Sunday 25 August 2019

Fine Gael leadership talk 'a distraction that I don't need', insists Coveney

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and his sister Sophie at the Leopardstown Christmas
racing festival yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and his sister Sophie at the Leopardstown Christmas racing festival yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Speculation about the Fine Gael leadership is "naval-gazing" and "a distraction...that I don't need", Housing Minister Simon Coveney has said.

Astonishingly, despite Mr Coveney and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar being viewed as the most likely successors to Enda Kenny, the pair have never discussed the matter.

In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mr Coveney spoke of how he trusted Mr Kenny to step down at "the right time".

He indicated that he still hoped to be Fine Gael leader and, potentially, Taoiseach some day - but said: "I'll take on those challenges when they're relevant.

"We can go into navel-gazing and leadership and who is best placed to do what and that can go on for months. It's a distraction, to be honest, that I don't need."

Mr Coveney asked for the Housing and Local Government portfolio - which includes the poisoned chalice of water charges. He said he was "determined" to put in place solutions to homelessness and a strategy for the provision of affordable homes and insisted: "That's what drives me at the moment.

"The ongoing chatter around leadership…it's not something that keeps me awake at night."

That chatter is dominated by his rivalry with Mr Varadkar.

Despite this, he said he had never discussed any future leadership battle with his fellow minister. He said he believed there was more talk of such a contest outside of the immediate political personalities involved, but that he had been busy at the Housing Department, and that "Leo's been busy, too, at his brief".

There have been reports that Mr Varadkar has been trying to woo backbench TDs in a bid to garner support for his well-aired ambition of leading the party when a vacancy arises. Mr Varadkar has rejected suggestions that socialising with fellow Fine Gael members amounts to such a campaign.

Challenges

Mr Coveney said he hadn't been courting backbenchers either and added: "I am certainly not going to spend a lot of time canvassing - if people want to call it that - around leadership when I have to deliver on some big, big challenges."

Mr Kenny will not remain leader of Fine Gael indefinitely. He has promised to step down before the next election, but said he hoped he would still be Taoiseach to welcome Pope Francis when he visits in 2018.

"I wouldn't have a huge issue with that," Mr Coveney said, adding that he trusted that Mr Kenny would step down at "the right time" to allow for the transition to a new leader.

In October, Mr Kenny told the Fine Gael presidential dinner that potential successors would have to show "their mettle".

"I think the Taoiseach took a bit of pleasure out of putting people in their box a little bit that night," Mr Coveney said, when asked if his difficult brief was a chance to prove his worth.

He said Mr Kenny was "entitled" to make such comments as the long-time party leader who had been "a very successful Taoiseach" through challenging times. Mr Coveney said: "He [Mr Kenny] wants to continue to give leadership through some new challenges, particularly around Brexit."

He said Mr Kenny "was poking fun at people like me and Leo and Frances [Fitzgerald]. I just think that was a bit of fun that night, and I wouldn't be reading too much into it".

Irish Independent

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