Wednesday 26 July 2017

Most robust yet: Coveney and Varadkar take swipes at each other during party's third hustings

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney at the end of day three of the Fine Gael leadership hustings
Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney at the end of day three of the Fine Gael leadership hustings

Niall O'Connor and Philip Ryan

THE race for the Fine Gael leadership has turned more robust as candidates Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar took swipes at each other at the party's third hustings in Galway.

The ministers swapped barbs over their roles in the party's disastrous general election.

Mr Coveney received a boost just minutes before the debate began with the news that Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness had pledged her support.

The decision still leaves the Cork South Central TD trailing significantly in terms of some within the parliamentary party, which has the greatest say in the outcome of the contest.

Housing Minister Coveney told the audience of 800 that the night needs to be focused on “plain talk”.

He recorded the first real score of the night when he criticised the manner in which cities and towns such as Galway, Sligo and Castlebar as the “regions”.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney
Housing Minister Simon Coveney

“There’s much talk in Dublin of reaching out to the ‘regions’,” he said.

“It frustrates me when people talk about the West of Ireland as being all drab.”

Read More: 'Tough and caring' - MEP Mairead McGuinness backs Simon Coveney's leadership campaign

And Mr Coveney also landed the first blow on his rival as he hit out at Mr Varadkar for laying the blame for Fine Gael’s disastrous election on others.

“I was responsible for policy. Leo also played a leading role. He was responsible for communication. We got it wrong. We need to be humble enough to admit it.”

Mr Varadkar responded by saying he is not shirking responsibility for the election result. He said the committee he headed up was stood down, as was the one Mr Coveney was involved in.

There were terse exchanges when Mr Varadkar appeared to suggest that candidates such as him in Dublin had outperformed those such as Mr Coveney in Cork.

Mr Coveney replied: “It’s good to see the party does well in Dublin when there is a leader from outside of Dublin.”

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar

Mr Varadkar responded that: “I guarantee that if there is a leader in Dublin we will win a seat in Cork South Central. I can top the poll Simon.

Mr Coveney replied: “That’s because we have a great candidate in Jerry Buttimer.”

In his speech, Mr Varadkar chose to focus on the same themes that were contained in the speeches he delivered at the hustings in Dublin and Carlow.

He spoke about party reform and the need to avoid costly court settlements in the future,  like the one incurred as a result of the John Perry case.

Fine Gael, he said,  is the the party of Europe, the party of compassion. Fine Gael is a family, he told the 800 delegates present.

Like the content, the tactics were also the same.

He attacked Sinn Féin's mechanism to elect its leader Michelle O’Neill "without any vote behind closed doors". This wouldn’t happen under his leadership.

Mr Varadkar was confident and upbeat as he listed out his achievements in Social Protection: Increases to the money given to carers, reform of the farm assist.

Read More: Coveney and Varadkar put their pitches to rural voters

As the debate continued, Mr Coveney pushed his experience in agriculture and the marine on the audience and highlighted his achievement when he worked across both portfolios during his opening address.

from Mr Coveney was at his most passionate when talking about fishing and insisted he wanted to do more for communities which rely on the sea for prosperity in their towns.

Mr Coveney took a moment to recognise the tragic death of a young fisherman who died off the coast of Kerry today.

He also spoke about how he wanted to bring high speed electric rail which would connect the West to rest of Ireland.

He also spoke about how he wanted to bring high speed electric rail which would connect the West to rest of Ireland.

Coveney said he “talks the language” of farming and marine communities, added that when Mr Varadkar talks about being a leader for Rural Ireland he thinks: “that’s me already me.”

Mr Varadkar said he was so impressed by Mr Coveney’s speech on the marine he would appoint him to the portfolio should he be elected as leader. Mr Coveney hit back: “I’ll give you health if you give me marine”.

On the issue of health, Mr Varadkar said it would ideal if he could give “simple solutions” but that the problems are “symptoms of other problems in our health service.”

Read More: Ivan Yates: Biggest decision of Varadkar’s career will be the timing of the next general election

He said new emergency departments have been built and that these make a difference, citing Limerick and the Mater.

“Something I will really insist on seeing in the capital plan in the next few months is a new emergency department for Galway.”

Mr Coveney praised former health minister James Reilly who he said took over health “when there was no money.”

He also raised the issue of the new emergency department in Galway, which he says Health Minister Simon Harris has put a lot of work into.

“As the economy can now afford to state to spend… I think health will do as well as it should out of that available resources. “

As the debate began, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s roles were recognised with standing ovations from the floor.

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