Tuesday 22 August 2017

Amid the celebrations, 'bold' Kate stays quiet - for now

Niamh Horan joined the proud parents and the party faithful as the result of the Fine Gael leadership contest was finally announced

VOW OF SILENCE: Kate O’Connell was under orders to keep her views to herself — but she promised only ‘one week of peace’. Photo: Steve Humphreys
VOW OF SILENCE: Kate O’Connell was under orders to keep her views to herself — but she promised only ‘one week of peace’. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

In the Round Room of the Mansion House at Friday's election of Leo Varadkar, the message was one of unity. But, as with all family gatherings, something bubbled beneath.

Fine Gael's dynamic duo - Kate O Connell and her sister Theresa Newman - gave the first tell-tale signs. For one, Kate was banned from speaking to the press.

A Fine Gael supporter gave her a playful nudge: "Welllll... if it isn't the boldest girl in the room?" he laughed.

But there was no turning her. "No, no, no, I can't, I can't this weekend. They'll kill me," she said.

What are 'they' worried about? "No more talking. We can't be divisive."

Still, Fine Gael mightn't want to get too fond of the sound of silence, if Kate's timeframe is anything to go by: "I am giving them one week of peace."

The order had been handed down from Fine Gael secretary Tom Curran. By Kate's summation, a man you don't want to cross. What's he like? "If a nuclear bomb dropped, three things would still exist. Fianna Fail, cockroaches and Tom Curran."

Enough said.

Across the room, her advisor and sibling Theresa was somewhat more forthcoming. She reassured us that her sister wouldn't stay gagged for long: "If she were to change that about herself, people would be disappointed in her. They appreciate the honesty she brings. It was no secret to anyone in Fine Gael that Kate would be outspoken. Indeed that any of her sisters would be outspoken. And that's not going to change."

As the day wore on, votes were counted and Simon Coveney fared very well with a landslide victory in the Fine Gael membership vote around the country.

Kate O’Connell with her sister Theresa. Picture: Damien Eagers
Kate O’Connell with her sister Theresa. Picture: Damien Eagers

So, as Taoiseach, will Leo appeal to the rural set?

"Well, I think certainly he has tried to," said Theresa, choosing the words carefully.

But something is troubling her: "You see, the thing is, for some reason they have covered over the origins of the ballot boxes. I don't know why that happened. Surely it's not emblematic of representative democracy. Maybe there is some greater idea behind covering over the origin of the boxes," she said.

"The boxes are all from specific areas and they are labelled as being from south west or wherever but today they are labelled over with codes like 'AA' so we cannot identify which specific area the votes are from and I find it odd."

Why would they do that?

"I don't know," she said, her eyes innocent and wide. "It's a really good question.

"Maybe you should ask Tom Curran. What's the fear there? Is it to offset some potential conflict? I don't know."

She considered it for a moment: "I would imagine an effort to try and harmonise things. But really it smacks of obfuscation of some kind. What's there to hide? Surely it's been conducted so far in an open and transparent fashion."

Theresa believed the membership vote validated Kate's controversial statement, which she recently made at a campaign rally for Simon Coveney in Co Clare. At the meeting, Kate remarked that Varadkar's supporters were "choirboys" and "singing for their suppers".

"I don't think Kate ever regrets coming out and saying things like that," said Thersea, "And if the vote of the membership is anything to go by, perhaps she was bang on the money."

Did she think it will damage her sister in the long term?

"No, I don't. A lot of people contacted her to say they fully appreciated why she said it and they do think she struck a nerve."

"Inside the bubble," she said, people were vicious to her sister. But outside that set, "people were queuing up at our local hustings to shake hands and say 'you made this campaign continue'."

Theresa explained: "Kate felt she was paying attention to what was happening in the places that are so dismissively referred to as 'the regions' but they're not 'the regions'. It's the rest of the country outside of Dublin past the Red Cow Luas line."

"It struck a chord and I don't think she regrets it. She was calling it as she saw it. She is known for being very passionate and courageous and if they are the qualities you don't want to see in a politician, well then where are we at?"

As we finished up our chat, another Simon Coveney supporter, Simon Harris, passed by. "I was just saying we are all having a big party tonight," said Theresa, turning to the health minister.

"Are you?" asked Simon, clearly in no mood to join in.

I caught him later and asked if there is a feeling he backed the wrong horse?

"Not at all. I think when an election comes, you have to make a choice. I made one and other people made a different one and let the chips fall as they will."

With the final vote in, Simon Coveney gave the room the loudest cheer of the night. As victor Leo arrived fashionably late to celebrate, rather than stay with his defeated team in a far corner of the room, Simon was on the move.

In a scene that showed the character of the man, he made his way through the crowd, who all had their backs to him, eagerly waiting for their new boss to walk through the door.

When the Cork TD finally reached his new leader, he threw his arms around him, the emotional moment captured on the screens of dozens of phones that circled the pair.

Both Simon's mother and Leo's parents beamed with pride. Rather than any fist-pumping or showmanship, Leo's father and mother remained at the back of the crowd as the group raised their son shoulder-high. His reserved and dignified father quietly read texts from well-wishers as the scene unfolded.

Simon's mother was equally proud at what her son had achieved. Will he give up on that dream forever of becoming Taoiseach?

"I don't think he'll give up on the dream but I think he wants to make a contribution. I think he feels very deeply about the party and that's what he has tried to get across this week," she said.

Whoever had won, she said: "They both pledged they'll support the other and I think they'll still do that."

Could he give another go at it in the future? "If there is going to be a vacancy, yes, I think he definitely will. He will go for it," she said. It seems, just like you can't keep a gutsy woman quiet, you can't keep an ambitious man down forever.

Sunday Independent

Also in this section