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

Housing Minister Simon Coveney says the fight is far from over.

ONE AFTER THE other, they came, pledging allegiance to Leo Varadkar.

Daring, public declarations all.

But come 2 June, there will be no show of hands or picking of teams, primary school PE-style, when it comes to electing Fine Gael’s new leader.

A secret ballot will protect the identity of any member who may have changed their mind over the previous fortnight.

“Out of 73 of my Oireachtas colleagues, if six of them decided to switch, all of sudden this competition is on a knife-edge, and that is not such a big ask seeing as there are quite a few days left in this contest,” Simon Coveney tells in a wide-ranging interview.

Earlier, he had mentioned the secret ballot to reporters in the same vein. He has devised a plan to beat Leo by 2%, it seems.

If it works – as it would have to be done with lion-size amounts of charm – he might even lose that boring tag (see also: ‘too quiet’; ‘lacking the X Factor’) that’s followed him around Leinster House.

The thought makes him laugh heartily.

“I always start laughing at that [when he is called boring]. Ask anyone that knows me well… boring isn’t a description people would use for me. So I do find that kind of funny.”

Sitting on a bench in sunny Merrion Square in Dublin’s city centre, Coveney talks about how he wants the public to get to know him better, how he will win back that support and whether he thinks Varadkar’s promises are realistic.

He also outlines what he plans to do should he lose the contest.

First, he deals with why people might have the perception that he is boring.

In a recent interview, his wife, Ruth Furney, hit back at such reports, telling The Irish Independent that they “live life at 110 miles per hour” and “once went to a concert, the races and a wedding in one day – in two different countries.”

So, why does he think people think this way?

“Maybe it is because sometimes I am too serious in politics and I am focused on delivering on policy initiatives rather than sort of, banter and put downs and quips and so on. I tend to go there when I am out of the office rather than in it,” said the Housing Minister.

“To be fair, I don’t think a lot of people know me yet. They have seen me trying to bring about change in different briefs, whether that is trying to extend the ambition of agriculture or sending ships to the Mediterranean or taking on a housing brief or try to solve big political problems like water, that is what they see.

“Maybe during this contest they will get to see the person as well as the politician, and I hope that will add to the appeal, but let’s wait and see.”

Simon Coveney A photo of Simon Coveney from the archives. Here he is attending a James Bond themed charity Ball with former TV3 presenter Lorraine Keane in 1999.

The Cork South Central TD wants the public and the party members to know a different side to Simon, which is why he has been travelling around the country to visit as many counties as possible before the big vote a week from Friday.

“I hope as people get to know me a bit better they will get to know someone who is very sincere, very straight and in politics for all the right reasons.”

In order to get to know Simon a bit better, asked those closest to him for some interesting aspects of his life people might not know about. Here’s what we heard back:

  • Simon had a severe stammer as child. “Sheer toughness got rid of it in late teens!(That’s one reason why he hates written speeches and prefers to talk off the cuff).”

Pendulum Summit / YouTube

(He speaks about this about 2 minutes in)

  • Simon almost drowned swimming underwater in Panama during a round-the-world sailing charity trip he took part in. Andrew (Simon’s brother who is a doctor) revived him with CPR.
  • Simon has had three foster siblings (in addition to his 6 siblings). He has been a defacto surrogate Dad to two of them for the past 20 years.
  • Simon is a real sportsman – rugby for Irish Colleges, Garryowen and Crosshaven (the latter when well into his 30s); an international sailor; and a keen golfer.
  • Simon has successfully climbed Kilimanjaro and bungee jumped over Victoria Falls
  • Simon led humanitarian missions to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 and acted as election supervisor in Ukraine.
  • Simon has been guest lecturer at Harvard Business School speaking on global food policy.
  • Simon blew up a tractor while working his family farm in Minane Bridge
  • Simon is an entrepreneur – he started a new vegetable and produce business with a college friend in Cork in the late 1990s.

Simon Coveney The day Simon Coveney was elected to the Dáil in 1998.

Coveney’s opponent Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar – another experienced politician who has held three ministerial portfolios – is leading in the race so far.

The Dublin TD is the ‘show pony’ to Coveney’s ‘workhorse’, according to many in the party. He’s the man for one liners and slick PR.

While both candidates are under strict instructions from the highest Fine Gael echelons to keep it clean (for fear of damaging the party), there have been a few (inevitable) digs, here and there.

5564 Leo Varadkar_90512521 Leo Varadkar taking part in a 5k run last weekend. Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

The pair go head to head tonight in the first of four hustings (debates) that will take place around the country.

Coveney dismisses any suggestion that the race is over.

“I am realistic. We got off to a bad start, but we have moved into a new phase now, which is about talking to thousands of members and hundreds of councillors.”

Hundreds of people have been turning out for this week’s rallies. Coveney is taken aback by the numbers, but believes grassroots members have been motivated by a perception that the parliamentary party had the contest decided before taking their views into account.

“They watched with some surprise as the parliamentary party made declarations for one candidate or another without even listening to what the candidates had to say, without involving them in the discussion and the debate,” he elaborates.

Instead of a personality contest, Coveney says there are bigger issues at stake here.

I am standing in the contest to win it and I am doing that because I believe I am the best person to lead the way forward at this point in history. My politics is one of straight talk, very hard work and painting a picture of what Ireland can look like if politics decides to get us there.

What kind of Ireland do we want to build – that is what this competition needs to be about – not about slick PR launches – so I have gone back to basics – to talk to people in the party and they have been responding very positively.

A pointed remark, perhaps? Last week, ‘Leo’ cupcakes were handed out to reporters standing on Leo Street waiting for someone to declare for, well, Leo.

Should we expect Coveney doughnuts soon?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what we are about. Look, I’ve been to lots of different launches and different initiatives and policies and so on, and I am not going to start criticising the other side, they got off to a good start, but the real contest is only really starting now.

In the newly hatched bid to win back some TDs and senators, Coveney has been actively encouraging Varadkar supporters to switch sides.

I think many of my Oireachtas colleagues who – for whatever reason decided to declare early – may well think again when they have been to the hustings… when they are hearing what people are saying, when they are hearing what their own Fine Gael members are saying in their own constituency.

However, earlier this week, Varadkar said he might try to sway a few Coveney supporters his way, including Minister of State for Health Promotion Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy.

Coveney isn’t concerned by the prospect of any of his people turning.

“It is a pretty solid support base,” he says of the 20 people backing him.

They have come with me to nearly all of these meetings we have been holding… of course if any of the people that are backing me to date think the best thing for the party and the best thing for the country is for them to switch to Leo, I’ll accept that, absolutely.
But what I really want is for people to make an informed choice as to what people have to offer for the future of the party or the country, instead of any other motivation. I make no judgements, good bad or indifferent of my colleagues. They make their own choices, just like I have.

The unexpected surge in support for Varadkar (even before he officially launched) is ‘an irrelevant, personal story’, according to Coveney.

Are TDs just looking out for themselves though?

I don’t know is the straight answer – you’d have to ask them. I am not going to start making judgements as to why people made the decisions that they did. All I know is there were lots of people that were very supportive of me a week ago, some of whom I think still like me and respect me, but have made the decision to declare for Leo.

6405  Leo Varadkar party policy_90512792 Minister for Social Protection and Fine Gael leadership candidate Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael supporters at in Merrion Square in Dublin. Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

Whatever the reason behind that is their business and I am not going to start judging or questioning people on that. I am getting on with articulating a message, a vision, for the party that I believe in and that is what politics is about for me. It is about conviction and a belief in the type of country that I think politics needs to create. And if you don’t have that kind of believe in politics well then in my view you don’t have any business in it.

Coveney says he has huge admiration for colleagues who are committed to not only him but his message, and “who in a way commit their careers to me”, he said.

“If you look back in history, generally people who support the winner tend to do better in terms of appointments. I would like to think that isn’t driving the choices that many people make, but I am not naive enough to think that it is not a factor.”

5723  Simon Coveney._90512503 Pictured (L to R) Maria Bailey TD, Kate O'Connell TD and Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney as Simon Coveney launched his policy priorities. Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

Both candidates have launched their policy documents – Coveney’s has been described as more inclusive – a paper with ‘big, bold, ideas’ for Ireland, he says.

Varadkar’s is clearly going after the quintessential Fine Gaeler, stating that he isn’t trying to be “all things to all people”.

Coveney says he is offering very different things to Varadkar and says their documents are “very different”.

“Leo’s is essentially like an election manifesto. It deals with lots of things from increasing back to school allowance to small commitments,” he said, adding that he had no idea if it was realistic as it hasn’t been costed.

“I think there is a lot of good stuff in there by the way and some things I agree with… The reason I took a different approach in relation to not itemising every little bit of expenditure is I wanted to outline a few big ideas.”

Varadkar’s policy document takes a swipe at the First Time Buyers Scheme, a plan implemented by Coveney and his department. This week, his opponent called for a review of the plan. If it was found to be inflating property prices, he called for it to be scrapped.

“I am not worried about that. Essentially what Leo has said is that this needs to be reviewed and if it looks like it is not working we should change it. From what we are seeing to date it is working,” says Coveney.

8888 Simon Harris_90512128 (1) Minister for the Environment and Housing Simon Coveney talks to the media. Sam Boal Sam Boal

The Social Protection Minister also pledges to refund all water charges this year. Irish Water is currently in Coveney’s brief, so is that possible?

“Well that is a government decision and it is a decision that involves the Department of Public Expenditure, as well as me.”

He said draft legislation on water will be brought to Cabinet next week, but said how the refunds could be returned has to be worked out.

“I need to work with Pascal Donohoe to ensure we can pay the refunds in a manner and a timeline that doesn’t result in us having to take money from other sources. I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see. We’ll have to wait and see to when we can afford to do it.”

He said there is a commitment to refund the charges but said: “We need sensible decision-making instead of trying to curry favour during a leadership contest.”

Another area in his portfolio is homelessness – something he faces constant criticism about due to the rising numbers.

In an interview with last year, he said he was pinning his reputation to the commitment to get families and children out of hotels and B&Bs.

“I am going after the commitments that I made. I am the type of person who sets targets. It is easy to set a target that isn’t difficult to achieve and then try to make yourself look good off the back of it – but sure that is not what politics or government should be about.”

One week in the contest is already drawing to an end. As of now, it looks like Varadkar is on his way. If he fails to win, what’s next for Simon Coveney? Would he like to remain on as Housing Minister?

I am not even thinking about that. This is not a negotiation for the next step in my career. This is a proposition that I want to put to Fine Gael members, councillors and Oireachtas members in the context of the leadership I want to provide for the party and that is my sole focus.

If I win that, well then I hope to be able to inspire a lot of people to a new approach in politics that may be less adversarial and be more unifying, particularly for those communities outside the political system.

If I don’t win it, I hope to play a very constructive role in politics in whatever brief or responsibility that I get – that is not really what drives me at all in terms of trying to get a position for myself. For me politics is about delivering to the maximum extent that you can improve people’s lives.

The core issue here is what is Fine Gael in politics for today – that is the key question – what drives us, what is Fine Gael politics and what does it bring to modern Ireland?

We hope to bring you an interview with Leo Varadkar next week.

Read: Leo Varadkar says Sinn Féin is “the greatest threat to our democracy”>

Read: When it’s all over, can Simon and Leo still be friends?>

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