‘Fitzgerald will be standing tall when tribunal reports’

He commands the second-highest political position in the country and is leading fragile negotiations for Ireland which could affect and dictate the lives of generations to come.

‘Fitzgerald will be standing tall when tribunal reports’

Sitting in the august surroundings of Iveagh House, Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, talks candidly about his job managing the Brexit talks; being in Government; and even what he believes Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has taken on board since beating him in the recent Fine Gael leadership race.

The minister for foreign affairs has a challenging and wide-ranging brief, that oversees everything from Irish relations with other nations and trade while his new role as Tánaiste means he now sits at the very top of government.

But Coveney is as magnanimous as ever when I attempt to inquire about the bruising leadership race last May, which had threatened to split the party and, in the end, saw Dubliner Varadkar promoted as Taoiseach over the Corkman.

So what went wrong, I press Coveney. After all, this was the man who publicly stated during the contest that he never lost an election.

“We looked in detail at that campaign. We had some successes and we made some mistakes. It is a matter of public record that I did very well with the Fine Gael membership. I didn’t do as well as I liked with the parliamentary party. And we have looked into that.

“The issue for me now is, this is the way I approach everything. If I have a failure on something, I look in some detail as to why that was, I try to learn lessons from that and I move on.”

Coveney had suggested during the race that Varadkar was going to take the country down a different path, one that was less about a fairer society and more focused on the economy. So has the Taoiseach indeed taken Ireland on a different journey? Coveney believes Varadkar, in fact, has taken on his leadership ideas and is implementing them in government.

“If you look at what the Government has done under Leo Varadkar’s leadership as Taoiseach, I think an awful lot of the issues that I was raising during the leadership contest, I think he probably has taken on board.

“If you look at the funding increase on the housing side, the level of supports we have seen in areas like disability, areas like healthcare, Leo is clearly somebody who wants to build a more settled and stronger society as well as someone who wants to make sure we have a strong economy.

“I think the debate the party had around these issues, social issues as well as economic issues, was a very healthy process for everybody.”

Despite some suggestions that Coveney somehow hid away in foreign affairs after the difficult contest, the newly promoted Tánaiste is selfless about the whole affair: “I wasn’t bruised by it [the campaign]. I don’t like losing, I’m a competitive person. My main focus after this was ‘this is a fair contest, Leo won’, I accepted that. My focus after it was to make sure the party didn’t get weakened or we didn’t have a split, which is what has happened in every leadership contest that I have seen while in Fine Gael.

“It has weakened the party, it has broken friendships and I was determined that didn’t happen this time and I had a responsibility to the Government to make sure it didn’t happen.”

There are more pressing issues now in Coveney’s inbox — he must make delicate decisions about Irish relations with other nations, on top of being deputy prime minister.

In the coming weeks, Coveney will visit the Middle East and meet politicians on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the recent decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, I asked what Ireland’s response was to international calls for economic sanctions against Israel.

“I think you can only do that if you do it collectively as a European Union. If Ireland does things on our own here we will simply undermine our capacity to influence political outcomes because effectively we will have no relationship with Israel if we are seen as totally one-sided.

“What Ireland has been trying to do is to influence EU policy so that we make a clear and collective decision. What I need to do is to interact with the Palestinian government and the Israeli government and to try to influence decisions and bring about a negotiated two-state solution.”

Coveney believes hopes for a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis are very much alive. In this sense, he will not at this time give a commitment to when the Government will formally recognise Palestine as an independent state — a key promise in the programme for Government — until that lasting peace or solution has been agreed.

“I’m not going to give an exact timetable. We are committed to doing that. But I am committed politically to doing that at a time when it contributes in a positive way to try and get the outcomes that we need.

“That’s the responsibility that I have rather than making decisions that sound good in the short term that obviously is an expression of solidarity which I think is important with the Palestinian people. But if it means that we can’t influence Israeli decisions, which is ultimately very important in terms of getting the right outcome in the end, well I don’t think now is the right time to do it.”

While Fine Gael led the polls, the weeks leading up to the Christmas were turbulent and almost saw a crisis over the Maurice McCabe whistleblower saga trigger a snap election.

Then-tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald was forced to resign after it was revealed that she was informed by email of garda management plans to discredit Sgt McCabe, but did nothing.

The saga will be raised again in the next fortnight when Ms Fitzgerald appears before a tribunal. I asked the Tánaiste if his predecessor was wrong and should have acted differently.

“I’d be pretty confident that when that tribunal reports, Frances will come out of that process in a positive light. I don’t believe that Frances did anything dishonest.”

He said Ms Fitzgerald had carried out much reform during her previous role as justice minister, adding: “I don’t think it is fair that she had to resign [as tánaiste] but I think she had no political option in the end. She recognised that the last thing that the country needed was an election.

“But I think as I say and the Taoiseach has said when we get a tribunal report looking at all of the issues, taking account of all of the evidence that has been provided to that tribunal, let’s see where Frances Fitzgerald stands at the end of that, because I believe she will be standing quite tall.”

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