Third FG leadership debate in Galway a fiesty affair

Rivals Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar wrestled for rural Ireland support in the third leadership debate on Saturday night as they increasingly jabbed at each others' track records and involvement in last year's disastrous general election strategy, writes Fiachra O'Cionnaith.

Third FG leadership debate in Galway a fiesty affair

Rivals Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar wrestled for rural Ireland support in the third leadership debate on Saturday night as they increasingly jabbed at each others' track records and involvement in last year's disastrous general election strategy, writes Fiachra O'Cionnaith.

The issues dominated the two hour debate in front of more than 600 people in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, as the tension between both potential taoisigh was ratcheted up before Fine Gael members prepare to start voting on Monday for their next leader.

In two 10-minute opening speeches focussed almost entirely on rural issues, Mr Coveney stressed the "value system" he wants to instill which will see the economy help all citizens includes farmers and rural areas left behind by the recovery.

Castigating colleagues by saying "I hear too much talk in Dublin about 'reaching out' to regions", Mr Coveney said "the west of Ireland should not be dependent on the prosperity of the east coast" as it has valuable fisheries and farming sectors and "the most beautiful coast in the world".

The Housing Minister said that in Government he has already "re-distributed" €100m in grants from wealthy farmers to poor ones, insisting this is "an investment, it's no charity to 'regions'", and attempted to frame the leadership race for rural Ireland voters as "who is best placed to defend farmers from Brexit".

Citing plans for high-speed rail, improved broadband and an imminent vacant housing measure due "within days", Mr Coveney said he understands rural Ireland because he is from there and grew up in farming.

"As I walk through the marts and farmlands I'll talk their language with you, because I've lived it. So when Leo talks about being a leader for rural Ireland, that's already me," he said.

However, Mr Varadkar hit back, saying he has "never sought to be a minister for Dublin" and will seek to represent all parts of the country.

The Social Protection Minister said he wants to "prioritise middle Ireland" if he becomes taoiseach and will implement a "rural Ireland catch-up" plan for towns still crippled by the recession.

He said he understands the "suffering and pain" of flooding, cited the need for ministers to regularly travel to rural areas "not just for an hour or two", and - after noting a number of rural road links he oversaw as transport minister - joked "I know something about building roads".

During the same debate the two leadership rivals also continued to outline their policies if made taoiseach, with Mr Coveney saying he will introduce legislation preventing county boundary changes and Mr Varadkar calling for public pay to be "restored" but not saying when or how.

Both candidates also welcomed greater Irish language interest, criticised the nearby Galway University Hospital's "not fit for purpose" emergency department and said the "toxic" two-tier health system must be reformed.

However, the clearest sign of the growing friction between both campaign camps emerged during a series of jabs by each candidate over their track records and involvement in Fine Gael's failed 2016 general election strategy.

After Mr Varadkar labelled last year's campaign plan as "not good", Mr Coveney said while his rival "paints himself as someone who puts together a good campaign" the reality is both candidates "were involved in planning [the general election]".

Mr Coveney - who was referencing the fact Mr Varadkar chaired the communications strategy group and Mr Coveney and policy strategy group - was interrupted by Mr Varadkar, who said these groups ended in November 2015 and that if they continued the election plan may have been better.

However, the Housing Minister continued by saying both candidates need to "learn from mistakes" before listing off campaigns he has led for Fine Gael - pointedly including the 2015 marriage equality referendum.

At an earlier stage in the debate Mr Varadkar said he was "bowled over" by Mr Coveney's "passion" on marine and fisheries issues, adding "if you want to be minister for the marine again" he could make it happen.

Mr Coveney replied "if you give me marine I'll give you back health", before Mr Varadkar noted Coveney supporter and Health Minister Simon Harris was in the room and asking if he should be "concerned how vigorously he [Mr Harris] was clapping [the health portfolio change]".

Asked about how they would pick their ministers if made taoiseach - a sensitive subject given both are dependent on TDs support - Mr Varadkar said he was "slightly uncomfortable" answering as the contest is ongoing, before referencing ability, talent, regional and gender breakdowns.

Mr Coveney said simply: "You reward the most talented people in the party. Ultimately what all this is about is how Fine Gael serves the country. Not ourselves."

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