MATT COOPER: Impressive Coveney leads pack of Fine Gael leadership candidates

HE may be looking increasingly fraught as the demands of the job of Taoiseach mount but Enda Kenny has few reasons to fear for his grip on the leadership of Fine Gael, even though it is over 10 years since he got the job.

But that doesn’t mean others in Fine Gael aren’t preparing for the future after Enda, particularly if he makes a mess of the introduction of abortion legislation or if the growing public antipathy towards the Government increases.

Fine Gael insiders talk of there being a four horse race when it comes to the identity of the next leader. They admit the party does not have many electorally attractive options. The party may have more seats in Dáil Eireann than at any time in its history but it is not awash with great talent. Those who sit at cabinet are almost always those who harbour the greatest ambitions. But go through the list of ministers and most get knocked off quickly as credible contenders.

Finance minister Michael Noonan had his chance as leader and fluffed it miserably. He resigned on the night of the 2002 general election count, cutting a sorry figure as he was humiliated by the Bertie Ahern juggernaut. At 69 he is more likely to step down from his ministerial position in the next 12 months than stay in cabinet.

Deputy leader James Reilly hasn’t a prayer of stepping up. He will be lucky to survive in government next year. A combination of his inability to live up to his promises, the exposure of his naked opportunism in locating primary health care centres in his own constituency, and his unwillingness to treat other people with whom he disagrees in a sufficiently adult and respectful fashion, will see him off.

Justice minister Alan Shatter is clearly clever enough but perhaps his inability to wear his intelligence lightly, and to accommodate the views of those who do not share his brilliance, is his greatest handicap. A party under Shatter’s leadership might find it hard to be attractive.

Children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald does not have the charisma or expertise. Jimmy Deenihan is personable and able, but the type of leadership he provided on the football field for Kerry in the past is not what is required in politics.

Environment minister Phil Hogan was regarded as being one of the party’s sharpest political operatives but this image has blunted badly in recent times. Too often his actions reek of cute hoorism; he is simply “too Fianna Fáil” in his approach and his public scrapes — such as being photographed on budget week at a five-star Doha hotel with his much younger female assistant perching her head on his shoulder, with their drinks in front of them — have finished his leadership chances. The botched introduction of the household charge had done that anyway.

Richard Bruton, Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment, probably still fancies his chances, such is his optimistic nature. He remains the strongest contender of the older rank — he has been in the Dáil for over 30 years at this stage — but that strength is relative. His failure to land the Fine Gael leadership after his mid 2010 coup still rankles with those who supported him. If he wasn’t strong enough then to wrest the prize, how would he manage the far more difficult tasks of being Taoiseach? His gaffe earlier this year during an EU treaty referendum live radio debate — when he said there would be a second vote if the people did not vote yes the first time — undermined his reliability too.

He is likeable — and patently very decent — and he could grow into the job as leader, much as his brother John once did. But his chance may have come and gone. And his brother’s recent public comments — even if he agrees with him and them — must be causing him some concern within Fine Gael: the massively pensioned John is showing much of his old lack of empathy by prescribing all sorts of tough budgetary measures that would have no impact on his privileged lifestyle and which suggest that he is way out of touch with the reality of life for most other people.

So who are the four leading contenders? Two are current cabinet ministers, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar. The others are junior ministers but look set for promotion at the next opportunity, Brian Hayes and Lucinda Creighton. All have two major traits in common: relative youth and a personal distance from Enda Kenny. All four were involved in the failed 2010 putsch, which is why Hayes, in particular, was not invited to the current cabinet.

Varadkar is highly intelligent and able, but he still has much to learn. His straight-talking is often a delight but he has a tendency to put his foot in it. Kenny berated him in 2011 for saying a second bail-out was likely and he was warned as to his future conduct. Although Varadkar’s analysis at the time was correct, and is still more likely than not to be confirmed, it was regarded as careless talk. Less forgivable was his bitchy comment recently about Gabriel Byrne’s criticism of “the Gathering” when he said Byrne was “popular with women of a certain age”.

Varadkar is clearly very ambitious but is he personable enough? What is also very interesting is his position on abortion. As a medical doctor, before turning to politics, he has a point of view that may cause sharp debate at cabinet discussions as to what type of legislation should be introduced to allow abortion in limited circumstances.

That Creighton moved to a similar position on abortion in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of the death of Sanita Halappanavar was very interesting. This showed her innate conservatism; many feminists might not find themselves drawn to her just because she is a woman, just as they weren’t by Mary Harney during her time as PD leader. Her relationship with fellow Mayoman Kenny is clearly not good but she has behaved herself as junior minister.

SHE is clearly devoted to the idea of the European Union — and not just because she was given the brief as junior minister — although whether this appeals to the electorate may be interesting too.

Her fellow junior minister Hayes has been very articulate — and somewhat persuasive — in defending the Government’s economic policies. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, if unlikely, that his overdue promotion to cabinet could put him straight in as Minister for Finance, on the basis that he has the experience of being a junior in that department. That would either provide a platform to be the next leader — especially if he is in the position to introduce far more generous budgets than his predecessors did — or it could ruin his chances completely. Kenny may not be inclined to do anything that will help Hayes to eventually supplant him.

So does that make Coveney the front-runner? He has had an excellent time in Government so far, surprising those who thought he might not be up to the promotion. He shows a great passion for agriculture — his appropriately chosen brief — and for public service.

He is clearly a decent and well-motivated individual. He showed steel in opting to go against Kenny in 2010 but, notwithstanding that, he has managed to stay within the fold. He did very well during the EU treaty referendum as Fine Gael director of the campaign. But does he have that little bit extra that we expect from a leader of our biggest political party? Then again, does Kenny have it?

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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