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Coveney's focus on Defence portfolio brought into question by some after Russia controversy

Questions have been asked as to whether Coveney is stretched too thin being in charge of the DFA and Defence.

SIMON COVENEY IS coming in for criticism for his handling of the Defence portfolio amid ongoing wider criticism of successive governments’ lack of prioritisation of the role. 

The portfolio has been tacked on to various other ministries in recent years – including the ministry of Justice and the Department of the Taoiseach. The job has been part of the official role of the likes of Alan Shatter, Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar. 

The perceived lack of a permanent home for the portfolio has led to continuing criticisms from a number of quarters – those within the force and some politicians with an interest in security matters – about how the issue of security is regarded in Ireland. 

The recent controversy over the planned Russian military exercises in Irish-patrolled waters has brought the Department of Defence, and indeed its minister, into sharp focus. 

The lack of ability our Defence Forces would have in protecting the country from an outside threat has once again emerged as a topic of debate. That debate is likely to get a further airing later this week as the long-awaited report from the Commission on the Defence Forces is considered by Cabinet today. 

Coveney, who is also Foreign Affairs minister, arguably made the recent controversy over the expected Russian exercises worse by telling a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party of his surprise at the meeting between the Russian ambassador to Ireland and the chief of the Defence Forces. 

The Russian exercises were later moved further out into the Atlantic and away from Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone, but that conclusion to the media storm was not met with praise for Coveney or his Department. 

Instead, there has been speculation from inside the party that such gaffes may end up costing Coveney – who was previously widely-regarded as a safe pair of hands – his seat at the Cabinet table. 

One Fine Gael backbencher told The Journal that such mutterings had been coming from a few backbenchers in the party who may be eyeing up a ministry for themselves. 

“They know there are only a certain amount of Fine Gael seats earmarked for Cabinet and they know there are three strong male performers in terms of Leo Varadkar, Simon Harris and Simon Coveney.

“They’re looking for one to fall on their sword so that a space might become free, that’s at it is,” the backbencher said – adding that when you look at Coveney’s record on Brexit, one could hardly question his credentials or ability.

Sinn Féin’s Defence spokesperson John Brady said however that the recent controversy over the Russian exercises had shown “how weak our Defence Forces are”, adding:

“Unfortunately, this is not new, it’s been going on over many, many years.”

He added: “In terms of the political oversight, I would openly say and I have said before, that due to pressures within the department, the ministry, I’d say probably less than 10% of his time is focused on the Defence Forces.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs is a massive brief for one minister, he said, claiming that Defence was losing out due to Coveney is too stretched.

“The level of importance in relation of Foreign Affairs, everything from Brexit, to Irish Aid to the other crises that the crop up.”

Brady said he would like to see a junior minister deal with Defence alone, someone that would drive the much needed reforms.

Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambers serves as the Minister of State at the Department of Defence while also holding the job as Government Chief Whip and Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs and Sport. 

The role of Chief Whip, Brady said, “is a time consuming role in and of its own. So to give him more responsibilities, I think, would be a box-ticking exercise”. 

“I think there needs to be a greater role there – someone to take on that role, solely around Defence.” 

He added that today’s commission report should lead to wider discussions about the structure of the Defence Forces, as well as the political oversight of the brief.

Government sources close to the minister said “it’s no coincidence Sinn Féin are on manoeuvres on the same day a commitment from the program for government is published”.

“The commission on the future of defence has been brought to a conclusion by Simon Coveney and its report and the decisions we need to make as a country should be a non partisan debate,” they added.

Security sources who spoke to The Journal expressed similar concerns as Brady – with one senior source criticising Coveney for what they described as a lack of willingness to delegate tasks. 

“This is a basic management issue – there are 8,500 personnel – that is a lot of moving parts and the Minister needs a hand with that,” the source said. 

“The problem is that Foreign Affairs is a major and very important ministry now – especially with Brexit and the UN Security Council commitments but Defence is suffering.

“He’s been winded by the bad publicity in recent weeks and the only reason these crises keep happening is because there is no real oversight to catch them and deal with them before they get out.”

“This is a basic management systems issue – it’s that simple,” the source insisted.

Coveney’s recent reported parliamentary party remarks on the Defence Forces chief’s meeting with the Russian ambassador also caused a fracture between the minister and the force hierarchy, the source added – particularly as the meeting between Lieutenant General Seán Clancy and the ambassador had been planned well in advance.

Coveney later walked back some of his remarks about that meeting, saying simply that he had been surprised at the specific timing of the event and the tweet drawing attention to it.

But the source said the damage had already been done: “The whole thing of calling out the Chief of Staff in that manner was taken very badly by the senior management team.” 

Niall O'Connor and Christina Finn
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