Monday 18 December 2017

FG leadership latest: Coveney slams stage-managed campaign; Varadkar says Sinn Fein is 'greatest threat to democracy'

FG leadership candidates Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
FG leadership candidates Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath

Kevin Doyle and Philip Ryan

FINE GAEL leadership hopeful Simon Coveney has hit out at the stage-managed nature of Leo Varadkar’s campaign and rubbished plans by his rival to give the party a tag line of the ‘United Ireland Party’.

“I hear today that Leo is talking about referring to Fine Gael as the ‘United Ireland Party’. Let me say very clearly, last time I checked Fine Gael has been the united Ireland party for many, many decades,” Mr Coveney said in a direct challenge to Leo Varadkar.

He said he has spoken “on many occasions” about Fine Gael being a “nationalist party trying to unite this country”.

But Mr Coveney added that this should be done through building relationships with unionist communities rather than an immediate border poll.

Speaking in Wicklow where he is meeting local councillors, the Housing Minister also criticised Mr Varadkar’s style of campaigning. 

He said Fine Gael needs a real debate about who is the “best and most qualifieid person” to be party leader and Taoiseach.

“People are starting to get that debate now that’s not superficial or based on practiced media launches.

“There is a debate of real substance taking place in the homes of Fine Gael members right across the country. I think they are starting to think about that in a really serious way,” he said.

With the first of four hustings set to take place tomorrow Mr Coveney expressed confidence in his ability to out-debate the Dublin TD.

“I think when people hear what both candidates have to say they will realise there is a real contest of ideas as well as leadership capacity.

“We’re starting to feel that we’re getting some momentum,” he said.

Mr Coveney also sought to distance himself from Leo Varadkar’s claim that Fine Gael is the party for people who get up early in the morning.

He said he has “kicked back” against the idea because it’s divisive and would fuel protest politics.

“Yes of course we represent that person. That person pays for everything, they are the hardworking taxpayers of this country and we need to help them and encourage them. But we also need to focus on the people who can’t get up in the morning for whatever reason or don’t’ have a bed to go to at night. That is what this party has been about in the past in terms of a Just Society,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar has said Sinn Fein is the “greatest threat to our democracy” as he continues to campaign to become the next leader of Fine Gael and the Taoiseach.

At the launch of a policy document on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar criticised Sinn Fein for the appointment “in a secret room behind closed doors” of its leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill.

He said he was concerned that Gerry Adams’s party was still attracting young voters and said this is something he would look to change as Fine Gael leader.

“I think Sinn Fein remains the greatest threat to our democracy and the prosperity of the State,”  he said.

“I look at the data and I look at the opinion polls, Sinn Fein is performing very well with voters under 35. I am very concerned about that. Part of my mission as leader, if I have that opportunity, is to take Sinn Fein on and expose them,” he said.

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He said the current Fine Gael leadership election exposed the difference between the two parties.

“The most obvious contrast between my party and Sinn Fein is we are now in the middle of a contest to elect a new party leader, we are publishing our ideas, we are doing it in a democratic way through a democratic process involving members of the parliamentary, councillors and members,” he said.

“Yet in Northern Ireland they managed to selected a leader, Michelle O’Neill, in a secret room behind closed doors. That is the kind of party they are and we need to be saying that more,” he added.

He said he wanted to see a united Ireland but said he would also reach out to unionists in Northern Ireland.

Mr Varadkar also defended ditching a scheduled appearance at a conference organised by the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed in favour of a leadership campaign event.

“As you are aware there are other things going on at the moment,” he said.

“Minister (Finian) McGrath very kindly agreed to attend that on my behalf. I will be attending a social inclusion forum tomorrow," he added.

He said unemployment is an area he has done a lot of work as a minister and noted that he increased social welfare payments.

“I’m trying to balance the fact there are only so many hour in the day no matter how early you get up. I’m trying to get in as much as I can,” he added.

He said he will attend as many ministerial engagements he can.

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