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Sam Boal
Round one

'We're privileged to be electing the next party leader and the next Taoiseach'

Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar went head-to-head in the first Fine Gael husting.

YESTERDAY WAS THE hottest day of the year, but despite the sun blazing outside, close to 800 Fine Gaelers crammed into a hotel conference room in Dublin to see Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar go head-to-head.

It was the first of four hustings (debates) between the two leadership candidates (which are being chaired by Dragons Den’s Gavin Duffy).

There were stacks of multi-coloured ‘Leo’ t-shirts and water bottles, as well as hoards of ‘Coveney’ stickers on stands dotted around the Red Cow Moran Hotel.

A group of German women over on holidays looked around, confused at what all the fanfare was about (if they knew, they might not believe it).

If you are not a Fine Gael supporter, you would be forgiven for calling for all the extraneous PR launches, talks and ‘he said, she said’ headlines to come to an end.

Choosing the next Taoiseach

However, while Fine Gael members are the people who get to choose their next leader, they are also the people who get to choose Ireland’s next Taoiseach.

With that in mind, we decided to ask a few attendees whether they were voting in the best interest of their party or their country? Also why they decided to give up their sunny evening to see a Cork man and a Dublin man take digs at each other.

IMG_8285 Barry Walsh and James Roddy explain why they are leaning towards Leo. Christina Finn Christina Finn

“Sheer curiosity,” said Barry Walsh, who attended the event. “It is the first time there has been a debate like this. I think the contest has gone well. I know people are complaining that TDs and senators declared too early, but you know, that’s politics.”

Originally from Cork, Walsh says the unspeakable – that he is leaning towards Leo Varadkar.

“There is just more energy about him, he is more popular with younger voters, with women voters. I think I know who he is, I think the public know who he is, where as Simon Coveney is making up ground from day one.”

IMG_8280 Leo merch

Whether he speaks to more people in the party, journalist and broadcaster Vincent Browne thinks Varadkar spells bad news for the country.

In an article for the The Irish Times yesterday, he wrote that the Social Protection Minister will move the party to the right with “Tea Party politics”.

This was a sentiment his opponent picked up on during the debate. When they were asked to choose who goes first by picking a hand, Simon said with a wry smile: “right, for Leo.”


This was followed by a quick fire round between the pair where they debated whether their party should be one of unity, that appeals for all or one that looks after its own.

Varadkar says he was not going to go down the road of “being all things to all people” stating that if you try to represent everybody, you’ll end up representing nobody.

He accused Coveney of trying to characterise the race as left-wing versus right-wing.

“I didn’t bring up left or right – but if you’re a housing minister and you pass homeless people, you’ve a duty, neither left nor right,” Coveney insisted, a comment which sparked loud applause.

fine gael

Then the gloves and jackets were thrown to the floor – metaphorically, at least – when the pair discussed the issue of equality of opportunity.

“Equality of opportunity appears all over my papers. They don’t appear on Simon’s at all,” said Varadkar.

“Don’t lecture me on equality of opportunity,” replied Coveney.

Coveney said he is passionate about his own vision for Fine Gael and in a pointed dig, said he was “deeply concerned” about the one being put forward by Varadkar.

So do members agree with Vincent Browne’s line that Leo is going to take the party in the wrong direction?

“I don’t believe that at all. Vincent Browne sits there with left-wing journalists and think-tanks. I think he believes anyone in Fine Gael is right-wing. Leo has shown himself to be a pragmatic politician, he is neither right or left – I wouldn’t take that seriously,” said Walsh.

However, one female councillor (who is yet to decide where her support lies) told that it was time for the party to “be mature enough to put society before the party” agreeing that the few hundred people in the room tonight were privileged to be able to select the next Taoiseach of Ireland.

“I think we have to weigh up who has the most experience. It is of course about the party, but more importantly, it is about the country and what the candidates can deliver upon. It is all great making plans and promises, but we need to see who can implement it. This person isn’t just going to be our party leader, they are going to be on the world stage – for all to see.”

Another party member said what he witnessed tonight was very different to what was at play within the parliamentary party. “Let’s say it straight – a lot of them are trying to save their own skin and make sure they get the big jobs, or get to stay in the big jobs.”

“They’re not thinking about who is right for the party or the country – just who will allow them to keep their seat.”

There was a mixed crowd of young and old in the conference room. One young member told

“I am new to the party – just a few years. My friends were involved so I thought I better pick a party that suits me.

“I am leaning towards Leo. My reasons would be he seems to understand young people, elderly people – a good cross-section of society.”

Another member describes Varadkar as “the right person at the right time”.

“Coveney has done great things in government [but] I think he has a bit more to learn about what people on the ground want,” said James Roddy.

While Roddy believes a younger candidate would be better for the future, a Coveney supporter disagrees.

IMG_8282 Coveny supporters out in force tonight. (L) Ciaran Sheahan

Wearing a bright yellow ‘Simon Coveney’ t-shirt, Ciaran Sheahan said he thinks experience is more important.

“Simon has a lot of experience to offer – he’s been in Europe, he’s been in the Dáil,” he said, adding that not only would that be beneficial for the party but the country as a whole.

Are members voting for the party or the country?

Walsh and Roddy both agreed it had to be balanced.

“I think you have to weigh both equally. I have no doubt that Leo would be better for the party, much better than Simon, but when it comes to being Taoiseach, I think it is a much closer race,” said Walsh.

Whoever wins, both have said they will work together to unite the party and the country. Where each will end up is another story, although Coveney gave a hint as to where Varadkar might find himself should he lose…

Mini-poll: If you were watching the debate, who do you think won?

Poll Results:

Simon Coveney (1869)
Leo Varadkar (1130)

Read: Simon Coveney on the search for 6 TDs to swap sides in secret ballot>

Read: Dragon’s Den star to moderate Leo and Simon in Fine Gael hustings>

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