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'Bitter, ugly, divisive politics. Team Coveney could have marched on without going so negative'

This internal struggle has (re)opened some wounds that will take time to heal, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law Lecturer, NUI Galway

A COUPLE OF months ago, the political chattering classes were waiting breathlessly for An Taoiseach Enda Kenny to announce when he would step down as leader of Fine Gael after a long and successful tenure. Based on opinion polls and insider rumours, most predicted a very tight battle to replace him between Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar.

For a while, the momentum favoured the former. One high-profile TD from another party indicated to me with a reasonable degree of confidence that the Corkman would prevail ultimately.

But this was all before the day(s) of “shock and awe” as Leo – his slick, well-run campaign has dropped the Dubliner’s surname from his distinctive signs, water bottles, etc – announced the endorsements of a substantial majority of his Oireachtas colleagues, including an impressive number of TDs and Senators from beyond the pale and not a few mainstays who seasoned observers had anticipated would be with Coveney.

Speculation that Coveney would withdraw

The Oireachtas members have 65% of the overall say in choosing their next leader pursuant to the electoral college system Fine Gael is using now for the first time.

Accordingly, political journalists on the ground, not to mention more detached watchers who can work a calculator, recognised that the contest was over and that Leo had it won. Speculation abounded that Simon Coveney was planning to withdraw.

Instead, he robustly affirmed the would allow ordinary party members and councillors to cast a vote and have their voices heard. He has done so, and much of the reaction to and reporting of the campaign in the past ten days suggests that he has been the superior candidate and that his messaging has resonated with the Fine Gael grass roots.

We will know whether he has managed to climb what still looks to be a mountain too high on Friday afternoon. What then makes strange and divisive the two most apt adjectives to describe the fight between Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar?

‘Life moves pretty fast’

First, it is strange that the amount of support Leo enjoyed in the parliamentary party seems to have been so greatly underestimated. As usual in this context, politicians held their cards close to their chests, yet something apparently was missed here. At one level, cynics might opine that there was a desire for a close race emanating from certain interested quarters.

Equally, however, Leo’s unveiling of supportive colleagues who are constituency rivals and who hail from all over rural Ireland – cleverly orchestrated to surprise – calls to mind Ferris Bueller’s famous line: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Second, polling of the membership and the welcome receptions Coveney received at the hustings in Dublin, Carlow, Ballinasloe and Cork contrast with the comparatively weak response he elicited from Fine Gael’s highest elected officials. This raises a number of questions.

Is there a gulf between the upper and lower echelons of the party? Are divergent views about the leadership driven in the main by ideology or persona? Might this cause any in the Oireachtas who have pledged their votes to Leo to change their minds?

Even if not, might some become slightly wary of being defined by their allegiance to the frontrunner – perhaps some of those in the Seanad aspiring for Dáil seats or the sitting TDs who aren’t eventually rewarded with ministries? Regardless of who ultimately succeeds Enda Kenny, does Fine Gael have something of a “democratic deficit” to reckon with?

Simon saves the best for last

Third, what is strange, and also has been and will continue to be divisive, is that Simon Coveney appears to have saved his best campaigning and stinging attacks for last, when the fight was effectively finished. Why?

That Coveney, an experienced politician who has been in Dáil Éireann for nearly two decades, was outfoxed and, by some accounts, outworked by Leo in making the case to those he serves alongside left many in and around Leinster House scratching their heads. The fashion in which he has come out with all guns blazing ever since is perplexing in a different way.

Leaving aside the language he has employed when on the spot – at rallies and other events or on the broadcast media – Coveney cast the choice ahead of Fine Gael in especially stark terms in the Sunday Business Post last weekend. He writes, “we can be a party that builds on the history, tradition and timeless aspirations of the Just Society and seek to unite, rather than divide, society so that everyone can make a contribution and lead a fulfilling life” if he wins.

But if Leo is the victor, theirs will:

become a party that shifts from the centre ground and looks to a notional ‘core’ Fine Gael vote, and tries to bolt on smaller blocks to that vote. At its heart, it looks to divide up our society by targeting segments of the electorate rather than reaching out to all.

While there is no doubt that Leo was, at least in part, appealing to the right with his initiative to double down on social welfare fraud and his overture to “people who get up early in the morning,” Coveney’s implicit claim that a Fine Gael party led by his opponent would divide Irish society is arguably over the top.

Too little, too late

It doesn’t really add up. It’s counterproductive in the longer term; it’s hard to take from a politician of a largely indistinguishable centre-right hue and a similarly privileged background as his rival and, speaking politically above all, it’s too little, too late. When coupled with incendiary comments about “choirboys” and such from Coveney ally Kate O’Connell, the Dublin Bay South TD, this is bitter, ugly, divisive politics. Team Coveney could have marched on without going so negative.

The journalist Lise Hand has commented that the close of each hustings resembled an American presidential debate, with surrogates from the two camps rushing to spin to the media the relative merits of how their man performed. Fine Gael might need to borrow something else from the Republicans and Democrats this weekend: the party unity breakfast often held after a hard-fought primary campaign.

It was inevitable that this internal struggle would be tough and would (re)open some wounds that will take time to heal. At the same time, though, from this remove, the entire affair has been quite strange from start to finish.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law Lecturer, NUI Galway

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