Sunday 20 August 2017

Fionnan Sheahan: It's game on in Fine Gael as Simon goes on a listening tour and Leo sees his lead narrow in contest

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney Photo: Collins Dublin.
Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney Photo: Collins Dublin.
Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

It's known as a Seanad canvass. Candidates in the Senate election have to embark on a gruelling tour of the country, visiting councillors and TDs at home.

Simon Coveney took to the road over the Easter break to meet TDs, senators and councillors. He covered a fair amount of ground across Limerick, Cork, Clare, Wexford, Tipperary, Wicklow, Kildare, Monaghan, Cavan, Meath and Louth.

Rival Simon Coveney Photo: Damien Eagers
Rival Simon Coveney Photo: Damien Eagers

"He is literally in the farmyard and sitting inside in the kitchen," a campaign member said.

He'll spend up to 90 minutes with a TD and 45 with a councillor, listening to their views on the future of the party and country alike, seeking their support for the Fine Gael leadership.

Coveney is being accompanied by Junior Minister Damien English in the northern end of the country and Senator Tim Lombard in the south. Both are members of his core campaign team, along with the Housing Minister's brother Patrick, the chief executive of food giant Greencore, his ministerial adviser Caitriona Fitzpatrick, Junior Minister Darragh Murphy, Health Minister Simon Harris and new backbenchers Kate O'Connell and Maria Bailey.

PR executive and ex-FG press adviser Ciarán Conlon is involved on the policy and press side. Cork city councillor Laura McGonigle is the contact on the party's National Executive.

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar looks at the diversity wall at eBay Ireland in Blanchardstown, Dublin Photo: Julien Behal
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar looks at the diversity wall at eBay Ireland in Blanchardstown, Dublin Photo: Julien Behal

Coveney is playing catch up with his opponent, Leo Varadkar, who has been working the constituency circuit for at least two years and building relationships with TDs in Leinster House.

"Simon told one TD: 'I've never sat down and had a chat with you'. Yer man is a TD for 10 years," a party TD observed wryly.

Yet after previous suggestions that Varadkar had an unassailable lead, the gap has narrowed.

"I still see it leaning to Leo but I'm not writing off Simon," a senior party figure said.

It's game on. The pitch from the two candidates is decidedly different.

Coveney is pointing to his record of taking on the poisoned chalices of water and housing as a minister.

Varadkar is offering to widen the support base of the party - not just holding the Fine Gael faithful but bringing in further support.

Coveney is putting together a policy document that will outline his vision. He has spoken to TDs about the need for an Infrastructure Minister to implement an investment plan.

Varadkar has already given clear indications of his direction, with statements on reducing taxes for middle-income earners, private sector workers' pensions and employment rights.

He will have a set of ideas on his vision for the country and have proposals to modernise and democratise Fine Gael - of interest mainly to members and councillors.

His big selling point will be a sparkier debating style for taking on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in the Dáil and election campaigns.

He is drawing support from two bases - the dissidents who wanted Enda Kenny gone and Fine Gael loyalists who see him as a better option to challenge Fianna Fáil.

Coveney's supporters say Varadkar has failed to land the knockout blow that would kill off any competitors.

Varadkar's camp is happier with the outcome being perceived to be tight. As the runaway favourite, he was getting much negative scrutiny whereas now it's shared out.

Varadkar's tight group is made up of Junior Minister Eoghan Murphy, policy adviser Brian Murphy, a former chairman of the Fine Gael national executive, press adviser Nick Miller and Public Relations Institute of Ireland chief executive John Carroll. Senator Neale Richmond is also a trusted supporter.

European Commissioner Phil Hogan is being extremely helpful to Varadkar, including escorting him around Brussels on Thursday where he met senior figures.

Kenny is expected to confirm his resignation by the end of the month.

After a few days of tributes to the departing leader, the focus will be solely on replacing him. Richard Bruton and Frances Fitzgerald are not ruled out and a third candidate won't be a surprise.

It will all be sorted in under three weeks, highlighted by four debates in Dublin, Cork, the west, possibly Ballinasloe, and the midlands, either Portlaoise or Kilkenny.

Varadkar will seek to solidify his lead by asking supporters to come out quickly to back him publicly.

Coveney will aim to show he is a more solid choice with a better track record in office.

This contest is not going to come cheap. Senior party figures estimate each candidate could easily burn through €50,000 between mail shots to 20,000 Fine Gael members and the nationwide tour.

"You could spend 30 grand easy enough and you could be talking 50," a minister said.

Varadkar's campaign has held what is described as "a number of fundraising events", including a dinner in Medley Restaurant on Fleet Street in Dublin city centre, for which he sold 250 tickets at €150 each, but only 170 actually attended. It's an annual event, but the proceeds will go into the leadership campaign kitty.

Ironically, the event was held on the night of the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on February 22, at the height of the Maurice McCabe controversy, when Kenny was forced to tell TDs and senators he would deal with the leadership issue.

Coveney is fundraising too, but largely leaving it to his Cork-based team.

"It doesn't need to be that expensive," a supporter said.

Varadkar's campaign will want a spending limit in place, as in UK Tory party leadership elections.

"It will bring the party into disrepute if there is massive spending. It could backfire," a senior party figure said.

"Coveney doesn't need to fundraise. He has access to money. Coveney is basically Kenny on a yacht," a Varadkar supporter sardonically opined.

Fine Gael is still sorting out the rules of engagement for the contest, but a TV debate is being ruled out as party chiefs are "worried RTÉ will turn that into an anti-Fine Gael war".

Spending limits are also being discussed. The final rules will be approved by the Executive Council, the party's ruling body.

The steering committee supervising the process is made up of Tom Curran, party general secretary; Martin Heydon, the parliamentary party chairman; Gerry O'Connell, the executive council chairman; and Frank Callinan, a barrister and party trustees chairman. "If I was a betting man, I'd say the TV debate won't happen," a party insider said.

Whether the candidates can trust TDs promising support is the imponderable.

"You'd be burned by 2010 and the heave. This is where you get into 'can you believe politicians?' " a minister said.

Irish Independent

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