Wednesday 28 September 2016

Former teenage tearaway 'obsessed' with being Taoiseach

Simon Coveney may not have his rival Leo Varadkar's talent or charisma - but he is the ultimate safe pair of hands

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Ambitious: Simon Coveney. Photo: Tom Burke
Ambitious: Simon Coveney. Photo: Tom Burke

Chalk and cheese. The two main leadership contenders to succeed Enda Kenny could hardly be more different. Politics has always come easy to Leo Varadkar - like a county minor star, great things were expected of him from the time he was elected a councillor.

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No so for Simon Coveney. He's got to where he is today by application and perseverance. He is Steve Ovett to Varadkar's Sebastian Coe - elbow grease and a ferocious work ethic rather than effortless talent; more Larry Tompkins than Gooch Cooper. More Roy, than Robbie, Keane.

More Enda Kenny than say Garret FitzGerald. And, perhaps - to recall a different leadership contest in a different party - more George Colley than Charlie Haughey (though, a shared very obvious charisma aside, it wouldn't be fair to compare Leo to CJH).

It's something Coveney probably wouldn't argue with himself. Though he carries a slightly blue-blooded air and certain assumptions of privilege - hardly unconnected to his upbringing in one of Cork's merchant prince families - there's also a certain humility to him.

He has spoken, in a searingly honest way, about the challenges he faced in adolescence. His brother Patrick, the high-achieving CEO of Greencore, was the success story of the family - the straight A student. Up to the age of 15, Simon had a speech impediment and recalls "breaking pencils under the desk in frustration when trying to read as Gaeilge in Irish class".

He also, to use his own words, "went off the rails in secondary school", getting expelled from the exclusive Clongowes Wood boarding school in Transition Year, having previously been suspended for drinking. He told Miriam O'Callaghan of his time as a 16-year-old "hanging around in a pair of Doc Martens and parka, thinking I was cool".

It's hard to square with the very serious, studious, dutiful prefect type - the "steady Eddie", as one colleague describes him - that is in a virtual dead heat with Varadkar to succeed Kenny.

With the benefit of hindsight though, it was probably never going to be any other way. When colleagues talk of Coveney, the same terms keeping coming up: "determination", "ambition", "problem solver", "hard work".

Patrick Coveney has spoken of how the untimely death in 1998 of their father, Hugh - then a TD - changed all the children, especially Simon: "It was a catalyst for all my siblings to really grow up. With Simon, it was like a night and day change...he became a real man overnight." The boy who became not just a man but a minister acknowledges this, describing it as a "real watershed in my life".

Like Varadkar, he became a TD in his twenties - Coveney was actually a few years younger - but unlike the Social Protection Minister, it took a while before he began to catch the eye.

He survived the FG election massacre of 2002 by just 41 votes and did his bit for the party by successfully contesting the 2004 European Elections. His role in the 2010 heave against Enda Kenny remains contentious to this day amid claims that he was "playing both sides" and even sought to put himself forward as a compromise candidate - which he denies.

Whatever the truth, Kenny himself wasn't overly impressed and it was arguably only Deirdre Clune's failure to get elected in the same constituency in 2011 that guaranteed his spot in the cabinet. From that point out, Coveney's diligence, attention to detail and grasp of policy has made him, aside perhaps from Michael Noonan, the most powerful minister in the Cabinet today.

Typical of his characteristic forthrightness, he has spoken about how an "obsession" with politics can lead to a loss of perspective. "And if you lose that perspective as I have nearly done in my career, to my cost privately, you will learn some very, very emotive and hard lessons."

He recalled during his time as Agriculture Minister taking a phone call from his French counterpart while on the maternity ward waiting for his wife to give birth.

Despite this work ethic, he went on to stress that family is most important - if he lost his family, he would consider himself a failure, whereas if he lost his seat he would move on and do something else.

While nobody in his party doubts his sincerity on that, and everyone speaks of his innate decency and code of honour, there is a view he is "obsessed" with the leadership. "He wants it badly," is the view of one close observer. A number of his colleagues talk of a "patrician sense of destiny" and a matter of "family honour" in wanting to be Taoiseach.

What kind of Taoiseach would he be? Pragmatic in the mould of Enda Kenny, is the general response. "He presents himself as a Social Democrat, but it doesn't sit that easily with him. He is very pragmatic and would be very focused on problem-solving," says one Fine Gaeler.

"He'd be a safe pair of hands," says another senior figure. "Leo would be more spectacular; Simon would be a safe leader. He'll never drop the ball". When it's put to him that he was damning Coveney with faint praise, putting him in the "dull but solid" category, he demurs: "Sometimes, they make better Taoisigh". Although he is perceived to be right up there with Varadkar in terms of support within the parliamentary party - some even put him marginally ahead - senior figures struggle to identify his key backers. "I'm trying to figure that out," says one, before settling on "the middle ground TDs and senators". His power base was eroded by the loss of so many seats in Munster but the "old Fine Gael elite tradition" - the likes of Richard Bruton, Michael Noonan - are probably more inclined towards him.

This is confirmed by another senior politician who says Coveney has more support among Cabinet ministers than Varadkar, as they believe they'd be more likely to hold onto their positions under him. Forced to choose between his two heirs apparent, Kenny probably prefers him too, the source says, before adding: "I don't think Enda really gives a s*** which of them wins."

If Coveney has a weakness in the leadership race, close observers say, it's that he can be quite stand-offish. Neither he nor Varadkar are naturally clubbable. But the view is that Varadkar is working harder at meeting and courting people, paying particular attention to and encouraging newer TDs and senators. He's also better at getting back and personally following up on deputies departmental queries.

"Simon doesn't get down and dirty. He can be a little diffident," is one comment. "He doesn't do small talk," is another from somebody who adds that Leo probably wins on the question: 'Who'd you rather go for a pint with?'

There's also the question, raised by one close observer, as to whether such a patently honourable and dutiful character has the appetite for the crude business of leadership contest head counts? The comparisons with the equally patrician George Colley may yet be telling in that regard.

Varadkar is probably the better media performer, quicker on his feet than Coveney, who can be overly considered and almost hesitant. Though when it comes to mastery of a brief and one-on-one debates, some in Fine Gael believe Coveney has the edge.

He certainly doesn't, however, when it comes to the public's affections. "Mind you, it's hard for anyone to be ahead of Leo in terms of the attention he gets," observes one colleague with more than a hint of cynicism.

All are agreed that what might have been a four-horse race a couple of months back has now been whittled down.

"If this phoney war of the past couple of weeks has shown us anything, it's that there is no room for a compromise candidate. There's only two people in the race."

So who'll it be? Ovett or Coe? Roy or Robbie Keane? Artisan or artist? Simon or Leo? Nobody is willing to call it absolutely.

One figure describes it as a "see-saw" contest with the lead changing hands all the time. Coveney certainly emerged from the Government formation talks as the main man.

He drove the Independents to distraction at times with his attention to detail, but they were all won over by the end of the process.

They weren't with Varadkar, who cut a disaffected figure around that time, raising questions about his interest in, and commitment to, politics long-term. But those questions have been put to bed. Nobody now doubts Leo wants the job. And he's box office.

Fine Gael is, though, a very conservative party, not renowned for taking risks - the 'safe pair of hands' might win the day over the mercurial and the unpredictable. Against that, a 'safe pair of hands' mightn't be enough to win the next election.

So much in this 'see-saw' contest will depend on timing and luck. Asked to call it, most plump for Varadkar by a whisker.

All things being equal, it will be. But in politics, all things rarely are. Coveney is well in this race and he won't lack stamina.

Sunday Independent

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