Simon Coveney says Fine Gael needs to be more radical... but will he replace Leo Varadkar?

Simon Coveney says Fine Gael needs to be more radical... but will he replace Leo Varadkar?
Simon Coveney speaking to the media.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

THOUGH Simon Coveney is known for being quite reserved, he now thinks radicalism might be the way forward for Fine Gael after its dismal polling over the weekend.

But will he be the man to lead that change? So far, he's refused to be drawn.

Having lost seats all over the country, including those of some sitting Ministers, there are murmurs in Fine Gael that Leo Varadkar needs to stand down, with Mr Coveney as the obvious choice to succeed him.

Throughout the campaign, many people asked would this election have been any different had the Corkman won the 2017 leadership race over the Dubliner?

Mr Coveney said the thought never crossed his mind.

Cork South Central - Simon Coveney TD is elected.Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Cork South Central - Simon Coveney TD is elected.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

"No, I don’t think that way. That’s not who I am. When things happen, I look forward, not back," he said.

Leo Varadkar won that leadership contest fair and square and I have supported him since then.

"I think Leo has done a good job as Taoiseach and I think he’ll be judged well in time.

"We didn’t have a good election result, that’s true, but I don’t think the leadership is an issue at all," he said.

Equally, as one of the faces of Fine Gael's campaign, he isn't taking the result personally himself either, though he believes he has to accept his role in it.

"I do take responsibility for it.

"I’m not someone who tries to divert attention away from me on difficult days.

"I’m the deputy leader of the party, I work closely with the Taoiseach.

"We got some things wrong, clearly, and we didn’t connect with people in a way that we needed to," he said.

"The first two weeks of this campaign were difficult for Fine Gael. A number of things happened that I think triggered an emotional response in the electorate.

"We never really recovered from that. I think in the last few days we somewhat stopped the rot. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were both falling and Sinn Féin was gaining momentum. I think we managed to arrest that in maybe the last three days of the campaign.

"But there’s no way of disguising this. This was a bad day for Fine Gael."

Though he still maintains that Fine Gael did the right things over nine years of government, he said that it's now clear that his party didn't go far enough or fast enough for the public.

"My assessment of this – but it’s still early and we need to put a lot more thought into it – I think there is a huge impatience.

"On the back of building a very strong economy, people want to see better public services, particularly in healthcare.

"I think people see a lot of progress is being made in housing but they want more and they want to see it quickly.

"If we’re in government or opposition, I think there’s a need, potentially, for more radical policy.

"Fine Gael has shown that we can rebuild an economy, that we can put people back to work, that we can balance the books.

"Other parties have struggled to do that in the past, but we’re good that.

"But I think we also need to recognise that people want to see us put that into public services, so that people feel that in their pocket and people feel it in their quality of life.

"That’s certainly the message I picked up, on door after door," he said.

With nine years in government and the last four as one of Fine Gael's key leaders, he said that the only thing he might change is the pace of delivery, but he believes his party was compromised on that.

Housing, for example, was a key issue for voters and one where he served as Minister for a year.

"I think we’re making extraordinary progress on housing, but it’s not fast enough for people.

"There’s still a lot of people who are renting, who are paying too much, who are under financial pressure, who want to buy their own homes, and I don’t think there is an acceptance that the difficulty that Ireland has been in over the last ten years, by a collapsed property market and a collapsed banking system – people don’t want to here that," he said.

"That’s the way politics is. The electorate is demanding, as they should be. That’s what keeps politics alive and sharp and responsive," he added.

Mr Coveney said that the opposition had a far easier time criticising the pace of delivery without having to do it themselves.

Simon Coveney TD and Micheal Martin TD, in conversation.Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Simon Coveney TD and Micheal Martin TD, in conversation.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

"They just want solutions. It’s been much easier for opposition parties to promise everything. We were the ones in government that had to deliver on the ground.

"Ironically, I think the next Housing Minister will have a very different job than the Housing Ministers of the last number of years.

"We’re now starting from a base of about 26,000 house being built this year. We’re starting from a base of over 10,000 social houses being added to the stock each year.

"We were starting from nothing, really."

Though Fine Gael might be diminished in numbers, he remains stoic about the loss and believes the party can regroup and recover.

"This isn’t the first time Fine Gael has had a bad election.

"This was a complex election. There was a real mood for change.

"The electorate was very volatile. You see that between the local election, European election, now the general election, there is no consistency there.

"For whatever reason, the electorate decided they wanted to vote for something very different in big numbers.

"That meant a lot of very good Fine Gael TDs are going to lose there seats in this election, which is tough, but as a party, we need to learn from that.

"We need to make sure we’re listening to people and that we respond to that. Whether that’s in government or opposition, we’ll find that out in the next few weeks," he said.

But despite the loss for Fine Gael nationwide, Mr Coveney didn't lose sight of the personal side of his own victory.

Two decades since he took over his later father's seat, he said that hearing the returning officer deem him elected means more now than ever, especially with his young family standing by his side.

"My kids are 10, 8, and 6 and they’ve been fascinated by the election this time. It’s the first election they’ve really been aware of what’s going on and the posters and the talk in school and so on.

"It’s a reminder that, when you’re a politician and a father, you have to keep an eye it and make sure that they don’t get dragged into election campaign.

"They were excited about it and curious about how it all worked, and so they should be.

"Ireland has an extraordinary democracy. Some people take that for granted, but we have a very transparent system. A very fair system, and long may it continue."

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