Spurred on by support from Fine Gael grassroots members, Simon Coveney tells Juno McEnroe he believes he can still steal the crown from firm favourite Leo Varadkar

Simon Coveney, spurred on by support from grassroots members and his unyielding stamina-fuelled determination, believes he can still narrow the Fine Gael leadership election race and steal the crown from rival Leo Varadkar.

In a large conference room in Carlow a few hours before the second leadership debate, Coveney is studying his notes assiduously in silence when I step in to interview him for the Irish Examiner.

Around the long conference table, there are no advisers, chart boards or computers, just him pouring over his plans on small notepads for the evening’s drama ahead in the Carlow Institute of Technology. Pressure is on to win. But Coveney’s response to my questioning is serene, though at times stern. Varadkar’s spending plans are crude, he contends, and he can take back support for his bid.

“At the end of this process, Fine Gael members and public representatives will vote in the privacy of a ballot box and in my view the message I have is a powerful one,” he says. “I think that Leo has a different story to tell in terms of where he wants to take the party. I think when people weigh up both options, we will air quite well.

“Leo put out effectively an election manifesto that had all sorts of commitments in terms of spending. He was talking about doubling the back-to- school allowance. I wasn’t talking about anything like that.

“We published a document too, but instead of having a long list of spending commitments, we have six or seven big ideas that I am interested in pursuing as Taoiseach along with the programme for government.”

Coveney time and again refuses to be drawn into criticising Varadkar’s proposals directly, but discreetly litters his analysis with little jibes at his rival. It is a clever manoeuvre, one that effectively allows him to fight the election race with one glove on and one off.

His campaign mantra is about “just society”, about bridging the gaps between rural and urban communities and about a more caring Fine Gael. This sounds all very well, but it is quite aspirational and one wonders whether it is gaining traction with the Fine Gael electorate.

Instead, a more tangible policy he hopes to launch in the coming weeks (although when the leadership contest is likely over) is Ireland 2040, a national plan for the country in part to counter-balance the dominance of Dublin.

“This isn’t an election stunt, this is something that will be properly thought through. And we will be publishing a draft 2040 and go to consultation in the summer,” explains Coveney.

The three-time Cabinet minister maintains this is the “most ambitious thing” he has ever done in politics. And while he and his rival both agree on the need for multi-billion euro capital infrastructure plans, Coveney maintains his are realistic and will be backed up by funding.

“Leo is announcing funding projects without having a plan for them to slot into,” he says. “So we need to start with a plan of what we want to achieve and then we need to put [together] the funding package.”

Simon Coveney refusing to call time on leadership ambitions

The 2040 plan for Ireland’s future — likely to go before Cabinet in a fortnight — includes proposals for roads, hospitals, schools, cycleways, development, urban living, parks, and public transport.

“This isn’t just a 20-year plan which we will see the benefit of in 10 years’ time,” explains Coveney. “It is a plan that we start on today and we put funding packages in place for projects like Limerick and Cork, in terms of roads, looking at the viability of high-speed rail. It should be possible to get a train from Cork to Dublin in an hour and onto Belfast in 50 minutes if you want to.”

Evidently, this blueprint for the country’s development will be ambitious. But equally, Varadkar has clever proposals for tax, pensions, universities, and transport.

Now, Coveney faces an almost insurmountable uphill struggle to reverse at least half a dozen parliamentarian votes, if he is to get back into the race and stand a chance of winning.

I asked him would he want housing if he loses the contest.

“I would like to finish what I started in housing and I will try to do that whether I am Taoiseach or whether I am sitting around the Cabinet table,” he says. “I’m determined that housing will remain a big priority in government.”

It is a brave answer, maybe too honest. But then again, Coveney has always let it be known that he wanted to take on the housing crisis. Now it looks like he wants to finish this out or at least try to.

Coveney argues that every department he entered, he has led effective change, including in agriculture and defence. The jury is out, though, on whether measures to fix the housing and rental markets are working yet. The minister is adamant that completions, planning and commencements of homes are up, that local authority home building is higher and that developments have begun.

Nonetheless, he shies away from committing to when he thinks ordinary working families in Cork and Dublin will be able to buy or rent without paying extortionate mortgages or leases.

“All of the indicators are moving in the right direction in terms of increased supply,” he insists.

Simon Coveney refusing to call time on leadership ambitions

Undoubtedly, Fine Gael members and parliamentarians are thinking about whether their next leader can win more seats, more elections and take on a reviving Fianna Fáil at the ballot box. So is Coveney up for the challenge and could he see off his Cork South Central constituency rival, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin?

“I stand up for the right thing to do, I don’t approach politics on the basis of trying to vote harvest,” he says.

“Of course I can [beat Martin], absolutely. We run a much slicker campaign, with a more convincing message, with a more motivated party, as a bigger party with a better vision for where want to take the country. I believe that Fianna Fáil’s record on economic management is a disaster. Fine Gael have had to pick up the pieces and put it back together.

“When the election comes, Fine Gael will be ready with our message, it will be a compassionate message as well as a message that is focused on running a strong, sustainable, and growing economy. But it will also be one that reaches out to vulnerable people and solves social and economic problems so everybody can contribute to a stronger society if Simon Coveney is Taoiseach.”

But of course the question is, should Coveney lose, will he be able to work side by side with or, more importantly, under Varadkar’.

“I think if Leo is Taoiseach he will do a good job. He is a very talented politician and whatever happens in this contest, if he wins and I lose I will support him and I will insist that the party is strengthened by this process. But I would also expect that if I win and he loses that he would supply the same support in building a strong and unified party. There are two personalities here, they are both strong personalities.”

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