The Fine Gael leadership contest has risked causing a damaging party rift, after Leo Varadkar accused Simon Coveney of “divisive and dishonest” politics, with his rival claiming that Mr Varadkar is “spending money we don’t have”.
The two potential future taoisigh dropped the official campaign politeness pretence and descended into all-out war.
Speaking during a heated final Fine Gael leadership debate in Cork City last night, Mr Varadkar went on the offensive, strongly denying he has no compassion.
Accusing his colleague of being “divisive” and “dishonest” and saying it is “not the way to seek a mandate” from members, Mr Varadkar claimed no one can “mistake the record I have”.
Saying he “can’t agree with what he [Mr Coveney] said about me”, Mr Varadkar listed off a series of “compassionate” policies he has implemented in Government — including resolving the medical card crisis and calling for increased parental leave — and openly questioning “how is that possibly right-wing policy”.
Telling Mr Coveney there are “enough people out there” criticising Fine Gael “without us turning on one another”, he said his rival’s implied suggestion Mr Varadkar lacks compassion is “divisive, dishonest, and not a good way to seek a mandate”.
The comment was cheered loudly by what Mr Coveney said were “a small group” of supporters at the front of the room — including a number of TDs — but booed by the mainly partisan local crowd.
And it descended further into acrimony when the Housing Minister was allowed to respond at the end of the debate to the cutting comments by his rival.
“I do believe there are different approaches being advocated in the party. This isn’t a criticism, this is a debate within the party, a debate going on many, many decades. I’m advocating for one, and make no apology for that,” he said.
After Mr Varadkar again interjected to say “there’s an attempt here to create an ideological divide I don’t believe exists” and said the only difference is “I’m putting forward a programme of substance, an actual document you can read, not something vaguer that allows me to cover-up the fact I’m not willing to make decisions”, Mr Coveney angrily responded:
“What Leo is doing is committing to spending money we don’t have yet. Not difficult to win votes on the back of that.”
The stand-off underlined the growing tension between the candidates as Fine Gael members prepare to vote over the next five days before Ireland’s next taoiseach is announced on Friday.
Mr Coveney had earlier used the majority of his 10-minute opening speech to stress the difference between his economic policy based on helping those in need and the more economy-focussed approach of Mr Varadkar.
Citing the fact Fine Gael was at its strongest when the more liberal Garret Fitzgerald was taoiseach in the 1980s, Mr Coveney said the question party members must ask is “what kind of Ireland do we want to create?” and not “who has the longest list of goodies?”
“Both [candidates] offer a stark choice. Leo has said by representing everybody we would be for nothing. But in politics, when you are prioritising a certain section of society you are ignoring others.
“It’s also not good politics. When you were knocking on the doors [at the last election] were people saying keep the recovery going, or just show us a little compassion?
“Fine Gael was at its most powerful when Garret Fitzgerald was changing society as well as building an economy. I believe both candidates offer very different roads in that regard,” Mr Coveney said.
Debate chair Gavan Duffy attempted to cool tempers at the height of the row, saying they were still operating under “Queensbury rules, not UFC”.
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