Tuesday 22 August 2017

Coveney's leadership hopes fade as FG TDs attack water bill

Housing Minister Simon Coveney has come under fire for his handling of Irish Water and housing. Photo: Tom Burke
Housing Minister Simon Coveney has come under fire for his handling of Irish Water and housing. Photo: Tom Burke

Niall O'Connor and Fionnan Sheahan

Housing Minister Simon Coveney's prospects of becoming the next Taoiseach are quickly fading as a result of his handling of recent controversies, according to a growing number of Fine Gael TDs.

Mr Coveney was challenged at a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party this week over why the Government failed to block a "deeply flawed" bill on Irish Water proposed by Independent TD Joan Collins.

The bill, which proposes that a referendum be held on placing Irish Water under public ownership, was passed in the Dáil yesterday after the Government decided not to vote against it.

But Fine Gael TDs were incensed over the response taken by the Government - and have directed their anger at Mr Coveney.

A number of backbenchers believe the Cork South Central TD is being "rolled over" by his opposite number in Fianna Fáil, Barry Cowen.

"Cowen is walking all over him - it's embarrassing," said one source.

"He has completely rolled over to Fianna Fáil and made it clear that accepting the Fianna Fáil position is best, hence the no opposition to Joan Collins' bill," another member of the party said.

Deputies also criticised Mr Coveney's contribution at the meeting on Wednesday, during which he warned of the workload that would face members of the new committee set up to examine the recommendations of the water commission.

"He told us it will be intense and is not for the faint-hearted - it felt once again like we were being lectured," said one TD.

Another source present said Mr Coveney raised eyebrows after claiming he was delighted to have already received two text messages from TDs who would like to go on the committee once it was set up.

Mr Coveney also advised TDs to refrain from commenting about the issue of water charges, adding that he was due to receive a report from the expert commission by the end of the month.

A minister added that Mr Coveney's standing within the party had diminished in recent weeks as a result of his handling of changes to constituency boundaries.

He has also come under serious criticism from councillors after signalling that their pay would be increased, before backtracking days later.

His failure to tackle the homelessness crisis to any substantial degree has also attracted criticism.

But Mr Coveney still has supporters within the party who believe he is best placed to challenge Leo Varadkar, once Enda Kenny steps aside as leader.

Mr Varadkar, who is in Davos for a young political leaders' event, has been far more active in terms of his leadership bid.

But other sources came to Mr Coveney's defence in relation to Wednesday's meeting, insisting he merely set out the challenges the party would face in relation to water charges.

One TD said Mr Coveney set out in a "calm way" how Fine Gael needed to have a coherent strategy once the commission published its findings.

During the meeting, junior minister Damien English urged his colleagues to start using the term "treated water" when discussing Fine Gael's view that a charging regime should be put in place.

But Louth TD Fergus O'Dowd told the meeting he had "lost votes" because of the water charges fiasco.

Fianna Fáil TDs are equally concerned over the party's approach to the findings of the Water Commission, which is expected to recommend the re-introduction of charges.

A rural-urban divide has developed within the party, with many rural TDs expressing unease over party leader Micheál Martin's claim that charges be abolished for good.

Irish Independent

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