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Fine Gael

Talk of 'core values' and whispers of 'who plugged in Simon Coveney' as Harris takes the reins

Politics isn’t all about back-slapping, says Simon Harris, but there was plenty of it yesterday.

LAST UPDATE | 25 Mar

THE ROOM AT the Sheraton Hotel in Athlone where Simon Harris addressed Fine Gael members yesterday evening fits close to 700 people, but it was standing room only for the party faithful who turned up to the Midlands North-West selection convention come coronation. 

Just last Wednesday, the party lost its leader with Leo Varadkar stepping down, saying he didn’t have anything left in the tank. 

However, there was no sense of mourning at yesterday’s proceedings.

It was jovial and energetic and selfies galore with the new leader.

Harris promised to give “blood, sweat and tears” in his efforts to reignite Fine Gael.

But if the party is looking to restart the fire, there’s an implication that the fire wasn’t burning all that brightly to begin with then.

There was chatter of this kind throughout the day – how Fine Gael needed to be a welcoming and safe home to those that felt they had been isolated by the party over the past decade.

Talk of “resetting the dial” for Fine Gael, chat about “getting back to basics” and “core values” of what matter to Fine Gael voters, as if they had been lost down the back of the couch during the 13 years in government.

There was raucous applause throughout Harris’ speech, with the new leader getting a standing ovation when he decried how the tricolour was strewn across the coffin of garda killer Pearse McAuley this week.

Simon Coveney

While yesterday was all about the new leader, many in the crowd were also talking about  another senior Fine Gaeler yesterday.

“Who plugged in Simon Coveney?” one person asked.

Another said he was the real “superstar” of the gathering, asking why he hasn’t been this energetic in the past number of months. 

Over the last week, there has been much talk about the Cork TD being disinterested in his brief in enterprise, with speculation that he might not run the next time around.

The noise grew when he didn’t throw his hat in the ring for leadership.

fine-gael-deputy-leader-simon-coveney-with-candidates-maria-walsh-and-nina-carberry-and-delegates-at-the-fine-gael-selection-convention-for-the-midlands-north-west-constituency-for-the-european-parlia Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Yesterday Coveney was fighting fit, rallying the troops and appeared to pour cold water over speculation, stating categorically to reporters that he does intend to run again.

It is understood that Harris does not want anyone in his Cabinet who is not seeking re-election, so perhaps this was a message to the new boss that he would like to stay put.

‘Ministers for now’

In good humour, Coveney welcomed his fellow ministers on stage and joked, “ministers for now at least”, but then was quick to add he “doesn’t include himself”.

The Cork minister has always been popular among the members. In the leadership hustings in 2017, he won the support of the members, while Varadkar had sewn up the support of the parliamentary party.

Yesterday, the minister appeared to feed off the energy of that when he spoke of ambitions to grow the party by ensuring the opinion poll numbers reach the “mid 20s and beyond”. That’s “where we need to be and should be”, he said.

There was no indication that he didn’t expect to be in the job by next month, but then again the same could have been said about Varadkar before last week.

simon-harris-left-is-hugged-by-fine-gael-deputy-leader-simon-coveney-after-being-confirmed-as-the-new-leader-of-fine-gael-paving-the-way-for-him-to-become-irelands-youngest-premier-at-the-midlan Two Simons - Coveney and Harris - hugging on stage. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Leo has given the party an opportunity 

There were, of course, tributes paid to Varadkar yesterday evening, and a number of standing ovations when his name was mentioned.

Coveney said the Taoiseach, by stepping down, had given Fine Gael an opportunity to be “renewed” and “re-energised”.

In a slight slip of the tongue, Coveney said Varadkar “saved lives through Brexit”, before quickly correcting himself, stating that he of course meant to say Covid.

Though there may be a new leader, some of Varadkar’s old sayings were recycled by Harris.

Speaking to reporters Harris said that equal opportunity is “what gets me out of bed early in the morning”. Doesn’t look like that old chestnut is going anywhere.

Harris laid out some of the priorities he wants to focus on over the next year, while also stating that he will be meeting with ministers to ask how they are getting on in terms of delivery and what needs to be put on top of the ‘to-do’ list for the next 12 months. 

The ard fheis on 6 April will give the new leader another chance to lay out his stall, but he has a lot to fit into the next couple of weeks, such as building a rapport with Micheál Martin and Eamon Ryan. Trust and respect is key to keeping the show on the road, Harris told reporters yesterday. 

While there was lots of talk about reshaping the party, there was an acknowledgement that there are things that need urgent action. 

“Politics is not about back-slapping and saying ‘aren’t we all great lads’. It’s about saying we’ve done a good job on this, but you know what, we need to see can we move the dial on some other areas. Housing is a major area in this country, a major societal challenge, it still remains,” Harris said, before adding that while there are some signs of progress, “there is a lot more to do”.

After Harris’ speech it took him well over an hour to escape from the room full of selfie requests.

Commenting on the speech, one Fine Gael TD said: “Why didn’t Leo give that speech in the last seven years? Because I know he believes all that too.”

As the day came to a close, Harris indicated that this government is in it for the long-haul.

Lots done, more to do, and not a lot of time to get it done. That was, essentially, the message of the soon-to-be Taoiseach.

Whether it all goes to plan is another thing. 

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