'Something happened in this election... And it is changing the face of Irish politics'

The Tánaiste has defended the Fine Gael election strategy which has seen the party lose several high-profile candidates, including the shock loss of a seat in one of its heartlands, Cork South West.

'Something happened in this election... And it is changing the face of Irish politics'

The Tánaiste has defended the Fine Gael election strategy which has seen the party lose several high-profile candidates, including the shock loss of a seat in one of its heartlands, Cork South West.

Simon Coveney said the party must learn lessons and respond with more “radical thinking” to deliver change and improvements at the pace people want.

But he warned of the huge threat facing the economy over the next 12-months against the backdrop of Brexit trade deal negotiations and he said Ireland could see “fundamental disruption” in the event of a bad deal.

Mr Coveney was speaking after Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard lost out in the fight for the final seat in Cork South West to Social Democrats Cork county councillor, Holly Cairns, in the early hours of this morning.

It was hoped that Mr Lombard would retain the seat previously held by former Fine Gael junior minister, Jim Daly, who announced last September that he would not be seeking reelection. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at the time that Fine Gael was the strongest party in that constituency.

But Mr Coveney said the loss of this seat, in particular, came as a real shock.

“I was watching that until very late into the morning. I think it was after 3am when that result came through. And to be honest with you, I didn't sleep after it for lots of reasons,” he said.

“Cork South West is a Fine Gael heartland and Tim Lombard is a very close friend of mine.

[snippet1]977032[/snippet1]

“And you know, anybody who is over 2,100 votes ahead of the next person when there's only one person left to be eliminated, that person rightly expects to be elected.

“So, it was a real shock and the transfers that came from the Sinn Fein candidate just went in huge numbers to the Social Democrats and, fair dues to her (Ms Cairns). Congratulations on winning the seat.

“But I think for the Fine Gael team down there and for Tim Lombard in particular, it's very, very hard to take.”

He also defended the party’s overall election strategy and its decision to focus more recently on Brexit fallout.

“For the first two weeks of the campaign, it was really a conversation around public services and who can deliver them and it was almost a competition between parties as to who could spend the billions needed to fix our health system, to get where we need to be in terms of past the housing crisis, and of course, to get an awful lot more guards on our streets,” he said.

“And midway through the campaign, I felt it was necessary to inject some reality around Brexit because you can only pay for these public services if you have an economy that's strong enough to do that.

“We have a huge threat over the next 12 months to the Irish economy, coming from the Brexit negotiation between the UK and the EU.

“If that doesn't work out, if we don't get a trade deal by the end of the year, we could see fundamental disruption to the Irish economy and I felt I had an obligation to introduce that into the discussion.

But the electorate decided not to focus on that. They were focusing on their own stresses and strains, particularly around healthcare and housing and A&E and hospitals and so on, wanting better services.

He said Fine Gael has pumped more than a €1 billion extra into healthcare for each of the last three years, and has added more than 10,000 social houses to the nation’s public housing stock.

“We’re moving the country in the right direction but clearly, it's not happening fast enough for people. And there's an impatience," he said.

“Fine Gael has been in government for nine years. Much of that time was trying to rebuild an economy from the chaos that Fianna Fáil left behind.

“But people were no longer interested in context or history. They want public services and they want them now.

“Many families, understandably, I think feel under pressure because they’re not seeing changes and improvements to their lives that they expect from a booming economy and certainly Fine Gael has suffered on the back of that.

“We recognise that. It's important to be honest in our assessment of what happened.

“And I think there's a bit more time to fully assess what happened here, because nobody expected this shift to Sinn Féin to the extent that it happened - not even Sinn Féin themselves.

“Something happened in this election that nobody really was expecting. And it is changing the face of Irish politics. There's no doubt about that.

“But also, I think it shows the volatility of the Irish electorate - only a few few months ago. In the local elections, Sinn Féin halved their numbers.

“They had a really bad European election too and Fine Gael had a very strong election.

“In the space of less than a year, we've seen politics turned on its head, and we need to respond to that as a party.

“I think one of the things we need to do is we need to respond with more radical thinking in terms of how we deliver the public services that people are demanding.

“And we'll do that, you know, again, as a party that is that learns lessons from bad elections and we learn the lessons from this one, and we will come back stronger.”

More in this section

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on
www.irishexaminer.com/podcasts

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence