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Analysis: Coveney goes after the traditional FG small companies' vote

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'Overhauling the rates reminds people that Simon Coveney may be ‘culturally more Fine Gael’' Photo: Tom Burke

'Overhauling the rates reminds people that Simon Coveney may be ‘culturally more Fine Gael’' Photo: Tom Burke

'Overhauling the rates reminds people that Simon Coveney may be ‘culturally more Fine Gael’' Photo: Tom Burke

Simon Coveney's background in farming and business means he would, at all events, be keen to change long-standing inequities and contradictions in our commercial rates system.

But a big part of Fine Gael's traditional role was to "defend the ratepayers" and much of its classic support in provincial and rural Ireland came from local business people. So, his initiative to finally overhaul the system of commercial rates will do him no harm at all with the party grassroots as he continues in this strange party leadership campaign.

Enda Kenny's "keep 'em-guessing" strategy does not help either pretender in the succession stakes to become party leader and Taoiseach. It is a race between Mr Coveney and the Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar - and the other would-be contenders do not look like they are going to pose much difficulty for either frontrunner.

But Mr Kenny's "long and even longer goodbye" is the more damaging to Mr Varadkar. He had the better momentum at the outset and even his supporters concede that a long campaign risks impairing that momentum.

Initiatives, such as overhauling the commercial rates regime, serve to remind Fine Gael people that Mr Coveney may be "culturally more Fine Gael" than his rival. Mr Coveney is from a family that has long links to business and Fine Gael - he and his supporters hope such little political vignettes will help offset Leo Varadkar's stronger popular appeal.

None of this is to gainsay that changes to commercial rates are long overdue. Fianna Fáil's reckless move in 1977 to abolish domestic rates left local councils with a big hole in their locally generated revenues.

Commercial ratepayers have been increasingly hit, even at times when councils withdrew from various basic local services which they have traditionally supplied. Too often these put-upon local business operators were dismissed as "whingers" when they put their case.

Sometimes, their advocates did themselves few favours. But walk the main street of many of our once-strong market towns and the evidence, of empty and decaying premises, is plain for all to see.

A visit to some of the outlying industrial estates and/or business parks can be equally disheartening.

The business rate is by no means the only problem and some councils operate more efficiently and wisely than others. But as Mr Coveney himself acknowledges, a certain unevenness and inconsistency in the commercial rates regime is part of the difficulty.

There will of course be doubts around delivery of something better, and fairer, for local business. We live in febrile political times and this Coalition cannot be guaranteed to survive, much less deliver on ambitious plans like changes to local business taxes.

As with so many other things these days, Fianna Fáil's stance in the matter will be crucial. If it is to continue its wish to be perceived as "responsible", it must surely support Mr Coveney's plan and work with him on honing it and delivering upon it.

But in the more immediate expected Fine Gael leadership challenge, this move by Mr Coveney should help him in cultivating a traditional party image.

Irish Independent