Simon Coveney has insisted only his party can be trusted to steer the economy going forward, at the opening of the second night of the Fine Gael leadership debates in Carlow,
He said Fine Gael must “never let anybody rewrite history” in terms of our economic history, after opening remarks where Taoiseach Enda Kenny was also praised.
Leo Varadkar pledged he will be a taoiseach for all of Ireland if elected Fine Gael leader and said previous drastic cuts to medical cards during the last government would never happen again under his watch.
The second debate of four saw the two contenders discuss agriculture, childcare, abortion, and their own visions for Ireland going forward.
Both candidates agree that Ireland’s abortion laws need to be reformed. Mr Coveney said he still wants the Constitution to protect the life of the unborn. He said he does not support unrestricted access to abortion and abolishing the eighth amendment, but that the Constitution does need to change for women in crisis pregnancies.
Mr Varadkar said it should be allowed in some circumstances and the eighth amendment needs to be replaced.
Mr Coveney said there is a need across Ireland in general to unify communities and not to drive them apart. He said there is a need to rebalance Ireland outside of Dublin.
He said he doesn’t think any other party could be trusted with the economy, given their past record.
Mr Varadkar took a swipe at Mr Coveney at one stage, joking that he thought he was going to “pull out again” of the contest.
Mr Coveney quipped: “You wish.”
Mr Varadkar told the crowd that he remembered falling over water meters during the last government in 2014 to knock on doors to explain why medical cards were being taken away. “That will never happen if I am leader, that will never happen again,” he pledged.
He said that, as social protection minister, he had fixed “that mess”, brought in free GP care, and ensured increases in welfare went to the most vulnerable in society, including the blind and pensioners.
Mr Varadkar also zoned in on previous remarks by Mr Coveney where had talked about Fine Gael needing to care for all people and a “just” society going forward.
Mr Coveney has said Fine Gael needs to have a moral compass. His rival dismissed such talk: “Saying that you want to represent everything and failing to back that up with policies or by saying what choices you would make isn’t a value system, it is not a moral compass, it is empty rhetoric and that does not constitute leadership.”
Mr Varadkar talked about unity, noting that people from the four corners or Ireland as well as most of the Cabinet were backing him as leader, to which he received strong applause.
He received more applause after pointing out how he had stood up for Garda whistleblowers.
Mr Coveney stressed that he had led the negotiations with Fianna Fáil to help arrange the minority government deal.
“Just because I am a deal maker, this is not a sign of weakness, it is not.”
Mr Varadkar, though, again received strong applause when he insisted he would never go into power with Sinn Féin, which he described as a party that votes for its leaders behind “dark doors”.
Mr Coveney said he shared that view, saying Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are “not compatible”.
Earlier, both contenders said they wanted to help the agriculture sector, especially the sugar beet industry which has taken a hit in the south-east and around Carlow.
They will debate the leadership again tonight in Ballinasloe, Co Galway.
Clash of candidates:
- Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
The issue that can make even the most talkative politician lose their voice was the first to be raised when last night’s debate was opened to questions from the floor.
To applause from Fine Gael members, Simon Coveney said “it is important to be open” that he does not support “unrestricted” access to abortion or abolishing the eighth amendment, but said “Ireland needs to change” and will allow a free vote on any referendum.
Leo Varadkar said that “like Simon, I don’t agree with abortion on request”, but said it should be allowed in cases of incest, rape and fatal foetal abnormalities. He said a referendum should occur next year.
Economy and compassion:
The candidates again emphasised their different economic ideals.
Mr Coveney repeatedly stressed the need to “reach out to people who have nothing” and asked “where is the compassion” and “moral compass”.
Mr Varadkar — who said “nobody has a monopoly on compassion” — quipped that looking after everyone “is not a value system or moral compass, it’s empty rhetoric”.
Fight for rural Ireland:
Both candidates made a play for rural Ireland, with Mr Varadkar referencing his uncle, who owned a tillage farm, and saying he will “be a taoiseach for Ireland” not just Dublin. Mr Coveney pointed to his lengthy agri-food and rural business credentials.
The gloves are off:
The verbal jousting exposed the lie of a polite discussion. It began with Mr Varadkar joking when Mr Coveney turned up slightly late: “I thought you were pulling out again.” He said his rival’s “moral compass” was “empty rhetoric” and insisting “nobody has a monopoly on compassion”.
Mr Coveney replied “you wish” on the cutting pulling out jibe and called on members to consider who has the best qualities to keep the country and Government together.
Rural Ireland key to leadership victory
- Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
So, second debate down, what have we learned?
That both leadership candidates clearly differ on the economy, have similar but not identical views on abortion, see rural Ireland as key to winning, and are now throwing below-the-belt punches to do so.
Both Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar used last night to again underline their economic views, with this more than any issue showing their differences.
While both have merit, the reality is Mr Coveney’s “compassionate” approach is a vote winner — proven by the fact Mr Varadkar has softened his cough on the issue, albeit only slightly.
On the Eighth Amendment, both said they will not fully endorse the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations but want the laws some form of reformed of Ireland’s abortion laws.
But on rural Ireland, the approach of both shows this part of the Fine Gael membership could ultimately decide who wins. This tightening nature of the race was highlighted last night by snippy comments, with Mr Coveney at one point joking the focused answers are “probably an indication the pendulum has swung a little”, with Mr Varadkar noting the emphasis on “a little”. When Mr Coveney noted he is “someone who can bring people together” in response to a Government formation talks question in which he notably referenced the Greens and Social Democrats, — a potential sign of moves to come — Mr Varadkar said “I’ve brought the cabinet together” to support him.
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