Wednesday 16 August 2017

The final scorecard: How Varadkar took on Coveney in his own backyard... and won

Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar
Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar
Simon Coveney pictured at hustings in Cork last night. Picture: Colin O'Riordan
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The last of four Fine Gael hustings took place last night in Co Cork - hopeful Simon Coveney's back yard, but how did the candidates fare? Kevin Doyle scores the politicians on their final performance.

Delivery:

Simon Coveney took a very paced approach to his opening speech. He appeared to rein in a little bit of the passion shown on previous nights, perhaps hoping to appear Statesmanlike. His delivery was solid though, ticking all the boxes his team would hope for.

Leo Varadkar showed why people talk about his media performance and his ability to know his audience.

Leo Varadkar pictured at The Fine Gael Hustings in Cork
Leo Varadkar pictured at The Fine Gael Hustings in Cork

"I've always enjoyed away games the most," he opened to rapturous applause before congratulating the Cork rowers on their success in the European Championships yesterday.

It's only a small thing, bit it shows that Mr Varadkar put some thought into how to break down what was a somewhat hostile crowd.

Simon: 5 Leo: 7

Leadership pitch:

Simon Coveney's efforts to paint his rival as a Thatcherite character continued unabated last night. He said Leo Varadkar was offering "essentially a shift to the right" that would see the party focus on its core support base at the expense of wider society.

"In politics when you prioritise a certain segment of society you are leaving others out. Ireland today is a splintered political picture because every party does that now.

"Leo Varadkar said he had a plan to modernise Fine Gael.

"I believe I am best placed to broaden the appeal of Fine Gael beyond people who normally vote for us. I have a concrete plan one that has substance and detail in it, adding that he was the only candidate who had a proposal document on party reform."

Simon: 7 Leo: 7

Taoiseach pitch:

Simon Coveney warned that winning the contest should not come down to who has "the greatest list of goodies".

He also tried liken his approach to that of Enda Kenny, saying the question being asked of voters is "who is going to shine the light for this party and this country? How do we shine a light through Fine Gael thinking so we can give direction to the country?"

Leo Varadkar said being in government "is all about decisions"

"What are you trying to fund and what are you not going to fund? If you are not going to answer those questions, you don't have a philosophy, you just have a passionate speech."

This was a thinly veiled attack on Mr Coveney's pitch to be a "catch-all" candidate.

Simon: 7 Leo: 7

Audience response:

Moderator Gavin Duffy described the atmosphere as akin  to a Munster final.

Leo Varadkar's team had brought supporters from far and wide but were still outnumbered by the locals. And on several occasions they turned on Mr Varadkar.

There were boos and shouts of 'answer the question' when the Social Protection Minister danced around which member of the Opposition he would like to have in a Fine Gael cabinet.

Simon Coveney had the home crowd at his back. They played the part, helping him along the way and proving that he was correct to stay in the race.

Simon: 8 Leo: 6

Content:

On home turf it was expected that Simon Coveney would turn up the heat on Leo Varadkar - but last night he focused more on himself. Telling a story about Enda Kenny's grandfather carried a nice theme but probably didn't win many votes given all the talk about new ideas.

Leo Varadkar was bullish and prepared to take some blatant swipes. After his opponent's speech he asked: "What did Simon say he actually wants to do in his speech today?"

He went on to outline why he can match Mr Coveney's European experience and develop his infrastructure plans.

Simon: 6 Leo: 8

Overall score:

Simon: 33/50 Leo: 35/50

The final debate in quotes:

SIMON COVENEY

“We are the only party in Ireland that can be trusted with the economy – let no one rewrite history in that regard.”

“You need to ask the question – not who has the greatest list of goodies, [But] who is going to shine the light for this party and this country? How do we shine a light through Fine Gael thinking so we can give direction to the country?”

“This time last week I believed I could win this contest and there were a small group of people around me who thought I could. But the people around me now believe there is a mood of change in Fine Gael."

“I tweeted a message that being an underdog means nothing if you believe in yourself. That’s what we have seen in my campaign for the past week.”

LEO VARADKAR

“It is great to be here in Cork – I have always enjoyed away games the most.”

“We are not Simon versus Leo, Cork versus Dublin, or rural versus urban.”

“Our second ambition is hope and ambition, equality of opportunity. We don’t believe in equality of outcome, but everyone should have the equal chance to do the best they can. We are also the party of law and order and of security.”

“Let nobody say our party is elitist.”

“I have heard a lot of talk about compassion from Simon over the past week. I agree with most of what he has said. What I cannot agree with is what he has tried to say about me and I want to counter that here tonight. I have served in ministries and roles where I have been able to make a real difference.”

“If we were about motherhood and apple pie we would be Greece.”

Report from the hustings

The two ministers vying to be Taoiseach have slated each other's election campaigns, with Simon Coveney accusing Leo Varadkar of trying to buy his way to power.

As the Fine Gael hustings ended on a bitter note, Mr Varadkar said his rival was creating "a dishonest" portrayal of his own commitment to compassionate policies.

Both candidates used the fourth and final leadership debate in Co Cork, attended by more than 800 party members and politicians, to deliver gloves-off performances.

Mr Varadkar described the policy document produced by the Housing Minister during the contest as "something vague" which he could use to cover the fact he is not willing to make big decisions.

In response Mr Coveney said he want to deal with "five or six big issues that I actually want to change Ireland with as a Taoiseach".

"What Leo is doing is committing to spending money that we don't have yet."

Mr Coveney said he wanted to plan the country's future and then look at the funding priorities.

"Leo couldn't wait for that because there was an election under way," he said.

The ministers again clashed over the message the party should carry into future elections. "I have heard a lot of talk about compassion from Simon over the past week. I agree with most of what he has said," Mr Varadkar said.

"What I cannot agree with is what he has tried to say about me and I want to counter that here tonight.

"Fine Gael has enough enemies... we have enough of that without saying that about each other. In my view it is divisive, it is dishonest and it is not a good way to seek a mandate."

Mr Coveney said he wasn't questioning anybody's compassion but did question the direction in which Mr Varadkar wants to take Fine Gael.

Mr Varadkar also claimed that if Fine Gael committed itself to "motherhood and apple pie" policies only, we would end up like Greece.

Earlier, Mr Coveney attacked Mr Varadkar's policy approach as effectively leaving behind portions of Irish society.

"You need to ask the question - not who has the greatest list of goodies, [but] who is going to shine the light for this party and this country?" he said.

"How do we shine a light through Fine Gael thinking so we can give direction to the country?"

Passionate

Mr Coveney said that, unlike Mr Varadkar, he offers a passionate vision for rebuilding Irish society for the 21st century.

"That is what marks us out [in Fine Gael] - left-wing parties want to create a dependency culture. I want to represent an enabling culture.

"We need to be a party about building a fairer, stronger society."

Mr Varadkar was booed by the audience when he criticised Mr Coveney for once again expressing admiration of Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and his policies.

In turn, he criticised the Cork TD for the lack of specific policy details in his leadership platform.

"If you're not going to answer those questions [about tax cuts, funding priorities] you don't have a philosophy, you just have a passionate speech."

Mr Varadkar said he offered a new social contract to Irish people - with no one paying more than 50 cent in the euro in tax and merging the Universal Social Charge with PRSI to offer people enhanced services and benefits.

Both also clashed over Local Property Tax (LPT), with Mr Coveney saying Mr Varadkar's plan to allow the tax remain within the county it is raised from as being "irresponsible".

Mr Varadkar countered: "It is another deliberate misrepresentation of my policies."

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