Friday 23 February 2018

Profile: Strait-laced 'safer candidate' needs to show some more charisma

Simon Coveney TD Picture: Tom Burke
Simon Coveney TD Picture: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

Simon Coveney has a deal of ground to make up if he is to win the big prize. But he has in the past thrived on being underestimated - and should not be underestimated in a contest to replace Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach.

He came to politics unexpectedly at the relatively young age of 26. His father Hugh Coveney's tragic death in 1998 saw him set aside the family maxim that it was better to do something else in life before entering politics, and he was elected in the ensuing by-election for Cork South Central and at every subsequent election.

Aged just 44, he has a wide range of political experience, having been an MEP from 2004-2007. He served with success as Agriculture and Marine Minister and later took on responsibility for Defence.

A farm manager by training, his approach to politics is very policy-driven. Since May 2016, he has been given the huge task of trying to resolve the housing and homelessness crisis. It's far from an ideal launchpad for a leadership campaign as it is hard to show results.

But even fierce left-wing critics have acknowledged his sincerity and commitment to the job. For a very long time, he had been in the shadow of his late father who was a formidable character.

However, Mr Coveney has earned his political spurs by successfully heading several referendum campaigns with energy and dedication.

These include the successful same-sex marriage referendum in May 2015.

But even supporters acknowledge that his strait-laced and formal image are not an advantage in an era when television, and presidential-style politics, have such a huge influence.

His affluent background, from a large farm in Cork, has been used by opponents in the past to infer a lack of ability to empathise with ordinary people. But supporters argue that he has been a proven vote-getter in a demanding constituency over four general elections, and he has displayed genuine concern over people hit by the housing problems. Some party TDs and senators believe he can convince middle-ground members of the parliamentary party to back him. Over a longer campaign, he may also come across as a "safer candidate", more culturally acceptable than Leo Varadkar to traditional party voters.

But against that, the parliamentary party, who account for 65pc of the vote, must weigh the greater charismatic impact of Mr Varadkar fronting up a general election campaign. That may be seen as increasing individual candidates' chances of winning their seats.

For the moment, Mr Coveney would be portrayed as the candidate better able to deliver stability for the minority Fine Gael-led Coalition. He did much of the heavy lifting in talks with the Independents and with Fianna Fáil for the deal underpinning the Government.

He did his leadership chances no harm at all last December when he faced down Fianna Fáil demands on his rent control strategy.

All that being said, he may have to portray himself as a more publicly attractive figure to counter Mr Varadkar's more swashbuckling approach to politics and public life.

Irish Independent

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