Friday 24 May 2019

Leo and Simon: When trendy liberal meets arch-conservative

By personality and temperament, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Tánaiste Simon ­Coveney could scarcely be further apart. In the first of a series on ­political odd couples, Andrew Lynch explores a ­partnership that's working well - for now

Hard-fought contest: Leo Varadkar is congratulated by Coveney after winning the race to become Fine Gael leader last June. Photo: Mark Condren
Hard-fought contest: Leo Varadkar is congratulated by Coveney after winning the race to become Fine Gael leader last June. Photo: Mark Condren
Contenders: Simon Coveney with Leo Varadkar were front runners to succeed Enda Kenny more than a year before he stood down. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Garret FitzGerald and Peter Barry at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 1983
Varadkar on the campaign trail for Coveney in 1998
Simon Coveney in action for Dail TDs in a challenge match against Westminster MPs

In a recent episode of the RTÉ radio comedy Callan's Kicks, Leo Varadkar and some cabinet ministers go out to a pub for pre-Christmas drinks. The Taoiseach remarks that he cannot see his Tánaiste anywhere, which as it turns out is because he has just hung his jacket on him. When Simon Coveney nervously suggests that his boss must have mistaken him for a coat rack, he receives the devastating reply, "No, I just don't like you."

Needless to say, Varadkar and Coveney would both strongly deny this. Seven months after their hard-fought contest for the leadership of Fine Gael, the two men appear to have buried any bad feelings and established an effective partnership. Even so, the fact remains that in terms of personality, temperament and ideology, Leo and Simon are very much an odd couple - and one of them occupies an office that the other still badly wants for himself.

To put it crudely, last spring Coveney's supporters privately depicted Varadkar as a smug, right-wing ideologue who would alienate centre-ground voters from Fine Gael. Varadkar's camp mocked their opponent as vague, indecisive and just not tough enough for the top job. On a more positive note, Leo once remarked: "I wish I had the patience that Simon Coveney has, it's one of his enormous strengths" - a compliment that now sounds rather double-edged given the positions they hold.

A united front

Contenders: Simon Coveney with Leo Varadkar were front runners to succeed Enda Kenny more than a year before he stood down. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Contenders: Simon Coveney with Leo Varadkar were front runners to succeed Enda Kenny more than a year before he stood down. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

The relationship between Taoiseach and Tánaiste is important at the best of times. When that Tánaiste is also Minister for Foreign Affairs and Ireland faces its biggest international challenge since the Emergency, it is arguably the most important dynamic in Government Buildings. Over the last few weeks, Varadkar and Coveney have been literally standing side by side at various press conferences while presenting a united front in the Brexit poker game between Dublin, Belfast, London and Brussels.

Their report card might read: so far, so good. Both men were widely praised after the deal on December 8 that appeared to promise there will be no hard Irish border after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019. Since then, however, it has become clear that the agreement is laced with liberal amounts of fudge - and could come under considerable pressure when EU-UK trade talks begin this year.

For now, Varadkar and Coveney are starting 2018 on a joint high. Apart from the traumatic loss of his first Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, Varadkar has made a largely successful transition into the Taoiseach's office. His approval rating is higher than Enda Kenny's ever was and he has led Fine Gael to a lead over Fianna Fáil of between eight and 11 points - depending on which opinion poll you believe.

Coveney has reasons to be cheerful, too. He came out of the leadership race with his dignity intact and the significant consolation prize of winning Fine Gael's membership vote by a margin of almost two to one. This cemented his status as the grassroots' favourite and ensured that he will continue to play a key role in shaping the party's future.

Plain speaking

The only hint of any bitterness between Varadkar and Coveney since then came at Fine Gael's annual think-in last September. During an after-dinner speech, Varadkar jokingly described some of Enda Kenny's Ard Fheis addresses as "iffy" and quipped that "many people from the Rebel County" voted for him as leader because Cork had never won an All-Ireland under a Cork Taoiseach. According to reports, Coveney looked uncomfortable throughout and told colleagues afterwards that Varadkar's digs at Kenny had been highly inappropriate.

Garret FitzGerald and Peter Barry at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 1983
Garret FitzGerald and Peter Barry at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 1983

So how do they really get along? In a pre-Christmas interview, the Tánaiste claimed that he and the Taoiseach "sometimes speak bluntly to one another".

"I think he trusts me," Coveney said. "I give it to him straight when he asks for my views on things. We don't have disagreements, but we do have discussions about issues that are important to the Government, testing ideas and policies."

In public, at least, Varadkar and Coveney are starting to put together a close-knit double act. They both stuck by Frances Fitzgerald even when her handling of garda whistleblowers threatened to cause a Christmas general election and still insist that she did nothing wrong. They both take an unexpectedly nationalist line on Brexit, prompting the DUP MP Sammy Wilson to lump them together as "cynical, aggressive, green and partisan".

They have both recently called for Fine Gael's 'confidence and supply' deal with Fianna Fáil to be renewed when it expires next October, making them sound almost like co-leaders in the process.

The abortion question

There is, however, another issue coming down the tracks that could set Leo and Simon at loggerheads again. Until recently, both men were regarded as strongly opposed to abortion except in strictly limited circumstances. Now the Taoiseach is apparently heading in a more liberal direction - and it is by no means clear that the Tánaiste is prepared to follow him. Following last month's Oireachtas committee report that proposed making terminations freely available for up to 12 weeks, the ball is back in the Government's court.

Varadkar, who once said abortion was wrong "from a human rights point of view", has promised to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment in May. He is also widely expected to back this up with legislation that effectively endorses the committee's recommendations. Coveney, on the other hand, has warned that he was uncomfortable with the Citizens' Assembly's even more liberal report and will not support what he calls "abortion on demand".

All Fine Gael TDs will be given a free vote when the referendum's terms are announced. Technically, therefore, Coveney or other pro-life ministers could oppose it without having to resign their positions. It would still be highly unusual to see a Taoiseach and Tánaiste taking different sides in a national campaign - but at this stage the grounds for a compromise are far from obvious.

Work horse vs show pony

When Varadkar and Coveney squared off following Enda Kenny's resignation last May, many pundits summed up their contest as "the work horse versus the show pony". Nobody needed to ask which was which.

By common consent, Leo Varadkar has an enigmatic quality that intrigues even people who normally take no interest in politics. His sexuality, ethnic background and use of social media all mark him out from the Leinster House crowd.

"Leo is a different kind of person," the former Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery once said. "He's a tall, good-looking man, there's a certain exotic feel to Leo because he's half Indian, he's half Irish… his commitment to Ireland is total but he has these interesting character traits. He has the capacity to speak in a very straight language."

At his leadership launch in Wood Quay on May 20, the then Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald gushed: "There is a magic in the way [Leo] thinks, considers and decides." In response, the Fine Gael backbencher and Simon Coveney backer Kate O'Connell later sniffed: "I'm still waiting for the magic to happen." Even Coveney's most ardent admirers would struggle to describe him as charismatic. Instead, they reach for words such as earnest, sincere, dedicated and reliable. He is certainly polite to a fault and often begins broadcast interviews by telling the presenter: "Thanks for having me on."

Although Coveney hates being called boring, he has occasionally tried to turn his lack of star power into a virtue.

"The US voted for someone with the X-factor, look how that's working out," he protested in a Prime Time interview during the leadership battle. "Britain decided to vote for Boris Johnson. Do you think Boris Johnson would make a good prime minister in the UK? I don't think so."

(When Coveney and his fellow foreign minister Johnson held a meeting to discuss Brexit in Dublin last November, this comment went tactfully unmentioned.)

The leadership hustings also exposed some serious ideological differences between Leo and Simon. Coveney subtly tried to imply that Varadkar was an elitist 'Tory Boy' who would take Fine Gael down an electoral cul-de-sac. He spoke in reverential terms about the 'Just Society', a 1965 policy document written by Declan Costello that tried to re-fashion Fine Gael as a social democratic party.

Coveney and compassion

"I want to expand the appeal of Fine Gael in a way that is compassionate and generous," Coveney declared. "I want Fine Gael to represent vulnerable people [and] reach out to everyone… whether you are somebody who slept on the streets last night or someone who is living in a mansion."

For his part, Varadkar made it clear that he regarded Coveney's platform as weak and wishy-washy.

"Saying that you want to represent everyone, but failing to back that up - it's not a moral compass," he retorted. "It's empty rhetoric and that does not constitute leadership… If you try to be all things to all men, you end up being nothing to nobody."

Instead, Varadkar famously said that his priority would be helping people "who get up early in the morning" - which has been widely interpreted as code for low and middle-income workers.

Despite these public clashes, some political commentators argued that the choice between Varadkar and Coveney was no choice at all. 'Why Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are Two Peas in a Fine Gael Pod' read the headline of a typical piece, pointing out that they were both middle-class, privately educated, relatively young men from the same centre-right party.

In fact, the similarities are at least partly cosmetic. Vardakar is the son of an Indian GP who met a Waterford-born nurse in England and settled down with her in the prosperous west Dublin suburb of Castleknock. "I don't think I've ever really been subjected to any kind of overt racism," he once said. "Now, the fact that you are the local doctor's kid sort of insulates you, because you might be different to, let's say someone who might be an asylum seeker."

Coveney's background is much more traditional. He comes from one of the prosperous Cork families generally known as 'merchant princes' and his father Hugh served briefly as a cabinet minister in the mid-1990s. Despite having a bad stammer as a child, he has said: "[I] never really wanted for anything, either financially or emotionally. So I was one of the lucky ones."

Varadkar may be something of a gym bunny these days, but in his youth he much preferred books to sport. His mother Miriam once removed him from swimming lessons "because he would come out of the water and he would be crying. I would just wrap him up and bring him home". Coveney, in his own words, "was very interested in sport, whether it was swimming or rugby, and fitness generally".

Leo was apparently something of a swot at school in King's Hospital and has recalled: "I wasn't particularly rebellious." Simon, perhaps surprisingly, went somewhat off the rails at Clongowes Wood College and was eventually expelled. "When I was in fourth year, I did go through a phase of deliberately breaking the rules," he once said. "It was a boarding school so I basically ran away a couple of times - and ended up getting asked to leave."

Varadkar: an ambitious start

Leo's political ambitions were clear from the age of seven when he announced that he wanted to be Minister for Health. He wasted no time, joining Young Fine Gael while still in school, getting selected for the Washington Ireland Program that prepares students for leadership roles, and fighting his first local elections aged just 20. Simon, meanwhile, worked on his father's campaigns but assumed it would be many years before he eventually followed in Hugh's footsteps.

Their paths first crossed in 1998. While Coveney and his siblings were sailing around the world for charity, their father drowned in a tragic accident and Simon returned to fight the subsequent by-election. Varadkar was one of the Trinity College Dublin contingent who travelled to campaign for him. A photograph captured the occasion, featuring a grinning Leo in a red T-shirt with the slogan, 'Vote Simon Coveney No 1'.

Coveney duly became a TD almost a full decade before his future nemesis. During those years, however, his progress through the Fine Gael ranks was steady rather than spectacular. After he was swatted aside by Fianna Fáil's Brian Cowen in an RTÉ debate shortly before the 2007 general election, his running mate Jerry Buttimer wrote in a diary (later published as the book Candidate): "Jesus lads, with the game on and entering the last five minutes you bring on your key players to hold possession and play out the clock. Playing for a win is one thing. It's not the time to introduce a gentleman. Oh man, sorry Simon, I'm fond of you but you're not a bruiser." (Buttimer has obviously changed his mind since then, as he supported Coveney for the leadership last May.)

In stark contrast, Varadkar made an immediate impression when he entered Dáil Éireann that same year. Suggesting that immigrants could be offered money to return home, telling Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that he belonged in the gutter and even criticising his party's former leader Garret FitzGerald for tripling the national debt and "destroying the country" all showed his ability to create headlines if nothing else. "I'd say he'll get an early exit," Ahern responded, a prediction that has proved to be spectacularly wide of the mark.

Gracious in victory

When Richard Bruton launched a heave against Enda Kenny's leadership in 2010, Leo and Simon both officially took the challenger's side. Coveney, however, was suspected by some people of being a mole for the Kenny camp (an allegation he denies) and at one point privately suggested that he could be a compromise candidate. Fortunately for the two rebels, Kenny was gracious in victory and appointed them both to cabinet after Fine Gael's election win the following year.

In Government Buildings, the pattern continued. Varadkar and Coveney each performed competently in their ministerial roles, but it was the former who proved to be much better at generating favourable publicity. A crucial moment arrived in 2014 when Varadkar publicly declared that garda whistleblowers were not 'disgusting' (the word Commissioner Martin Callinan had used) but 'distinguished' - and took a giant leap forward in the future leadership stakes.

Meanwhile, Varadkar and Coveney's personal lives were also moving in different directions. Coveney has been married to former IDA Ireland employee Ruth Furney since 2008 and is quite open about the emotional support he draws from her. He once recalled taking a phone call from the French agriculture minister while waiting in a maternity ward for Ruth to give birth to their third child and responding, "Stéphane, with all due respect, my wife is about to have a feckin' baby".

In 2010, Leo Varadkar disclosed: "I've had short-term [relationships], but not long-term. I've never lived with anyone. One of the big problems in Dáil Éireann is the lack of women."

Five years later he won huge plaudits for revealing his homosexuality in a landmark RTÉ radio interview with Miriam O'Callaghan. "I have a good social life but I hadn't given much time to my personal life, at least until the last couple of years," he said. "Now all my friends are getting married and having kids. I always kind of thought I'd be alone and I was happy with that. It's only in the last year or two that I've rethought that and made time for relationships and other people."

Today Varadkar is in a relationship with Matt Barrett, a fellow doctor, who he says "has made me a better person". Barrett is currently working in Chicago for a year as part of his medical training. "Being apart was fine for the first few months when I was horrendously busy getting used to the new job," the Taoiseach told RTÉ's Marian Finucane shortly after the Frances Fitzgerald controversy last month. "But in a week like this it would have been nice to have the support at home."

'Beer and pizza!'

By 2016 it was obvious that Varadkar and Coveney would be the two main leadership contenders whenever Enda Kenny stood down. Following the indecisive general election in February, they both joined the Fine Gael negotiating team that eventually patched together a minority government supported by Fianna Fáil. Some participants in the talks felt that Coveney played a much more constructive role, while Varadkar often appeared bored, constantly monitoring his mobile phone.

When the Leo-Simon showdown finally arrived last May, it turned out to be not much of a contest at all. Varadkar's "beer and pizza" charm offensive paid dividends and he wrapped up a decisive majority of the parliamentary party's support before his opponent knew what had hit him. Coveney, however, won widespread respect for holding his own in the four national leadership debates that followed.

In the aftermath, Varadkar chose to make Coveney deputy leader but not Tánaiste - interpreted by some of their colleagues as a minor snub. As luck would have it, the job became vacant again just six months later when Frances Fitzgerald resigned, and this time Coveney's claim could not be ignored. Before Varadkar came along, Coveney occasionally boasted that he had never lost an election in his life. While defeat clearly hurt him, he has done his best to put a brave face on it. When the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Cork to trace his family roots last July and quipped: "I hope I don't [have to] run against you!", Coveney replied, "No, no - I have already experienced running against someone you just can't beat."

Perfectly placed

Coveney's ultimate ambition remains the same. He has reminded friends that the previous two Fine Gael Taoisigh (John Bruton and Enda Kenny) both fell short in their first leadership elections as well (to Alan Dukes and Michael Noonan). To use the standard political metaphor, if Varadkar was to fall under a Dublin bus in the near future, his former rival is perfectly placed to succeed him.

There is, however, another parallel from Fine Gael history that must appeal to Coveney a lot less. In 1977 the party chose dynamic Dubliner Garret FitzGerald to be their leader instead of Corkonian Peter Barry. The loser went on to serve as a loyal deputy and Minister for Foreign Affairs - but when the next leadership election came along a decade later, he was seen as too old and came third out of three candidates.

In 2015, Varadkar said he intended to retire from politics around his 50th birthday (he will turn 39 on January 18). Earlier this week, the Taoiseach revealed he has changed his mind and will now stick around "for as long as the people want me". Whether or not Coveney has privately set himself any kind of deadline, he insists that his personal motto is 'Never the backward glance. "I am certainly not thinking about how I can undermine [Leo] so that I can take the job one day," he said before Christmas. "I think that is a pretty pathetic way… to approach politics, and it is not what I am about."

In Neil Simon's hit 1965 comedy play The Odd Couple, mismatched flatmates Felix and Oscar eventually recognise each other's better qualities and learn to get along. The future success of this Government may depend on whether Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney can do the same.

The odd couple: at a glance

Leo Varadkar

Varadkar on the campaign trail for Coveney in 1998

Age: 38

Education: King's Hospital, Trinity College Dublin. A qualified medical doctor.

Political career: Elected a TD for Dublin West in 2007. Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport 2011-2014, Minister for Health 2014-16, Minister for Social Protection 2016-17, Taoiseach 2017 to present.

What he says: "I see it as a little bit of a compliment that people think I have style. So I don't take any offence from that. It's my duty now to prove over the coming months that I have substance as well."

What others say: "He was appallingly right-wing and very aggressive." (Former Justice Minister Nora Owen recalling her first meeting with him when he was 17.)

Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney in action for Dail TDs in a challenge match against Westminster MPs

Age: 45

Education: Clongowes Wood College, University College Cork, Gurteen Agricultural College, Royal Agriculture College in Gloucestershire. Holds a BSc in agriculture and land management.

Political career: Elected a TD for Cork South Central in 1998 in a by-election caused by his father's death. Also served as an MEP between 2004 and 2007. Minister for Agriculture 2011-16, Minister for Housing 2016-17, Minister for Foreign Affairs 2017 to present.

What he says: "I am not about a glib soundbite or a clever put down, I am about actually changing things for real."

What others say: "I'm not sure what values Minister Coveney is putting across. The only value seems to be that we should try to be kind to everyone." (Leo Varadkar)

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