Wednesday 22 November 2017

Sincere Simon: The man who's doing everything but getting nowhere

In the ­second of four in-depth profiles of the contenders jostling to succeed Taoiseach Enda Kenny, John Downing turns his attention to Simon Coveney. He has a reputation for being committed, but will the housing minister's slowness at cultivating support sink any leadership bid?

Simon Coveney at the launch of the annual report of the Simon Communities of Ireland. Photo: Tom Burke
Simon Coveney at the launch of the annual report of the Simon Communities of Ireland. Photo: Tom Burke
Simon Coveney TD beside the LÉ Samuel Beckett in Cork Harbour
TV3's Lorraine Keane, Simon Coveney and Karen Chew of AA Roadwatch at the launch of the Society of St Vincent de Paul's Millennium Ball in Dublin in 1999. Photo: Colin Keegan
Simon Coveney and Ruth Furney's wedding day with Simon's mother Pauline (right) in Minane Bridge, Co Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/provision
Enda Kenny and Simon Coveney discuss tactics before a friendly Gaelic football match between the Oireachtas and the PSNI in June 2003. Photo: Martin Nolan
The Coveneys relaxing in St Lucia after the first stage of their round-the-world sailing voyage. From left: Tony, Rory, Simon and Rebecca
Coveney arriving at Heuston Station, Dublin with supporters from Cork after his election to the Dail in 1998

Simon Coveney was so determined to make a point that he borrowed €10 off one of his officials.

He marched down to the local reporter and, thrusting the tenner at him, he conceded that he had lost his bet. Work had not begun in 2015, as the Minister had contended, at the planned €53m National Event Centre in the old Beamish & Crawford Brewery site on Cork city's North Main Street.

"It didn't happen in 2015 - but it is happening, and it will happen," he insisted in an ill-tempered display.

The confrontation happened during the general election in February last year, as the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, prepared to turn the sod at the site of a project closely associated with Coveney. It is another reminder of the central role of matters local in all politics - and he is still left insisting that, despite ongoing delays, this project will become a reality.

Simon Coveney TD beside the LÉ Samuel Beckett in Cork Harbour
Simon Coveney TD beside the LÉ Samuel Beckett in Cork Harbour

The one cited as a potential Taoiseach must maintain an ongoing battle to hold the Dáil seat in Cork South Central which he won more than 18 years ago. His late father, Hugh Coveney, was a popular figure but also known for plain speaking.

In 1985, a group of Cork's elite listened in silence as Coveney Senior told them the city really did look all of its 800 years of age, which were then being celebrated, as it looked so shabby and run-down. Coveney Junior's local political ­reputation is now linked to a number of local projects aimed at rejuvenating the nation's second city.

Simon Coveney, now aged 44, has been by turns a TD, a local councillor, an MEP, and government minister responsible for agriculture, defence and housing. Right now at national level, he has been given the difficult task of trying to deal with a national housing and homelessness crisis.

Even ardent and impatient campaigners, critical of government policy, concede that he is sincere and committed. But even his most vocal supporters harbour doubts that he will be able to deliver anything tangible any time soon. It is not an ideal launch pad for leadership of the country.

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The Navy took Hugh Coveney's body ashore in a coffin draped with the Tricolour. The remains of the 62-year-old father-of-seven had been recovered from 12 metres of sea water by Navy divers.

Simon Coveney and Ruth Furney's wedding day with Simon's mother Pauline (right) in Minane Bridge, Co Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/provision
Simon Coveney and Ruth Furney's wedding day with Simon's mother Pauline (right) in Minane Bridge, Co Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/provision

It was March 15, 1998, and a series of totally unexpected events had begun which would propel Simon Coveney into the heart of national politics. Seven months later, he was a Fine Gael TD for Cork South Central and on a slow journey towards high office.

An extensive search had begun the previous day when Hugh Coveney had failed to return from a walk with his three dogs. One of the dogs had gone down a sheer path to the shoreline, and Coveney Snr went to rescue it when the terrier was unable to get back up. The inquest a month later concluded that he fell from the cliff and drowned in a tragic accident.

Relatives and friends consoled his wife Pauline, and sons David, then aged 15, and Patrick, aged 27, at their home in Minane Bridge. But the couple's four other sons, Simon (25), Rory (23) and twins Andrew and Tony (21), and daughter Rebecca (19), were at the other end of the world in the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific.

Simon was skipper on their round-the-world sailing trip on the family yacht, The Golden Apple, and the trip was a fundraiser for the Cork-based Chernobyl Children's Project. They learned of the tragedy via email and the harrowing return journey to Cork took 36 hours.

Hugh Coveney was a formidable figure in business and politics, well liked for his marked courtesy. A talented sportsman, he had excelled as a yachtsman and played Munster Senior Cup rugby with Cork Constitution.

A chartered surveyor by profession, he had been encouraged to enter politics by Fine Gael kingpin Peter Barry, and he served as Lord Mayor of Cork and TD. In December 1994, he was appointed Defence and Marine Minister in John Bruton's surprise Rainbow Coalition.

Enda Kenny and Simon Coveney discuss tactics before a friendly Gaelic football match between the Oireachtas and the PSNI in June 2003. Photo: Martin Nolan
Enda Kenny and Simon Coveney discuss tactics before a friendly Gaelic football match between the Oireachtas and the PSNI in June 2003. Photo: Martin Nolan

But in May 1995, he was demoted to junior finance minister, amid opposition calls for his outright sacking, after it emerged he was canvassing for his surveying firm to get semi-state work. He was also later cited in July 2002 as the holder of an illicit offshore Ansbacher bank account in the 1970s.

Two months after their father's tragic death, the Coveney family crew resumed their round-world sailing trip - but without Simon. He stayed at home to comfort his mother and deal with urgent family business.

Initially, his eldest brother, Patrick Coveney, ruled out any of the family taking the time-honoured path of contesting the by-election. He cited his late father's view that everyone should do something else before entering politics.

But as the weeks went by, Simon began to rethink things. He had previously spoken to his father about eventually getting into politics once Hugh Coveney had retired, and the death had changed all that.

On October 23, 1998, aged 26, he was elected to the Dáil on the third count. His brothers and sister heard the news in Singapore, two thirds of the way through the round-world trip which ended in May 1999.

Simon is less brash than Hugh and some feel it took him most of a decade in politics to emerge from the father's long shadow.

"Almost everything I did, from an achievement point of view, was done to try to impress my dad. That may sound a bit childish but that is the way I felt, right up until his death," he admitted in an interview just six months after his first election to the Dáil.

 

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His wife, Ruth Forney, has a successful career as an executive at the IDA's Cork office. They met at UCC in 1993, where he spent one year studying economics and history.

After UCC, he decided to study agriculture as his family had a 350-acre tillage farm at Minane Bridge, east of Cork city. He went first to Gurteen College in Tipperary, and later to the Royal Agriculture College in Gloucestershire, and then worked in Edinburgh as an agriculture advisor for six months. Aged 24, he returned to work as a farm manager near Mallow and his first "real job" proved a struggle.

There were earlier education struggles as he was asked to leave Clongowes Wood, in Kildare, one of the nation's most prestigious secondary boarding schools, to which all his brothers went. He completed secondary education at Presentation Brothers College in Cork.

Ruth was a great consolation to him in coping with the grief of his father's loss in 1998 and the couple married in July 2008. He has admitted that he had to learn how to make time for family over his obsession with politics.

All of their three children were born at pretty busy times in the political calendar. The eldest, Beth, arrived around the time of the 2009 local elections; Jessica during the 2011 general election battle; and Anna Lise during tough EU farm negotiations in late 2013.

These days, Skype and Facetime are deployed to maintain family contact and he is a very sparing socialiser outside of work commitments. The family home in an old house at Rock Road in Carrigaline is a busy place.

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Simon was among a number of TDs forgiven by Enda Kenny for supporting the botched heave against his leadership in June 2010. He made the frontbench announced after the dust had settled, and was made Agriculture Minister in Kenny's first government in March 2011.

Coveney made a success of this first ministerial post, helped undoubtedly by the upswing in agriculture which contrasted with recession in other economic sectors. He handled a huge crisis about horsemeat use with skill and also emerged with credit from EU talks on reshaping the Common Agriculture Policy.

Smaller farmer interests were critical, claiming he was too focused on big producers to their detriment. His close relationship with his older brother, Patrick, who heads the food conglomerate Greencore, fed into these claims which were hotly contested by his officials.

But even supporters concede that he is far more focused on the "big picture" and more taken by policy than by personal interests.

During his stint in the European Parliament from 2004-2007, he took the advice of two young women, Dee Halley and Catherine O'Conor, and majored in human rights.

"If Simon revisits the European Parliament now, he gets a warm welcome from MEPs from places like Slovakia and Estonia. Not much use in Ireland or indeed Fine Gael," a friend notes.

He is seen as poor and slow at cultivating supporters - though he has improved his interpersonal skills through 18 years in elective politics.

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