Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris viewed within FG as leadership contender
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris last month launched a thinly veiled attack on Mr Varadkar, saying that “we don’t need navel gazing or debates or workshops or focus groups”.
But Mr Varadkar has now hit back, saying: “I don’t quite know where that information comes from.”
In an interview with the Irish Independent, he also insists Fine Gael will gain seats at the next election by relying on transfers from Fianna Fáil and the Greens.
That’s despite increasing concerns that many Fine Gael seats will be at risk of being lost in the next election.
Mr Harris is seen by many within Fine Gael as a leadership contender, alongside Justice Minister Helen McEntee.
However, tensions have emerged at the very top of the party as a ministerial reshuffle looms with Mr Varadkar set to take the Taoiseach’s seat in December despite still awaiting a DPP decision over his alleged leaking of a contract.
The Fine Gael leader has fired back at Mr Harris, who last month told the Sunday Independent that the party knows “who we are” and – in what was interpreted as a commentary on Mr Varadkar’s style of leadership – said that “we don’t need navel gazing or debates or workshops or focus groups”.
Workshops on various issues have become regular activities at Fine Gael party conferences in recent years.
“I don’t quite know where that information comes from,” Mr Varadkar said, when asked about Mr Harris’ comments. “I’d say the party has spent less on focus groups and research under my leadership over the past five years than probably any five-year period.
“We haven’t been spending a fortune, or even substantial amounts of money, on focus groups.”
Mr Varadkar said the main focus group within Fine Gael is its own parliamentary party and that “a bit” of research is carried out sometimes.
“Obviously, you’ll do a bit of research from time to time,” he said. “I think other parties may have doubts about where they stand on things, you know, I don’t think we do. We’re the party of Europe, we’re the most pro-European party, we’re the party of enterprise. We’re the party that wants to make work pay. We’re the party that will always have a special interest in middle Ireland and rural Ireland.”
A senior Fine Gael source later told the Irish Independent: “How much money does the Department of Further and Higher Education spend on focus groups?”
Mr Varadkar said the criteria he will use for a Cabinet reshuffle in December will be ministers’ suitability for jobs, the portfolios available, their track records in their current roles as well as gender and geographical balance.
Mr Varadkar is also confident that Fine Gael can gain 10 seats at the next general election. The party lost 15 seats in 2020.
The Tánaiste called the last election a “significant setback” for the party and admitted that Fine Gael is not doing “particularly well” in polls, with the latest Sunday Independent/ Ireland Thinks poll showing the party down three percentage points on 20pc.
However, he remains steadfast that even with the same vote, more Fine Gael seats will be won thanks to transfers from Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.
“I think we can and will get a higher first preference vote. We got 20.9pc in the last general election.
“I think it’s not unreasonable to say that we can do better than that. So you know, I’d be aiming for the mid-20s or higher. Last time, we really suffered from the fact that we didn’t get transfers.
“This time, I think we will have a source of transfers, and that’ll come from our government parties, from Fianna Fáil and the Greens. So even with no increase in the vote, I think we’ll gain seats. But I think we will have an increase in the votes. So the objective will be to gain 10 seats at the next election.”
The Tánaiste also said that an additional 12,000 asylum seekers will add further pressure to the housing system this year.
Senior officials at the Department of Children last week told the Public Accounts Committee that there have been significant increases in the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Ireland this year.
Mr Varadkar said between 10,000 and 12,000 asylum seekers from countries other than Ukraine will come to Ireland this year as part of a “snapback” effect of the pandemic and the “hostile atmosphere” created by the UK in its treatment of those fleeing war.
He said that these people will help to meet staff shortages but also “add to the housing pressures”.
The Fine Gael leader was speaking in Rotterdam at the European People’s Party (EPP) Congress, where he said it would be “possible” to win a referendum on Ireland joining an EU defence force. He later said this would not be a European army and that nobody in Ireland wants to fight in wars although he did not rule out Irish people fighting on battlefields on Europe’s behalf.
“I don’t think Irish people want to turn their backs and close their eyes. Or say it’s not our problem, and hope that problems like that don’t come our way,” he said.
“Security isn’t just about fighting battles in fields, it’s about cyber attacks, terrorist attacks, assassinations, intelligence gathering – it’s about a lot of hybrid threats, which we’re not immune to.
“And I think we need to be prepared for them.”