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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 19 March, 2019
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A day with Simon Coveney: The contender for Taoiseach who has to first fix Ireland's housing mess

In an exclusive interview with TheJournal.ie, Housing Minister Simon Coveney talks about how his style differs from Alan Kelly’s, his thoughts on the leadership – and why FF will bring down the government.

Simon Coveney speaking at the Rebuilding Ireland stakeholders event at City Hall, Cork
Simon Coveney speaking at the Rebuilding Ireland stakeholders event at City Hall, Cork
Image: David Keane

IT’S AFTER 9AM on Friday morning and Simon Coveney is on his home turf at Cork City Hall getting ready to address a packed out hall of housing charities, developers and council officials.

This is one of the many roadshow meetings Coveney has been attending around the country. The aim: to assess progress made in the housing and homelessness crisis, and to come up with practical and timely solutions.

With Coveney back in his home county, it’s a perfect opportunity for RTÉ to grab a few minutes with the minister to ask him about this week’s goings on with junior minister John Halligan.

Before the camera turns on, as I stand on the sidelines, he mentions to me how I will be following him around for the day. I nod, thank Coveney for his time, and tell him it is only my second time in Cork, ever.

The shock on the minister’s face tells me this is not something you should ever tell a Corkonian.

“What? Only your second time in Cork, like, ever? Oh my,” he says with a grin on his face.

Before I can explain myself  - and worrying that perhaps we have gotten off on the wrong foot – Coveney has to take to the stage.

IMG_6199 Simon Coveney speaking to RTE's reporter Geraldine Harney yesterday in Cork. Source: Christina Finn

Over the course of the day, Coveney touches on a number of issues such as Varadkar turning up in his hometown, his thoughts on Alan Kelly, and how he thinks Fianna Fáil will strategically bring down the government at some stage. As the minister runs from event to event, he stays on message for the entire course of the day.

The challenge 

When Enda Kenny asked Coveney what he would like to do in government, he said he asked for the housing ministry because he thought it would be a challenge.

“I see housing as a challenge for this government, so I wanted to test myself and see if I could take it on,” he tells TheJournal.ie 

There is no doubt this is a massive test for the Cork TD who some are tipping as the next Taoiseach when Enda Kenny goes.

19/7/2016. Rebuilding Ireland Programmes Housing Minister Simon Coveney at the launch of the the Rebuilding Ireland housing report Source: RollingNews.ie

However, the figures are stark. In July, there were 4,177 homeless adults living in emergency accommodation. In Dublin alone, there were 2,020 children homeless in July, according to Focus Ireland.

In the same month, Coveney stood up in the government press centre, which was filled to capacity, to launch the long-anticipated housing plan.

The minister and his department are playing catch up, as he informs the Cork conference that just 74 local authority houses were built last year.

IMG_6207 The minister listens as a property developer explains what is holding up the private sector from building more houses. Source: Christina Finn

He tells the room that solving the housing crisis is the “government’s number one priority” but says there needs to be partnership so it doesn’t become “another sales pitch” by a politician.

The message is hammered home by Cork City’s Lord Mayor, Des Cahill, who uses the opportunity to hang the 26 councillors who failed to turn up for the conference out to dry. Cahill says the “very poor” showing is evidence that some public representatives “don’t want to be part of the solution”.

“I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that,” he adds.

Time to get moving 

There’s good feedback from audience members and Coveney listens intently when a representative from the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) says there are 5,500 people on the housing list in Cork.

Coveney says he hopes to be announcing a number of initiatives in the upcoming budget. “It’s important to have these conversations,” says Coveney, but adds it is now time to “get things moving”.

The Rebuilding Ireland plan is Coveney’s baby. It has ambitious promises and tight deadlines. One promise is to get all families out of emergency accommodation, like hotels, by this time next year.

It’s rare for a politician to pin himself to such specific timeframes.

“It is a potential stick to beat me with,” he says.

I believe in setting ambitious targets and going after them. It is easy in politics to be bland, not to ever promise anything and to survive from week to week. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t have any interest in being in politics if that is what it is about.

Is this a direct criticism of his predecessor, Labour’s Alan Kelly?

No, actually I think Alan Kelly did a lot in housing. Ireland didn’t have the resources it has now. The property sector was more broken when Alan was there than it is now. He put a lot of the foundations in place that we are now building on, that’s the truth of it.

31/3/2016. Housing Forum Conferences Former Environment Minister Alan Kelly Source: Sasko Lazarov

However, Coveney is quick to point out he is a minister that does things with “a different style”.

He [Alan Kelly] had a very different style than me, but he did do a lot of things and it is important to recognise that. He had a very different style than me on water as well.

Coveney and Kelly are like night and day. While Kelly is more brash in his approach to situations, Coveney is notably more reserved.

The next Fine Gael leader

Perhaps he is trying to prove that he’s the kind of leader Fine Gael needs. With the Fine Gael annual think-in taking place tomorrow in Kildare, there is no doubt there will be chatter about who is performing well in their new roles, and who might be getting a job promotion in any upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

But Coveney will be careful about what he does in Kildare. He knows all too well that think-ins have been the demise of some politicians.

It’s nearly six years to the day that Coveney (who was then in opposition) called out the then Taoiseach Brian Cowen for being “half way between drunk and hungover” on RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland during a phone interview from the party’s think-in in 2010.

“I don’t mind people being worse for wear, but he was on Morning Ireland,” says Coveney, firmly.

He adds that this year’s Fine Gael’s think-in will be a “focused”, “positive” and “fairly sober” affair.

The leadership question has been knocking around ever since Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced he would be stepping down before the next election. Rather than the more extroverted styles of Leo Varadkar and Alan Kelly, Coveney has a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ approach to matters.

27/4/2015. Gay Marriage Equality Referendums Some of the key players in the leadership race.

So, has he thought about the leadership?

It is not something that keeps me awake at night. I really want to make this ministry a success. This is a ministry that has had a lot of very difficult years now in terms of water, property tax, housing and homelessness.

I want to turn a lot of those things around. I am pretty much driven and excited with the opportunities in the ministry at the moment.

I am happy to let Enda Kenny decide when the time is right for him to step down, which he said he was going to do before the next election. I trust his judgement on that and I’ll give him the space to do it. Beyond that we’ll wait and see.

This isn’t the first time the leadership question comes up in the day.

By chance, one of his main competitors for the job, Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar is opening a new Intreo social welfare office in Coveney’s hometown of Carrigaline.

After the conference ends, we grab a quick coffee and sandwich in the council chamber before jumping into the ministerial car to make the 20-minute drive to Carrigaline.

Protesters 

Coveney is on his phone looking at some media coverage of the housing conference. He notices one headline, which says: “Protesters refused access to housing plan conference”.

Half a dozen protesters from the Workers’ Party had picketed the meeting at Cork City Hall holding placards stating: “The next Taoiseach could be worse.”

They criticised the meeting for being part of a “public relations exercise” to give the impression that the government’s housing programme will tackle the housing crisis. 

protedt Half a dozen protesters gather outside Cork's City Hall.

The protesters noted that developers were invited to the meeting which was closed to the public.

“I don’t mind people protesting if we are doing nothing. But if you are there to solve problems and you make some very big commitments in terms of delivering, it would be helpful for people to engage,” says Coveney.

IMG_6234 Full attendance at the Intreo launch in Carrigaline.

Arriving at the Intreo centre, the rain is pelting down as he runs inside from the car.

With the number of Cork politicians at the event, one would think it was election season all over again.

Fianna Fáil TD Michael McGrath and Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer are there, as well as the two ministers.

IMG_6216 (1) Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar shake hands at the opening of a new Intreo centre in Carrigaline.

With Coveney and Varadkar standing side by side, the leadership questions are raised once again.

Earlier this week, Varadkar said that when a vacancy arises, “I will assess my position at that point”. He went on to say that he had “a particular vision” as to what he would like to do with the party and where he thinks the country should go.

This time around, though, he is a bit more coy in his response.

“I shouldn’t complain about people asking me this question all the time, if I keep answering the question, so on this occasion I am not going to answer the question,” said Varadkar.

The event is just a quick stop, and after about 20 minutes, with a slice of chocolate biscuit cake in hand, Coveney jumps back into his ministerial car to go to a Respond housing project in Silversprings – a housing development of 24 units, funded by Nama, and leased by the housing agency Respond.

His new role 

The schedule is busy today, but how does it compare to his previous one in the Department of Agriculture?

In truth, the last portfolio was very busy, but it was a very different portfolio. When you are responsible for agriculture and the marine and the food industry generally, you go to a lot of rural areas… In agriculture a huge part of the decisions surrounding agriculture and fishing is actually European policy, so I would have been in Brussels at least once a fortnight, maybe even more.

“I wouldn’t say I am happy to change, I would have been very happy to stay where I was,” says Coveney.

Driving down the winding road to the housing estate, Coveney, points out the window.

“I know this area well. I met my wife over there. Her family home is behind the GAA pitch there.”

As a father of three girls, Coveney says he believes that nothing is more important to a parent than being able to provide a home for their children.

Standing in the showroom, Coveney is told another 11 units across the road are under construction. All 24 homes have been filled by people on Cork’s housing list.

IMG_6238

Helena Crotty, Chairperson of Cork Social Housing Forum Respond Housing Association says it is great to finally see units being built and families moving in.

protedt The brochure for the Respond housing project in Cork.

A large part of the crisis is youth homelessness, which is something the next visit of the day deals with on a daily basis.

When Coveney says that he chose the housing brief, rather than having it assigned to him, some speculate it is a way for him to prove he has the necessary skills to drive change and lead –  particular skills he might need in the near future.

I get a lot of satisfaction of making things happen on the housing side as I know it has a direct impact on people’s lives.

But he knows there is a lot of pressure on his shoulders to deliver.

If we don’t deliver I will get criticised…

Every minister is going to advocate for their own area. I want to follow through on the promise that housing is the number one priority and that has to be reflected in the Budget as far as I am concerned. But other ministers have their priorities too.

Budget talks 

In the run-up to the Budget, he says there will always be “robust discussion around advocating for different areas and priorities”.

If he doesn’t deliver, there are a lot of people who will punish the government.

DKE090916council020 Simon Coveney speaking at the Rebuilding Ireland stakeholders event at City Hall, Cork Source: David Keane

Speaking about Fianna Fáil, Coveney says he believes the party will choose a time to bring down the government. The party’s behaviour in the run up to and after the Budget will be interesting, he says.

I think the Budget might go through without too much bother – obviously there will be some debate and tension – but there was even some when we had a huge majority with Labour.

Then after that it is really about delivery and how Fianna Fáil behave in opposition and do they strategically want to pull the government down, which I think at some point they may want to do. But they might find it difficult to do it unless they have a very good reason.

Having said that, all this talk about new politics, from my experience that is a load of rubbish. Every party is looking to derive political gain from their position, and so it suits them at the moment to be seen to be doing the right thing.

Does it irk the housing minister that the government has to get the Budget past their long-time party rivals, now that Fianna Fáil is tacitly supporting the minority government?

I think it irks Fine Gael, I think that would be a fair assessment. We would much rather do it without having to talk to Fianna Fáil but we live in a democracy, people have voted for no clear outcome in terms of a majority government, so we have a minority government and we need to work with the main opposition party.

We have a deal with them and a supply agreement. But make no mistake, this will be a Fine Gael and independent-led budget. We are in government, it is our job to make decisions.

File Photo: Make Up Your Mind Time. Minister of State John Halligan under pressure to make a decision regarding staying or leaving government, over the Waterford Hospital issue. End. Independent Alliance's Finian McGrath and John Halligan. Source: RollingNews.ie

If Fianna Fáil doesn’t bring down this government, could it be the independents?

Ever since the government formed, a week has barely gone by in which there hasn’t been a controversy with the independents in government. This week with John Halligan, for example.

Yeah, this week has been difficult because of the report being published on Waterford Hospital in relation to one or two cath labs, which was a big issue of discussion between many of us in Fine Gael and John Halligan and many public representatives in Waterford.

I have a lot of time for John Halligan, I have a lot of time for the other independents as well. They have had the courage to take a risk and to be part of government and all of the pressure that brings and I think they want to show that they can be a success.

‘Teething problems’

The Cork TD said it is not surprising for a minority government with a lot of independents in government to have “teething problems”.

This government has formed in a very unusual way. First of all, it took an eternity to put together.

I think the supposed tensions in Cabinet are grossly exaggerated from my experience. There is pretty civil discussion, pretty much all of the time. No threatened walkouts or that sort of stuff.

People have to get used to being in government if they haven’t been there before… But, if you speak to any of the independents, including John Halligan, I think you will get a firm commitment that they want to see this government last for at least two or three years, and they want to get things done in that period and they want to show that independents can work in government with a large party like Fine Gael.

Arriving at Cork Foyer, a residential project for young people aged 18-25 who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless, Coveney is told this is the only such project in Ireland.

cv Simon Covey at the Cork Foyer residential home.

Owned by Cork City Council, the home helps to educate and train young people with life skills like cooking and cleaning, and education is also encouraged. The residents have social areas, a small farm with animals, and a garden project, which supplies produce for a cafe on the grounds.

The majority of the youngsters in the home were in State care for much of their lives or came here through the probation service.

Coveney speaks to a number of the residents, including one boy who is taking photos of the visit. He tells Coveney he has been staying at the centre a few months and likes living here.

Another boy tells the minister that he is in the final stages of being approved for the army.

“I was previously the minister for defence,” says Coveney. “The army is a great career, with a lot of discipline.”

Coveney seems intrigued by the project, saying it would be great to have a similar residential home in Dublin. Maybe one will come to fruition, maybe not.

Any grand plans Coveney has all depend on how long Fine Gael remain in power.

No sooner had the government formed, there was speculation about when it would fall.

I don’t buy into the talk that the government is very fragile and it won’t be able to get a Budget through – I think that is nonsense. In fact, I know it’s nonsense, because I am in there. There is a determination to get this Budget through and to manage it with all of the new pressures and the political realities that are there in a minority government.

Six months seems to be the average prediction for the government’s lifespan. Does Coveney agree?

I don’t think that is realistic. I think we might surprise a few people.

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