure that their voices would be heard.

Dublin Bay South TD Kate O Connell with Simon Coveney: “I am very disappointed at the last few days. At the choreographed, co-ordinated choirboys that came out.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Dublin Bay South TD Kate O Connell with Simon Coveney: “I am very disappointed at the last few days. At the choreographed, co-ordinated choirboys that came out.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

She described the people lining up to support Mr Varadkar as “boys that are singing for their supper”.

“I am very disappointed at the last few days. At the choreographed, co-ordinated choirboys that came out,” she said. “Boys that are singing for their supper.

“You want to be heard as members, the process the way it is turning at the minute, your voices will not be heard.”Mr Varadkar refused to respond to Ms O’Connell’s comments.

Advocates for the Minister for Housing earlier said they believed a contest should be held and the views of members and councillors should be heard. “Not one vote is cast and we have a lot to say - ideas and plans to change Ireland for the better,” the supporter said. “And if this election is about more than being Fine Gael leader but also about being taoiseach then surely the people have a right to hear and scrutinise those ideas.”

Mr Varadkar now has the support of 45 members of the parliamentary party of TDs, Senators and MEPs, while Mr Coveney has the support of 20. The electoral college system of voting in Fine Gael gives 65 per cent of the voting rights to the parliamentary party, 25 per cent to the membership of 25,000 people and 10 per cent to councillors.

Mr Coveney told The Irish Times on Friday night that he would not be withdrawing from the contest, though some of his supporters privately believe he should consider pulling out.

Ms O’Connell said she was not surprised at how the opening stages of the campaign had gone because of her experiences of sharing a constituency with Eoghan Murphy, Mr Varadkar’s campaign manager.

“I have watched the campaign manager of the other side for a long time as a member of Dublin Bay South. And I know the form and I am not shocked at what has happened over the past 48 hours,” she said.

She also said some Fine Gael TDs and senators were “afraid of their jaysus of what is ahead of them.”

“We need a Fine Gael leader that puts manners on the Cowens and puts manners on the Martins who destroyed the dignity of this country,” she said, and mentioned a “brigade that is infiltrating Fine Gael that believes in giving nothing back”.