Housing Minister Simon Coveney has dismissed fears of a damaging party rift in Fine Gael after he was accused by his leadership rival of “divisive and dishonest” politics during last night’s heated final hustings event, writes Eoin English.
Speaking in Cork today where he was canvassing support in Kinsale, Mr Coveney said he was neither, and insisted Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar made the comments during a “blunt, honest and straight shoot-out”.
“That’s what you expect when you have a sparring contest in an intense competitive leadership debate,” he said.
“People who know me know that I’m a straight shooter. But I’m a competitive person, as is Leo. And so what you saw last night was both candidates in the final debate having a pretty straight shoot-out, in terms of ideas.
“People were explaining where they’re coming from, responding to accusations from the other, and that’s what you expect when you have four nights in a row of intense debate, two hours each time.
“And when it came to a final debate, both candidates were anxious not to be overly polite because there is a need for blunt and honest discussion in politics.
“This wasn’t some kind of entertainment show for people to watch. This was a real discussion, which was substantive within the party, and at the end of that, the membership, and the public representatives within Fine Gael will chose not only a leader, but also future direction for the party and I’ve outlined very clearly where I’m coming from.
“Whoever wins this contest, Fine Gael will unite and will be stronger at the end of it.
“Leo is a very talented politician and if he wins, he’ll make a good leader of Fine Gael.
“But I believe I would make a better leader and I believe I can take the party in a direction that not only the Fine Gael party membership would be comfortable with, but is a direction that a lot of people outside Fine Gael would be comfortable with.”
Despite 46 Oireachtas members declaring for Mr Varadkar, and several yet to publicly declare, Mr Coveney insisted he can still win.
“After this discussion, many people will rethink the position they had publicly declared,” he said.
“I’m not asking anybody to publicly state that they are changing their mind. I’m simply asking people to vote in the privacy of the ballot box in a way they believe is for the betterment of the country, first and foremost, but also makes good sense for the party.
“By the time Friday comes, and many of the members have voted around the country, and the Oireachtas colleagues will be voting last, I think many of them will see in their own constituency that their membership voted for Simon Coveney and not Leo Varadkar, and I hope they will take note of that.”
He also backed suggestions from Munster MEP Sean Kelly for a review of the leadership election process, with votes weighted in accordance with the Fine Gael electoral college rules which sees 73 members of the Parliamentary Party accounting for 65% of the total vote, the almost 21,000 party members accounting for 25% and 235 local representatives (232 councillors and three Údarás na Gaeltachta members) accounting for the remaining 10%.
“I wouldn’t like to be giving out about the process now at this stage, halfway through, because people might accuse me of blaming the referee rather than getting on with the game,” Mr Coveney said.
“The process is the process, we’ll work with it. I think I can win this contest under the rules and when it’s over we’ll evaluate. If there are flaws in the process, we should be open to examining that and changing it.”
He also insisted that he hasn’t given thought to possible Cabinet positions once the new leader is announced on Friday.