The hustings would be ‘like playing Galatasaray,’ reckoned Kerry TD Brendan Griffin. But the two leadership candidates addressed the fiery final meeting in Cork with low-key, measured addresses, writes Lise Hand
The hustings would be ‘like playing Galatasaray,’ reckoned Kerry TD Brendan Griffin.
But the two leadership candidates addressed the fiery final meeting in Cork with low-key, measured addresses
It took all of 30 seconds before the sacred name of Michael Collins was invoked. Fine Gael’s national executive chairman Gerry O’Connell was introducing the two combatants onstage. “As George Bernard Shaw wrote to Michael Collins’ sister, “Tear up your mourning and hang out your brightest colours,” he hollered to rowdy acclaim. “The jizz is back!”
Well, tails were definitely up in the packed, heaving, cheering, conference room of the Clayton Hotel Silver Springs in Cork. And this was before either Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney had set foot onstage. You couldn’t have swung a newborn kitten in the place.
A full 48 hours before this final showdown in Cork, and Leo’s gang were spinning like an Aran jumper factory to lower expectations. “It’ll be like playing Galatasaray,” reckoned Kerry TD Brendan Griffin on Friday, referring to the famously torrid football fortress in Turkey, a fiery, partisan, cauldron of rockets and roaring which regularly puts the fear of god into visiting teams.
Leo was venturing into Coveney country for the final contest last night, onto turf which knows a thing or two about staging an ambush. And a lot was at stake in this last debate. Leo may have most of the parliamentary party votes wrapped up, but there are still a fair few undecideds floating about among the 21,000-strong grassroots membership. Inside the conference room, one woman was carefully peeling the Leo label from a bottle of water. “I’m neutral,” she explained. “I’ll make up my mind when I hear the speeches and their answers to questions”.
Simon the Underdog had played out of his skin on Thursday in Leo’s home ground. He had left nothing on the field, delivering a barnstorming oration which took quite a few folks by surprise. But over the following three nights, Leo continued to impress with his depth of knowledge and quick intellect.
Team Leo’s Galatasaray nightmare looked set to be fulfilled as the two men appeared onstage to waving Cork flags and deafening chants of “COVENEY COVENEY”. All that was missing were a few blazing sods of turf atop pitchforks.
But Simon decided not to burn down the house. He kept it low-key and measured. There was an anecdote about Enda Kenny’s grandfather who had been a lighthouse-keeper in Loop Head. “He wasn’t famous, he wasn’t rich, but people depended upon him for their lives,” he said. There were a few skelps at his opponent, declaring this race wasn’t “about who has the longest list of goodies for his county or province,” and warning how the Social Protection Minister wants to take Fine Gael farther to the right.
The welcome for the visitor was decidedly more muted, but Leo is lion-hearted. There wasn’t a bother on him. “I’ve always enjoyed away games the most,” he jovially told the crowd, before immediately congratulating the successful Cork rowers at the European Championships, as Team Simon quietly banged their heads against the wall for dropping the ball on that one.
Then he took the perilous route of criticising a Corkman in front of his own. He listed things he had done in politics, that he has a written plan and that Simon can talk about “empty compassion” but can’t match his record, and denied his rival’s claim he was taking the party in a Thatcherite direction. “I don’t want rid of the USC. I’m saying we should have less tax cuts. How’s that to the right?” he riposted, before lashing out at Simon’s National Spatial Strategy plan which the Housing Minister is due to release in the coming weeks - a blueprint which “you haven’t seen and mightn’t like,” he sniped.
He threw more shade than a beach umbrella in Marbella at midday. But there was a notable lack of amused laughter. In fact the room turned a trifle frosty. Leo was in mad-era Keano territory — launch an early kick and rattle the enemy from the opening whistle. “What has Simon actually said he wants to do for people in his speech so far?” he demanded.
But as soon as the questions from the floor kicked off, Leo scored an own-goal. If voted Taoiseach, asked a member, which member of the opposition would they put in their Cabinet?
This was a great question. It hadn’t been asked before, and both chaps were stumped. Simon chose a safe route and plumped for Eamon Ryan. He mightn’t be popular with the farmers, but he’s a damn sight better than embracing a Soldier of Destiny or a Shinner in front of this rabidly partisan crowd.
Leo took a circuitous route in his reply. “ANSWER THE QUESTION!” shouted a member of the audience unused to the ability of all politicians to not-answer a question. Eventually a dithering Leo was pinned to the corner flag. He wouldn’t name-check anyone because his endorsement “would end their career”. Boos rang out.
For the rest of the question session, Leo ran smoothly, turning out informed answers and reiterating his plans, reminding one questioner that he wanted to double funding to the Arts. He even rallied with a funny dig, when Simon earnestly explained to a member that there are “also people in Fine Gael who aren’t talented…” Leo interrupted, “Name names,” he suggested cheekily.
It was an absorbing contest, with Leo doing his best against Simon’s home crowd. No matter which of the two runners breasts the tape on Friday, the whole three-ring circus is shaping up to be a PR win for the party itself. The Sunday rasher-and-sausage must’ve turned to ashes on Fianna Fáil breakfast tables yesterday when a newspaper tracker poll showed Fine Gael had
Moreover, these debates have seen the rise of a new political phenomenon which began in Dublin about five minutes after the Rumble in the Red Cow had ended. At the back of the sweltering hall, a sizeable posse of political journalists were doing their usual thing — packing up equipment, filing last-minute reports, comparing notes on the first of a quartet of leadership hustings. But suddenly and unexpectedly they were the centre of attention. TDs, senators, political press officers, advisors and supporters were circling like starving sharks.
“What did you think?”
“Simon’s speech was outstanding, wasn’t it?”
“Leo won hands down on the policy questions, didn’t he?”
Journalists found themselves being buttonholed by chatty members of the Fine Gael party, some of whom would normally regard the ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate with a level of tense alarm akin to that of a postman approaching a large snarling dog behind a gate.
Nor was this confined to the Dublin head-to-head; it also happened the following night in Carlow. In fact at the second hustings two TDs gave a journalist their glowing verdict on the performance of their man — about 30 minuted before the debate kicked off. “We didn’t want to miss your deadline,” they (half) joked.
What on earth was going on? This sort of palaver is normally associated with the high-octane theatrics of Washington DC and the rolling carnival of the Spin Room where scores of political flacks partake in a post-presidential debate stampede towards the media to cheerlead for their candidate.
But then there is more than a touch of US presidential style to this leadership election. The personalities and temperament of both candidates are being dissected as well as their policies and vision for the party. After all, the victor won’t just lead Fine Gael, but will (saving some last-minute bit of drama) be catapulted straight into the role of Head of Government. And — according to one member at the hustings in Carlow on Friday evening — the winner will also be “one of the leaders of the free world”.
At each of the hustings in Dublin, Carlow, Ballinasloe, and last night’s finale in Cork, the young foot-soldiers of both Team Simon and Team Leo vied with each other to hand out badges, t-shirts, and placards, and to place signage in the most advantageous spots in each venue. Standing ovations during the speeches were suspiciously ‘spontaneous’. Soundbites were polished and honed. Inspirational quotes abounded from Irish hero Michael Collins and from Irish-American heroes the Kennedy brothers, John F and Robert. And the spinners were spinning with gusto. Unsurprising, given that the political fates of some of the parliamentary party members could depend upon the outcome. The glory of the front bench could await or — alas — the doldrums of the back-benches.
Interestingly, the two camps had different approaches to the ad-hoc Spin Room, perhaps reflective of the candidates’ own personalities: Simon’s supporters were more diffident, asking the reporters what they had thought of the debate, whereas Team Leo was more inclined to channel their inner West Wing wide-boys and instruct the media as to what they should think.
But one thing’s for sure — despite the efforts of the spinners, after this Blueshirt Derby there’ll be few undecided grassroots left on the sidelines, trying on the two jerseys for size.
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