Tuesday 24 September 2019

Simon's strategy to reach the top of party? Work hard and 'pull like a dog'

Housing Minister Simon Coveney has a tough brief Picture: Tom Burke
Housing Minister Simon Coveney has a tough brief Picture: Tom Burke
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Perhaps it's a Cork thing, but Simon Coveney's apparent strategy for rising to the top of Fine Gael looks a lot like the famous "pull like a dog" catchphrase of Olympic rower brothers the O'Donovans.

Grasping the nettles of the housing crisis and water charges, he sought perhaps the toughest brief in Cabinet. And if he's successful in tackling those issues, he'll surely be at the head of the pack to succeed Enda Kenny.

That's not to suggest for a moment that any future leadership bid influenced Mr Coveney in seeking the Housing and Local Government portfolio.

As he put it himself: "One of the reasons I asked for the housing brief was because I believe homelessness is solvable."

He has put in the long hours developing the Rebuilding Ireland plan to kick-start the supply of housing. He has met the homelessness organisations and spoken to rough sleepers.

"When I see someone wrapped up in a cardboard box in a doorway, I see that person as my responsibility politically. It's as simple as that," he says.

Mr Coveney is undoubtedly genuine in his ambition to tackle a crisis, agreed to be the biggest issue facing the country across the political spectrum. And more power to him in that attempt.

But while dismissing speculation about the Fine Gael leadership as a "distraction" he doesn't need, his taking-on of the housing issue also continues a pattern he identifies in his own career.

Mr Coveney says he has tried to make an impact in whichever ministerial portfolio he has held.

He said: "I've tried to make as big a mark as I can in taking on some big challenges and trying to overcome them.

"I've got some very big challenges at the moment to take on and overcome, and there's a lot of people relying on me to do it."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was right when he said, jokingly or not, that his potential successors would have to show their "mettle".

Mr Coveney's job provides a clear-cut opportunity to prove himself, in a way that perhaps main rival Leo Varadkar's Social Protection brief does not.

One recent example is Mr Coveney's success in introducing rent cap legislation. It was seen by commentators as a victory over Fianna Fáil and a boost to his standing in the leadership stakes.

Supporters of Mr Varadkar will point to his own successes, such as introducing two weeks of paid paternity leave, and ensuring that a range of social benefits payments will be increased next year. But while Mr Varadkar does have the ability to make a difference to many people's lives, the impact of solving the housing and homelessness crisis would be much greater.

Putting roofs over people's heads is a more tangible result than a fiver-a-week extra in the State pension or other benefits.

However, that's assuming Mr Coveney's plan succeeds. While he says it is ahead of schedule, there is clearly a long way to go before the housing crisis is solved. Here is the problem for Mr Coveney. While ultimately, he may prove successful in solving the housing crisis, it may come too late in any Fine Gael leadership battle.

Mr Kenny says he hopes to stay on until 2018, but a leadership race could take place well before then, due to the uncertainties of minority government. Like the O'Donovan brothers at the Olympics, Mr Coveney could work hard and achieve great success, but he may still end up in second place.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section