SIMON Coveney lost the leadership race, but he might have won the debate about Fine Gael’s future.
The party launched its Republic of Opportunity document at its national conference last weekend, and while it is Leo Varadkar’s attempt to define the goals that Fine Gael will aim for in government, it bore far more resemblance to Mr Coveney’s rhetoric during the leadership campaign than his own.
While Mr Varadkar was talking about how Fine Gael could not be all things to all men and should focus on the “people who get up early in the morning”, Mr Coveney was talking about how Fine Gael should be trying to equalise opportunities for everyone in the country.
The document that emerged from the aftermath of this race talks about making work pay and other issues that largely affect the middle-class but it also aims to provide pathways out of poverty and to give opportunities to everyone who is willing to work hard.
Speaking at the conference, Mr Coveney said that he hopes his political philosophy is becoming part of Fine Gael’s official policy.
“I hope so. I’m very passionate about politics. I wouldn’t be in it if I wasn’t. I really believe that government needs to support everybody, and, I think, if people feel left behind, the government has an even bigger responsibility to reach out to those people,” he said.
“My message for quite a long time, through a leadership contest, and it didn’t change, is that our party is not about finding a niche in Irish society and supporting those people.
“That’s what other parties do, particularly parties of the left. They are based on division, on dividing society, on painting people as something that they are not. Through that division, they get support and resentment and protest, and that’s what they thrive on. In Fine Gael, that’s just not what we’re about,” he said.
“Government is not about bitching and moaning and trying to catch out the opposition.
“Government is about big thinking and trying to find ways to make it happen to improve people’s quality of life,” he said.
He said Mr Varadkar’s message is one of “hope and ambition”, and one he was happy to support.
“I know he’s determined to reach out to everybody, which is a theme I’ve had in politics for a long time. Fine Gael is not a party of privilege. It’s a party that wants people to make the best of themselves, no matter where you come from. In some ways, he’s a manifestation of that.
“This new messaging around the Republic of Opportunity, some people will dismiss it as a marketing campaign. It’s very serious,” he said.
He said that the document reflected the current situation for the government: after years of hard decisions to get the economy back on track it can now “dream big” for Ireland.
“We will see, before the end of the year, a 10-year capital investment plan that will invest €80bn to €100bn in schools, roads, hospitals, and that will have a big impact in Cork. People know what the big projects are. We have Dunkettle, the N28, the M20 to Limerick, the Northern Ring Road, an events centre, a new hospital for the city, multiple new schools.”
“I think we will see Cork as the fastest-growing part of the country, in terms of population growth, and, in order to facilitate that, we need a very significant investment package, which is, of course, my job to try and deliver,” he said.
However, the biggest concern most people have with Fine Gael right now is how the party is going to solve the housing crisis. Many accused Mr Coveney of abandoning housing when he left for Foreign Affairs after the leadership race. However, when asked if he was comfortable to leave it, Mr Coveney said, “honestly, no.”
“I wasn’t, and I was very conscious of that. I felt we had put in place a major new policy direction. I had secured a huge budget for that. We had changed the law. We changed the rental market.
“We changed the planning system. We had introduced a huge infrastructure financing package to get sites moving faster. In many ways, I would have liked to stay and see it through.
“I do miss Housing. I was, and still am, very committed to that. Some of the housing issues, and I wouldn’t say this lightly, kept me up at night. Anybody that thinks that because I’m no longer the Housing Minister that I don’t care about housing, one, doesn’t understand me, and, two, doesn’t understand the political system and how it works. I can assure you I am. When we have debates on housing around the Cabinet table, I’m very much part of them,” he said.
He dismissed accusations from the opposition of his Rebuilding Ireland programme not delivering and said that it needed to be given time to work.
“They’re wrong on that. When I hear people saying we need to build tens of thousands of social houses — it takes time to build the capacity to deliver on that. We will build twice as many social houses this year as last year, and twice as many again next year as this year.
“Over a four-to-five-year period, we’re going to add 50,000 houses. Fine Gael wants to do that as quickly as we can, but we also want to maintain standards.”
“While that’s happening, there is a reliance, I would say an overreliance, on the private rental market to house people.
“But we will increase the social housing stock to reduce that reliance over time, but it is unrealistic to think we can build tens of thousands of social houses in six or eight months like some people seem to suggest,” he said.
He said that more families are going out of homelessness than going into it, and family hubs and improved emergency accommodation are making life easier for people that are still trying to get out of homelessness.
“There is a whole series of chapters of Rebuilding Ireland that we are adding to all of the time.
“We introduced rent caps into the Irish market for the first time, I did. It was the right decision to do it. Well over 65% of rental properties in Ireland are now in rent- pressure zones.
“We’ve changed the planning laws. We’re introducing a levy for inactivity on sites, from next year on.
“There is a whole series of things changing at the same time, the property market is a big sector to turn around, but I think people will see huge changes in the next 12 months,” he said.
While he said he would have stayed in Housing, he said that he was happy to take on the challenge of Foreign Affairs, especially as he was given responsibility for Brexit, and dismissed the notion that it was a ‘holiday’ from the Cabinet “I’m a busy politician. I have responsibilities to Cork, as a senior minister for the city and the county.
“I also have international responsibilities for how Ireland is seen internationally, responsibilities around Brexit and our relationship with Britain — which is going to be really tested in the coming months — and I have responsibility for the future health of the party as we build towards a general election, which could happen at any point.
“I’m still a very busy person with a very demanding brief,” he said.
Despite losing the Fine Gael leadership battle, Simon Coveney remains central to the party
and the country’s future. He speaks to
David Linnane about housing, Brexit
and developments in Cork