Tuesday 20 March 2018

Coveney warns FG TDs to 'back off' Enda Kenny - while Harris and Bruton refuse to rule themselves out of race

Simon Coveney and Enda Kenny Photo: Damien Eagers
Simon Coveney and Enda Kenny Photo: Damien Eagers

Ralph Riegel, Kevin Doyle and Cormac McQuinn

Housing Minister Simon Coveney bluntly warned Fine Gael TDs and Senators to "back off" Taoiseach Enda Kenny over the party leadership.

The Cork TD warned today that the party had "a very difficult week last week" and he doesn't want frenzied speculation over the leadership to deliver future difficult weeks and months ahead.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Simon Harris and Education Minister Richard Bruton have refused to rule themselves out of the Fine Gael leadership race.

Speaking as he launched a Cork social housing scheme, Mr Coveney said it was imperative that Fine Gael officials "trusted" the Taoiseach to know what was best for the party and country.

"I think that people do need to back off," he said.

Mr Coveney also said that imposing time tables on Mr Kenny to depart office was not helpful.

#HaveYourSay: Who do you think is the best option for Fine Gael leader?

He also said he believed the majority of people within Fine Gael do not wish to see any confidence motions tabled in Mr Kenny after 15 years of sterling party leadership.

The Cork TD also insisted that a change of Fine Gael leader does not mean an imminent general election - and he pointed out that Fianna Fáil has committed to support the Fine Gael party in Government rather than any specific leader of that party.

"We don't have a contest for the leader of Fine Gael right now," he said.

"What we have is a lot of impatience from some people. But what I have said very clearly over the weekend is that I trust the Taoiseach's judgement to manage a process of transition within the party but also a process of transition for the country."

"Don't forget that Fine Gael are in Government and obviously a change of leader in Fine Gael most likely means a change of Taoiseach as well."

"I think people should give the Taoiseach time and space to manage the process. I don't expect that process to start until after St. Patrick's Day."

Read more: 'It's amateur hour' as FG leadership crisis sparks series of gaffes - and Varadkar is forced to close WhatsApp group

 Mr Coveney vehemently refused to discuss any leadership bid by him or what he sees himself as offering as a future leader of Fine Gael.

 Mr Coveney and Dublin TD Leo Varadkar as seen as front-runners to succeed Mr Kenny.

 "I am not getting into a leadership contest today because we don't have one today."

 "I am here to launch four really good housing schemes in Cork. With respect, that is what we are here to do."

 But the Cork TD acknowledged that sorting the leadership issue is a priority for Fine Gael.

 "I think it will only start in earnest when there is an agreed process in place."

 "The vast majority of people in Fine Gael want to give the Taoiseach the time and space to put that process in place to make sure the transition happens in an orderly manner. Which is what is needed to ensure we have stability in Government and that we have unity and property transition within the party."

 "That is what the Taoiseach said many months ago that he would do before another election."

 "He deserves the time and space to do that - and I am not going to start laying down timetables or conditions and I am certainly not going to support anybody who suggests that we should be forcing the issue."

 Mr Coveney said any talk of no confidence motions was not helpful and didn't reflect on the dignity that should be shown to Mr Kenny over his lengthy leadership of the party.

Read more: Explained: What happens next in the race to be Fine Gael leader?

 "I have said the Taoiseach should go to Washington for St Patrick's Day - that is a very important event for Ireland."

 "There has been a lot of preparation for that and I know that he wants to do it. I expect that after that we will see a process in place that will manage and orderly transition."

 "That is what we should all works towards. I totally trust the Taoiseach to put that process in place and I think he should be given to the time and space to do that."

 Mr Coveney dismissed suggestions that Fine Gael leadership issue could see the party "sleep-walk" into a general election.

 "I think Fianna Fáil have made their intentions very clear. Let us not forget that when the programme for government was put in place and the 'confidence and supply agreement' was negotiated with Fianna Fáil it was very clear at the time they were agreeing a process with the Fine Gael party."

 "Obviously with Enda Kenny as its leader. But I think people like Jim O'Callaghan TD and others have made it very clear that their agreement is with Fine Gael, they want to see stable government focussing on delivering that programme."


Health Minister Simon Harris and Education Minister Richard Bruton refused to rule themselves out earlier today.

Speaking in Mullinga, Mr Harris said Enda Kenny’s decision on standing down is “entirely a matter for him”.

“I trust the Enda’s judgement, that the Taoiseach will know what is the right timeframe for any change of leader in Fine Gael, and much more importantly within the country,” he said.

Asked by Midlands 103 whether he will challenge Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney for the top post, he replied: “There is no race, there is no vacancy. If and when a vacancy arises I will consider my position at that stage. But let me be very clear I am working morning, noon and night as minister for Health.

“It is the greatest honour of my life.”

It follows controversy over a leaked WatsApp message in which Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan suggested Mr Harris “wanted out” of Health.

Meanwhile, Richard Bruton, who launched an unsuccessful heave against Kenny in 2010, is still considering a tilt.

“We need to sit down as a party. We know that leadership change is coming and we need to sit down and frame that debate and make sure that we emerge from that as a stronger party offering better leadership at a time of challenge,” he said at an event in Croke Park today.

Last Friday Mr Bruton failed to rule out throwing his hat in the ring when speaking to Independent.ie.

He again didn't rule out a leadership bid, when repeatedly question about the prospect this morning.

"I haven't commented on the personalities in the leadership contest," he said.

The education minister added that there are "serious challenges" facing Ireland including Brexit.

"There are a lot of people around who appear to believe that our economic success can be taken for granted.

"Twice in my political career I've seen bad politics destroy the potential of a very strong and recovering economy and I think people's job prospects are again at risk in the present environment and Fine Gael has to make sure to signpost the right directions for the future.

"And that's where I think my particular interest is... not around the personalities of the leadership but the direction this country takes in the future years," he said.

Mr Bruton was speaking to reporters after he delivered a speech at a conference in Croke Park held by education rights campaign group Equate.

The conference is examining issues relating to religious patronage of schools.

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