Sunday 25 June 2017

'I'm not going to make my personal life an issue' - Leo Varadkar on upcoming Fine Gael leadership campaign

Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are seen as favourites to succeed Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins
Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are seen as favourites to succeed Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins
Simon Coveney Picture: Damien Eagers

Ralph Riegel and Cormac McQuinn

MINISTER Leo Varadkar has said he won't be making his personal life an issue in the upcoming Fine Gael leadership campaign and said "I hope and trust that others won't do either."

Mr Varadkar said: "I'd like any contest whenever it does happen to be about not personalities but people's vision for the future of the country and how we can move on from a situation where we've crawled out of a very difficult recession into one where we can be much more ambitious about the future of our country.

"I'm not going to make my personal life and my family life an issue in any campaign and I hope and trust that others won't do either," he added.

Mr Varadkar, who revealed he was gay before the successful same sex marriage referendum, was speaking to reporters at an event in Dublin this morning.

Meanwhile, Housing Minister Simon Coveney insisted that no-one in Fine Gael wants to see a damaging leadership battle that threatens to repeat bitter past party splits.

The warning came as Mr Coveney refused to comment on reports that he is now the clear front runner in the battle to succeed Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

One report today claimed that the Cork TD holds a seven vote lead in preliminary assessments of Fine Gael Parliamentary Party support over his main rival, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar.

"I think the party can stick together through that (leadership) process which is important," Mr Coveney said.

"I have been through some leadership changes in Fine Gael which have almost ripped the party in two.

"I don't think that is going to happen this time - certainly I am determined that it won't. I think others share that view too."

The Cork TD dismissed Fine Gael leadership support polls.

"I am always sceptical of political predictions," he said.

"I think before a formal contest even starts, really all of this is speculation - for some people it will be interesting speculation.

"But for me, I am sure there will be lots of different views, lots of different opinion polls and I think, when you have been around in politics for a while like I have, you don't take anything like this too seriously."

Mr Coveney insisted that the issue "will be dealt with after St Patrick's Day".

"I think, in particular, ministers have a responsibility to continue their work rates on their briefs.

"We have some big issues - around homelessness, housing, planning issues, local government reform, water - which is about as tricky as it gets politically.

"My focus is on those things."

He said that once the formal process begins of electing a new leader it will "run in a very professional and well-managed way".

"I have said it repeatedly that I trust the Taoiseach to manage this in terms of process and timeline.

"I think Leo and I are saying more or less the same thing this morning - I didn't hear his (RTE) interview. But my focus and Leo's focus and everybody else in Government, the focus is to make sure we can provide good, consistent Government through a transition process which is complicated.

"My position stays the same - I have full faith in the Taoiseach and his ability to manage what will be a very important transition for the country."

The Fine Gael leadership race, once it is signalled, will take three weeks.

"It is often complicated enough for a big political party to change its leader never mind change its leader when it is in Government, never mind change its leader when you are in a minority Government situation with partners in Government and with a written agreement in place with the largest Opposition party (Fianna Fáil)," Mr Coveney said.

"There is a lot of things that need to be managed here - the Taoiseach has said, and I agree with him, that first and foremost we have to do what is right for the country in terms of stable Government, focused Government. We need to also try to do what is right for Fine Gael in terms of a party leadership change.

"I am really not getting into a formal leadership pitch at the moment. We actually don't have a formal process underway. Ministers like me have a lot of work to do in our own briefs and I don't think we should allow ourselves to get down into the distraction of a leadership contest that is not even underway yet."

Mr Varadkar began his remarks by reminding reporters there is still "no vacancy" for the leadership of Fine Gael.

He was asked if he would honour the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil for its full term to the end of 2018 if he ultimately if he succeeds Enda Kenny as leader.

"I hate to tell you but there is no vacancy so I think we will have to wait until there actually is a vacancy before I can talk in detail about the contest."

"What I can say is that the confidence and supply agreement that was negotiated between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stands.

"It is not just an agreement with the Taoiseach or the party leader. It’s an agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

"I was involved in negotiating that, started the initial discussions back that morning in Jim O’Callaghan’s kitchen and it is an agreement between the two parties and it will stand no matter who’s leader or even if there isn’t a change in leader," mr Varadkar said.

It was put to Mr Varadkar that some in Fine Gael believe the contest should be conducted before Easter.

He replied: "Well what the Taoiseach said this week was that after he comes back from the St Patrick’s Day visits that he will deal with this issue comprehensively, conclusively and effectively and we all trust him absolutely to do that. So I don’t think the contest can begin at least until then."

He was speaking as he announced changes to the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance (BTWEA).

Mr Varadkar said the scheme: "allows people who are on social welfare to set up a business and to continue to receive some of their welfare payments in the first two years while they get that business up and running."

Changes to the qualification period for the scheme will make it easier for many one parent families, people with disabilities and farmers to participate.

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