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Coveney has no regrets about making promises about family homelessness

Tánaiste Simon Coveney sits down with TheJournal.ie to talk homelessness, Brexit, abortion and Callan’s Kicks.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney
Tánaiste Simon Coveney
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

TÁNAISTE SIMON COVENEY has said he does not regret making the promise that as Housing Minister he would get families out of unsuitable emergency accommodation by July of this year.

The government failed to meet that commitment, with the latest figures showing a rise in the number of people staying in hotels and B&Bs yet again.

In total, there were 1,530 families with 3,333 children staying in emergency accommodation in November.

Last year, Coveney told TheJournal.ie that the July target would be something he would pin his reputation to, saying he knew it would be a “potential stick to beat me with” if it failed.

When he sits down with TheJournal.ie in his large, oak mahogany office in Iveagh House (his new home at the Department of Foreign Affairs) before Christmas he says he does not regret making the statement.

“No, for me politics is always about setting targets and then going after them. The politics of hiding behind bushes because you might get criticised is not something that interests me. We set targets to get children out of hotels… to much more suitable accommodation so that we could then, over time, get them into homes.

“If we hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have actually spent the guts of €40 million on family hubs in an effort to meet that target.

We wouldn’t have seen a reduction in the number of children in hotels today and there has been a significant reduction – but they shouldn’t be there and I am very strong on that.

In June 2016, there were 682 families with 1,372 children staying in commercial hotels in Dublin alone

As of May this year, some 650 or so families were staying in commercial hotels in Dublin, but Minister Murphy committed to rehousing them in family hubs by the end of this month.

The latest homeless figures marks a rise of 139 from the numbers from October.

Of homeless adults, 2,437 were placed in private emergency accommodation, which includes commercial hotels and B&Bs.

He acknowledged that the State needs to supply better solutions and admits that he had not anticipated such numbers to enter into homelessness.

The number of people becoming homeless

The Tánaiste admitted that it is very difficult to stem the flow of people into homelessness.

“What of course I hadn’t anticipated was that the number of families coming into homelessness. We have taken thousands of families out of homelessness in the past 12 months – but there have been more coming in than we have been able to get out and that has been a huge pressure point, it still is. It is something I still think about a lot,” said Coveney.

The Tánaiste said the State needs to set ambitious targets and drive the institutions to deliver on those targets as opposed to setting safe targets that don’t “excite or drive anyone for fear you won’t meet your target”.

So, I make no apologies for being ambitious for homeless people.

He believes the current Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy is continuing in that vein.

Coveney defends Murphy, and states that rhetoric from Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson Eoin O’Broin – who has called on Murphy to step aside if the figures continue to rise next year – is uncalled for.

The latest figures show that as of the end of May, 650 families were in hotels or B&Bs, and said this was a “considerable reduction” from 871 in March.

The Tánaiste stands by the Rebuilding Ireland programme – which was his project when he was Housing Minister. He argues that people are preemptively judging the plan.

“It is only one year into a five-year programme,” he said.

He states that O’Broin is offering no solutions, and when asked is it not time the government enforces some emergency and unprecedented measures to stem the rise in homelessness, Coveney states:

“Not if they have unintended consequences and if they make the situation worse. What Sinn Féin has been calling for and what Fianna Fáil has at times supported, is some kind of blanket freeze on all rents, a freeze on anyone to be evicted under any condition. Of course we want to stop people from being evicted and certainly families, but we also have to ensure there is a private rental market that functions,” he explained.

Social housing and Fine Gael 

He hit back at critics who state that Fine Gael are not interested in building social housing, claiming it is “fundamentally untrue”.

“What we have now is a reliance on the private rental market while we ramp up the delivery of social housing,” he said, though he admitted that it is not happening at the pace the government would like, and he wants to see the delivery of social housing to be speeded up.

Coveney said he has not walked away from the brief, despite what some in Opposition say, and pointed out that he speaks to Eoghan Murphy about housing issues.

“Some people have accused me of no longer being committed to housing, that would be fundamentally wrong, I am very much involved in the housing debate in government. I speak to Eoghan, I speak to the Taoiseach – we see this as the biggest domestic challenge that we have, particularly for homeless families and those rough sleeping,” said Coveney.

“At this time of year we can understand why people are demanding more from government – they are going to get more from government,” he said.

Fine Gael Think-in Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The past year has been a busy one for the Cork man. He has run for the leadership of Fine Gael, and for the role of An Taoiseach. He has moved briefs, from housing to foreign affairs, while also becoming deputy leader of Fine Gael.

Reflecting on 2017, he said the leadership contest seems a long time ago.

Is there anything he would have done differently?

“I am one of these people who tends to look forward instead of looking back. I am very competitive, I don’t like losing but when I have a set back I tend to try to learn lessons from that and then move on and not beat myself up over time,” he said.

“I think we got some things right and some things wrong, if I am to be honest. I did very well with the members and not so well with the Oireachtas colleagues, but you know like I say, we probably learned some lessons about what worked and didn’t.

It was a fair contest, Leo won. I didn’t like that, but I accept that.

Dreams of becoming Taoiseach? 

At age 45, it is not unreasonable to think that Coveney might want another shot at being Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach one day.

I am not even thinking about that now. Obviously I wanted to be leader. The prospect of being Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader excited me. I wanted to take the party in the direction that I was passionate about, but you know, that was then, this is now.
We have a new reality. We have a very good Taoiseach, a good leader. I think he is doing a very good job. I am supporting him – that is my focus now.
I am certainly not thinking about how I can undermine him so that I can take the job one day. I think that is a pretty pathetic way to be to be honest, to approach politics, and it is not what I am about.

Though it might not be in the forefront of his mind, Coveney does not deny that he might one day like to be Taoiseach. He acknowledges that both he and Varadkar are both relatively young when it comes to the makeup of the Dáil.

I think I am probably younger than what most people are when they get elected as a TD and certainly Leo is, so we are both young politicians who will hopefully be around for a while… we want to make an impact today, not over the lifetime of our political careers that could go on for a while…

All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney speaking to the media ahead of the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

One thing Coveney said he decided to do after the leadership contest was smooth over any rifts or tensions between himself and Leo Varadkar.

Having seen previous leadership competitions within the party, Coveney said he knew Fine Gael had not handled them well in the past.

“For me the key lessons learned from other leadership contests in Fine Gael was that the party was always bitterly divided afterwards, friendships were lost. More importantly for the broader public – the party was weakened. It’s one thing for the party to be weakened while the party is in opposition, when you have time to recover and rebuild but we had no time for that now.

“So I was very determined that once this was over, the one thing I was very sure on, was that I needed to work hard to make sure there was no division opening up in the party that would undermine Leo’s leadership,” said Coveney.

Since the contest last summer, Coveney said there has been no “hangover, resentment or animosity in the party”.

Leo and Simon 

The Tánaiste describes his relationship with the Taoiseach as “a very good one”.

I think he trusts me. I give it to him straight when he asks for my views on things. We don’t have disagreements, but we do have discussions about issues that are important to the government, testing ideas and policies.
I think the relationship I have with Taoiseach is a good one that allows us to speak bluntly to one another and ensures that both of us can do a good job and that is what a Taoiseach and Tanaiste should be able to do together.

Following the fallout of the McCabe emails, the former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald was forced to resign, making way for Coveney to take the job.

Coveney said he was not expecting to be made Tánaiste and has found the broadening of his responsibility “very tense”.

There are two big challenges facing the government next year: the referendum on abortion and Brexit. The latter is one of Coveney’s key responsibilities.

On the former, he will not be drawn on his personal views (and questions the belief circulating in Leinster House that he is ‘conservative’ in his opinion on abortion rights).

He says that like many other politicians, he is taking the Christmas break to reflect on the Oireachtas committee’s report and recommendations.

When asked what role he might play, if any, in a referendum campaign, he said:

“I don’t know yet… we had a pre-cabinet meeting with Fine Gael ministers and the Taoiseach and also at Cabinet and we decided to take this report, read it over Christmas, digest it and try to really understand the perspectives being put across and then we will come and talk as a government about how we are going to bring this forward,” he said, adding:

Undoubtedly there will be different views in government on this issue but what the Taoiseach has said is there is going to be a collective responsibility of the government to take the next step here because there is a commitment to hold a referendum.

There have been criticisms about ministers being allowed to have a free vote, but Coveney said collective responsibility of Cabinet doesn’t mean all ministers must agree on everything.

“It means we work together to agree a way forward. Ultimately it will be the Irish people who decide,” he said.

“People come at this from different perspectives, they come at it from their own personal experiences in life, some of those are very tragic and run deep. I think the Cabinet are no different. I think they will bring their own personal life experiences to this discussion,” he said.

Brexit Source: PA Wire/PA Images

On Brexit, however, Coveney has stood accused of being too forthright with his opinions.

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste finished off their year with a bounce with Ireland avoiding using its veto but getting the assurances on the border it needed pulling off a good deal in early December by getting the UK to sign up to a number of promises.

However, Coveney has come in for some criticism and has been a target for members of the DUP. Gregory Campbell described his response to Brexit as “clumsy”, “aggressive” and “unhelpful”.

“There is no point pretending that [there isn't tension],” he admits.

He said Ireland had to take a stand to protect its interests, while also attempting to listen to others.

A United Ireland in his political career

Coveney raised the issue of a United Ireland during a recent Oireachtas committee, which irked the DUP during a critical point in the negotiations.

“Unfortunately people have criticised me, others have thanked me for taking a stand. I think it is regrettable that some people have accused me of having ulterior motives here because there is no ulterior motive other than finding pragmatic solutions and protecting the status quo,” said the Tánaiste.

On that committee hearing, he argues for people to read the full transcript to see he gave evidence at the committee on the Good Friday Agreement.

“I made some clear statements in relation to Brexit and I made some other comments in relation to constitutionality of nationalism which were nothing to do with Brexit but unfortunately some people have looked to link the two and I think that is not accurate.

“I am not getting into a tit-for-tat here with people. I have been accused of all sorts of things and I have not accused anyone of anything. We are focused here on trying to get a good deal and to listen to all parties including the DUP,” said Coveney.

Boris Johnson visit to Ireland Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney Source: Brian Lawless

However, he said there cannot be a situation where one party in Northern Ireland dictating for all.

We can’t have a situation where one party has more of a monopoly that anyone else on the outcomes here and obviously the DUP has a relationship with the British government because of a confidence and supply agreement. That is a matter for the British government and DUP.

He said some of the media coverage in the UK around the negotiations was “unfortunate”.

Britain is a big country it is a proud country. It is one of the great nations of the world. There are a lot of perspectives. Some people are tuned into Ireland, some people aren’t and unfortunately the Brexit debate… has brought out the worst in people.
Some of the language is unfortunate. It has been directed at the Taoiseach, it has been directed at me. I think it shows now that Ireland is relevant and that Ireland is requiring that Ireland is relevant in British considerations – some people don’t like that.

Phase Two of the Brexit talks are going to be difficult, said Coveney.

“If the British government wants to maintain a very close trading relationship with the  Single Market and Customs Union, the EU will be very generous in trying to facilitating that. But if they insist on maintaining their core position of leaving the Customs Union, the Single Market and the EU, well then I think the negotiating position is forced in to a certain set of parameters whereby we have to look at Britain as a third country and we have to put a free trade agreement in place like we have done with Canada.”

He said the British must understand that the EU operates under rules and regulations, and doesn’t have the flexibility that an individual country has.

“If you break all the rules and redesign how we do trade relationships with Britain, well that impacts on all the other trade relationships we have with the other countries and it impacts on the relationships countries within the EU have if they feel they can leave and still get all the benefits of being inside. So that is why Barnier is clear on this. Britain has choices to make,” he added.

I am not pretending that there is not work to be done to build trust and build relationships but anyone that knows me I think would be surprised to hear me being described as ‘aggressive’. I am firm and clear about things, I certainly try to be, I try to reach out to everybody, I have a lot of respect for unionism and the place of unionism in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

With the mention that no one would ever describe him as aggressive, his caricature on Callan’s Kicks springs to mind. Comedian Oliver Callan impersonates politicians, including Simon Coveney, every week for his RTÉ Podcast and he often depicts Coveney as a softly spoken minister. 

 Does he ever listen to it?

“Not very often, the odd time,” he said, laughing.

“He’s funny. Lots of other politicians are easy to make a caricature off in terms of their accent or how they look or whatever maybe I am a bit too ordinary, I don’t know. I don’t get too worked up about these things.”

Read: Former Georgian hotel in Dublin’s city centre opens as hostel after years of objections>

Read: Taoiseach ‘very happy’ David Davis has clarified his remarks on border Brexit deal>

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