'How do we make this a more contented place?' Because it's not at the moment
Simon Coveney on how a stranger spitting in his face changed his politics, and how he could cope with losing his seat, but not his family. Interview by Brendan O'Connor
One day, when he was Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney was walking across St Stephen's Green when a total stranger walked up to him. Coveney presumed the man was going to say hello. Instead the man spat in his face and said something along the lines of, "I hate you and I hate what your government is doing to this country". Coveney nearly squares up again at the memory of it, and he admits that his initial reaction could have led to "a Prescott moment".
Coveney didn't hit the man, obviously. But he was quite shaken by the encounter. Not by the physical confrontation, but more because he wondered, "Why does this person hate me so much when I am working day and night to fix the country?"
Had it not crossed his mind that lots of people might hate him? Of course it had, he says, but this crystallised it for him. Coveney went away and thought about it, and he says now that it was a catalyst for him to look differently at how Fine Gael as the party of Government needed to focus on pulling society together again.
This in turn led Coveney to choose to tackle housing in his next ministry, and it seems to be a big part of his drive to become leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach. Simon Coveney, believe it or not, mainly wants to make Ireland a more content place, and he wants to do that by including all of us, and by building communities. And he believes housing is central to making Ireland happier. Sometimes, talking to Simon Coveney, you think you could be talking to someone from People Before Profit.
''Corrosive'' is a word he uses more than once. He thinks Irish society is more divided than he can ever remember. He believes that the protest politics and the street politics that this division is producing "is corrosive to societal well-being, contentment, and just happiness within communities". One of the main things that drives him now in politics is, ''How do we make Ireland a more contented place?'' Because it's not at the moment.
It is surprising, to say the least, to see this alleged boring policy wonk, this alleged Fine Gael blueblood talk about just wanting everyone to be happy, and how an economy is just a tool for this. He stops short of suggesting we replace GDP with a Gross National Happiness measure, but he does keep stressing that, while he is a pragmatist and a believer in capitalism and believes in building a strong economy, the point of that strong economy should be to look after people.
"People describe me as the safe pair of hands in Fine Gael, the blue blood Fine Gael, that I grew up in a very privileged house, that I never needed for anything and that really Simon is the Blue Blood Fine Gael who will represent middle-class and upper-class Ireland and keep them in the lifestyle that they want. That is just simply not true on one level...I've no interest in being in politics to manage an economy or to maintain the status quo. If that was the agenda, quite frankly, I'd rather do something else."
The preconceptions people have about Coveney seem to annoy him in some ways, and in other ways, they amuse him. He owns up to the privilege, and mentions several times the happy household he grew up in, where he wanted for nothing. But he'll argue against the notion that he is a bore. He says his friends find it amusing, this characterisation of him as dull and competent. But then he admits he probably is a bit too serious when it comes to politics and getting things done.
But ask him about his alleged wild years as a teenage tearaway, and he plays it down: "When I was in fourth year in school, I got suspended and then six weeks later I got expelled. But I mean in some ways this makes me out to be this wild child, and that is probably an exaggeration. I did go through a period of sort of, you know, rejecting the strait-laced son that some people may have thought I was...I was in boarding school and I got bored a bit in fourth year, there was no real academic focus for me that year and I went through a phase of trying out things: smoking, Dr Martens and parkas. It was, I suppose, a kind of rebellious period and I thought I could get away with things and I couldn't. And yeah, we organised a party in Dublin, ran away from school and got caught, got disciplined and got kicked out. I was out of school for about three months or so and then I was asked back and I settled back into school again." So a very orderly and quickly quelled revolution then.
Funnily enough, it's not the only time running away comes up in conversation. When he was younger, Simon had run away with Francis, one of the foster kids that his family used to take in. Francis lived with them for three or four years when Simon was young. "He was probably the only black boy in Cork at the time," he says. "He was from Nigeria. He was living with his grandparents and they couldn't look after him for a period and we took him in. I took him on as a brother as far as I was concerned. We would walk down St Patrick's Street and everybody on the pavement would open and let us walk. When you consider the approach to people with black skin today it's a total non-issue, it's just a normal multi-cultural society. Back in the late '70s, when Francis lived with us, Irish society was like, you know, we should be generous to the black babies in Africa, but if there's one walking down the street, it's 'Where does he come from? How did he get here? Who's looking after him? Is he part of the family?'''
His family's experience with fostering - Coveney is in almost weekly touch with some of those who stayed with him still, but he declines to get into it - is one of the things that make the Grace story strike "a raw nerve" with him. The other is his niece, who has Down Syndrome, "I make no secret of the fact that one of the gems in my life has been my niece," he says.
"I come from a very big family, six boys and a girl. It was a very competitive household when we were growing up. We were all physically fit, strong siblings who were competing with each other academically and in sport, when somebody comes into your family or extended family that just turns that approach to life on its head, and brings out something very different in you - that actually being successful and competitive doesn't really matter in the context of a relationship that you're building with someone who is special and, who in their own way, creates and brings out a sort of openness and vulnerability in people. That does change the way you view things...I think disability is a very important thing for society because it encourages people to disarm the usual sort of screens they put up, because this actually doesn't matter when you're talking to somebody who doesn't care about those things. I suppose, when you're exposed to the vulnerabilities of someone you love, when now as a policy-maker you see someone who has vulnerabilities being abused and being taken advantage of, and their vulnerability is not being protected by the State, when that should have been happening, it makes you angry''.
Coveney has three girls of his own and a wife who wishes he wasn't a politician. He spends four nights a week in Dublin, tends to work Friday and Saturdays as well, but keeps Sunday for the family. He shrugs, saying it's like many other people who work night and day and then feel guilty when they get home, so they spend all their time with the family. His escapism now is drawing with the girls and taking them to camogie and swimming. His respite from the all-female house is his male dog with whom he goes running. "It might all sound a bit mundane and boring," he says, "but it's important to me."
Coveney doesn't talk politics at home. Ruth is not interested. Indeed, Ruth would be very happy if Simon decided to change career. But then, he says, she knew what she was signing up for when she said 'yes'. The couple got together in UCC when Simon was 19 and she was 17. They went their different ways at times over the following years, but they eventually got married in their 30s.
Coveney says there were times when politics put an enormous strain on their marriage. He was stressed, he was away a lot, he was preoccupied with work all the time. After reflecting on the issue, he changed his perspective and rebalanced things. He thinks this change in perspective has made him a better politician than, "those who think night and day about politics and surviving and succeeding". He says, if he lost his seat, he would deal with it. If he lost his family, then he says he wouldn't recover.
Presumably then, if he becomes Taoiseach it's not going to help his marriage. Again he is pragmatic about this. "No, I think when you're in your 30s and you're married it's often a more volatile relationship. When you're in your 40s and married and have the fantastic stability of children, I think your perspective changes, I'm lucky to have a real anchor there at the moment and it allows me to do other things that are a lot more riskier and dramatic knowing that I can go home to that."
We are still in the phoney war stage of the Fine Gael leadership contest and you sense Coveney is reluctant to set out his stall or to be seen to hasten Enda Kenny to an early exit just yet.
He has a sense of propriety about this leadership race should be conducted. "We have to do this while FG is in Government," he says. "A minority government with partners in government with us, so maintaining stable government while not only changing leadership but changing the Taoiseach, I think puts a huge responsibility on the party as a whole to be united through this process...Fine Gael as a party has shown that if it doesn't manage leadership contests very well it tears itself apart. We cannot afford that this time around, because if that happens we will be out of Government very quickly and we will have an election. So we need to maintain focus, stability and unity in the party."
But everyone knows that this battle has the potential to get very nasty and Fine Gael certainly didn't do itself any favours with how they conducted themselves in the last few weeks.
"But we corrected that," he counters, "at a time when a lot of people were encouraging dissent and encouraging the party to blow up, because that would have made great headlines and drama and all that, the mainstream thought process in the party pulled the party back from that...I mean, there were people inside the party threatening motions of no confidence, but they were a handful of people and the party made it very clear to those people that this is not the way it is going to happen, and they pulled back." Coveney's view is clear: Enda Kenny doesn't deserve a messy removal, and it would not be good for the party. He believes Kenny will trigger the process when he comes back, that he won't delay too much, that a week or two this way or that way won't make a difference. And does he think he will become Taoiseach then? "I don't know."
If he does, his vision is clearly to make Fine Gael a party for all the people, to lure them back from what he sees as the corrosive politics of protest. "If we don't focus on people who feel they are not being represented by Government at the moment or that there's nothing in it for them from economic growth, well then we will continue to drive people like that into the politics of protest, and hatred and anger, which I think some parties want, by the way, because they thrive on it," he says. "There are people who spend nearly all of their time organising protests because that's what they do in politics." Like who? Paul Murphy? "Well look, I'll let other people decide who I'm talking about, but people who focus on megaphone street protests and trying to create anger within society all the time...the only response to that is to not to shout back, it's to solve their problems."
Does he not think these politicians are genuinely interested in solving problems? "I think some of them are and I think some of them love the drama of it all and they're pretty good at ratcheting it up. But I think there are some great people that are on the hard left," he says, mentioning Maureen O'Sullivan in particular.
Some of his colleagues think there are great people in Sinn Fein, too. Does he share that admiration? "Not really, no. Like Sinn Fein are a machine, they all walk the walk, talk the talk, do what they are told. They are bright people, don't get me wrong. Sinn Fein have a lot of talented people, but they operate with military precision and they are on message all the time, and they focus on trying to dismantle other political parties and candidates that oppose them, and they are good at it." But, he says: "I think it is far better that they are active in politics rather than what they were previously involved in." But he certainly doesn't see Fine Gael in Government with them and he says that, while some people suggest Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein might form the next Government, "I intend on ensuring that doesn't happen".
People will be surprised that Simon Coveney regards himself as a risk taker, but that is how he sees himself. He has always done risky things, he says, like climbing mountains. And now he sees himself as a person who likes to disrupt things. He thinks rewriting the common fishery policy was probably his most radical move yet, though he admits it's not a very mainstream one for people. He says walking into the Department of Defence and telling them: "We're going to send a ship to the Med," in response to thousands of people drowning there, was risky. At the time, he says they looked at him as if he had two heads. "It was a huge risk, and now, of course, success has many fathers."
So what would he disrupt if he became Taoiseach? "When I grew up as a child in Blackrock in Cork - I always think back to this when I think about how politics has changed - coming out of Mass on a Sunday with my father as a TD at the time, being very much seen as and respected as a TD, and I compare that to somebody coming up to me and spitting in my face in Stephen's Green. Politics needs to create a relationship with the people that put us there that is based on pulling people together, rather than pushing them apart, and I think that is the big project that whoever leads the Government needs to essentially undertake.''
He appreciates why people might not be as happy as he would like them to be. He talks about this being, "the first time ever in human history that the current generation feels that they are not better off than their parents' generation, in terms of pressure, in terms of work time, in terms of income levels. If you look at income levels right across the western world over the last 20 years, they haven't increased in anything like the pace of inflation, and so the pressure that people feel and the vehicles they have now to express their frustration mean that politics is much rougher and rawer than it was. If you look at my social media pages, two o'clock in the morning when people come back with drink in them, they feel the need to lash out at politicians and so on. We need to start healing that".
This is, he concedes, a worldwide issue, and he says: "If mainstream politics doesn't respond in a more ambitious and pro-active way to healing society, I think we will see politics in Ireland, like other countries, going in a very dangerous direction."
You sense he's not too thrilled with the part that old media plays in this either: "Headlines are most of the time focused on failure and creating outrage." But he seems to believe that the centre can hold: "Most of what people relied upon 20 years ago in terms of the institutions of the State, Government, the church, the guards; virtually all institutions have been pulled down in people's minds, and we need to respond in a more radical way to people's needs and healing those divisions rather than going down the easy route of saying, 'well, Fine Gael support large farmers, small businesses and middle-to-high income earners, so if we look after those people we'll hold onto our votes'. If we think that's safe territory we are mistaken because the growth of discontent will continue, and that is a desperately corrosive influence on society. I hope in time we'll rebuild a bit of faith in the institutions and the Government, because at the moment that faith and trust isn't there amongst a lot of people." And with that grim but determined message, he is gone.
'There are complex and difficult issues that many women have to deal with'
On repealing the Eighth Amendment
Well, it's a highly emotive issue and there are a lot of Irish women who have had to travel abroad to deal with crisis pregnancies so you can understand why, well actually on both sides of the argument, the very, very intense feelings and when you mix intense feelings with politics, they tend to get very emotive language, protests, marches; that's how politics works now.
I was getting a burger at midnight the other night and I got almost verbally attacked by someone for 20 minutes who had a very, very conservative view in relation to pregnancy and abortion and unborn life. That's the other side of it. People who feel that they're ostracised and aren't represented by government because they have conservative views.
I think most people are somewhere in the middle: they're looking for a way of dealing in a more compassionate way with often very complex pregnancies but I think there's also a strong view in Ireland that the State does have a responsibility to protect an unborn child and they want that in the Constitution, while at the same time recognising that there are extraordinarily complex and difficult issues that many women find themselves having to deal with through no fault of their own, with very complex pregnancies that threaten their health and their life and obviously the lives of their children.
I've always taken some of the human rights approach to it as I try to categorise in my mind what needs to be considered as a policy-maker. I do think the State has a responsibility to protect the unborn child but I also think the state has responsibilities towards women who find themselves in often very, very difficult and traumatic circumstances.
On the Tuam mother and baby home
This is shining a spotlight on a time many people have closed the door on. They don't want to open it again, just because it brings back awful memories. I think it also exposes an Ireland that none of us are very proud of.
Sometimes the best way of dealing with awfulness in the past is to tell the truth in a way that's sensitive and dignified and I also think in some ways will allow some people to move on.
On vote harvesting
A lot of politicians focus on vote harvesting all the time, that's all they do. You've got to go to a match to be seen there because that's where you can look for votes. You've got to go to a funeral to be seen.
On government intervention in the free market in general
I think that sometimes the State does both justify and need intervention because I think the free market is a great place if you've got plenty of money or if you know how to play that market, but it's a very, very cruel place if you're somebody who is vulnerable and doesn't have the capacity to survive.
On Enda Kenny triggering a leadership race
I don't think on the day he returns he is going to trigger it, but I am very comfortable with trusting his judgment. He has said he won't lead FG into the election. More recently he said that when he comes back after the St Patrick's Day trip he will put a process in place that will manage an orderly transition.