Wednesday 26 April 2017

Water saga adds to Coveney's leadership woes

Ministers Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney Photo: Collins Dublin.
Ministers Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney Photo: Collins Dublin.
John Downing

John Downing

In May 2016 Simon Coveney got a rather bad shake of the bag when Government jobs were divvied up by Enda Kenny.

It soon became clear that his share of the cabinet spoils would be less than helpful in his quest to best Leo Varadkar and succeed Mr Kenny as Fine Gael leader, and very possibly become taoiseach.

At the heart of his portfolio was a housing sector once more mired in crisis and replete with tough human stories. Yes, he had a €5.5bn fund and a mega plan. But the lead-in period for any progress meant he could be fronting up to a series of crisis stories for the entire duration of this Government.

For weeks it was hard to see where precisely his other responsibilities lay. But when the dust settled he also had that other bundle of Government joy, water charges, under the aegis of local government.

Some Fine Gael diehards felt he had "dropped the ball" on the water issue just as serious Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil tangling began on a supply and confidence arrangement. On March 1 of last year he appeared on RTÉ's 'Prime Time' programme and suggested the future of Irish Water might not be a stumbling block.

This week's clash over water charges was essentially another year in the making. It was presaged by some skirmishes with Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen on that issue and in another row over rent support arrangements.

In crude terms, the score rested at one-all, with Mr Cowen in the lead on water, and Mr Coveney winning out over the housing issue just before Christmas. The past two days' events have left Fine Gael crying foul and accusing Fianna Fáil of bad faith. But even those within Fine Gael who accept Fianna Fáil's perfidy on the issue, and agree its big party rival weaselled out of documented draft deals, also feel that Simon Coveney was too naïve and trusting.

The saga definitely adds to his leadership woes. Yesterday in the Dáil chamber there was considerable frisson as his rival Mr Varadkar strongly defended Mr Coveney and deftly attacked Fianna Fáil. Mr Varadkar's castigation of the "party of Lemass" being led by Sinn Féin and the hard left, was pretty deft political boxing. On the day you would have to score it "advantage Varadkar".

But this is where Mr Coveney must show his party colleagues and membership what he is made of. He will know that Fianna Fáil, very recently the most pro-water charge party of all, is in a tricky position here.

Leo Varadkar was first to land a political punch. But this is rich Fine Gael-friendly terrain as middle Ireland sickens of pandering to "pay-nobody people".

Irish Independent

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