VICTORIA WHITE: Simon Coveney can lead Fine Gael to become a party for social justice

Simon Coveney has shown that his is prepared to risk his political neck in order to do the right thing, writes Victoria White.

NEARLY 20 years ago, when I was a much younger journalist, five young Coveneys had my office in kinks as they sailed around the world for charity.

It wasn’t the sailing that was funny. It certainly wasn’t the Chernobyl Children’s Project for which they were fund-raising.

It was the notion of five little merchant princelings, sailing off from the Royal Cork Yacht Club as they were genetically programmed to do, to the wild applause of our more blueshirt editors.

I thought the young Coveneys were upper-class twits. But right now Simon Coveney would be far and away my choice for Taoiseach among the Fine Gael hopefuls.

I will never be a blueshirt, not only because of the social inequality and environmental degradation they’ve allowed, but also because I can’t get over my frustration with Fine Gael’s culture of entitlement. But I hope the blueshirts elect Simon because he not only has a vision for this country, he is also prepared to risk his political life to achieve it.

He set out his vision in an excellent interview with David Mc Williams broadcast on TV3 on February 5 as part of their Agenda series, which is still available online. Speaking as Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government, he voiced a determination that under the Ireland 2040 plan, housing policy would be used to engineer social equality.

He told David McWilliams that he’s “damned” if new developments are going to create ghettoes, as they did in the 1960s and 1970s. He said he is going to plan aggressively for “mixed tenure” developments so that there is “no stigma” in social housing.

He spoke of our knowingly allowing for educational disadvantage; of “really bright young children growing up labelled as disadvantaged”. He said he wants no child growing up in Ireland in 2040 to suffer that disadvantage from birth.

And he wants to use this policy to transform Fine Gael. This is where Gerard Howlin’s masterful analysis of Fine Gael in yesterday’s Irish Examiner misses out. He writes that “no-one speaks of where Fine Gael should be led” but Mr Coveney confronted this issue head-on just this month and his answer was clear: Towards social justice. He is consciously channelling John A Costello’s ‘Just Society’ in his vision for Fine Gael.

He also referenced Garret FitzGerald’s socially liberal Fine Gael, but McWilliams pulled him up quickly on that: The social liberalism is the easy stuff; society was heading that way any way.

He’s right. Social liberalism isn’t the same as social justice and can co-exist perfectly easily with right-wing economic policies.

By contrast, Leo Varadkar marks a clean break from Fine Gael history and, in many ways, that’s no bad thing. Remember when he came out in the Dáil and accused Brian Cowen of being “no Jack Lynch” but instead, “a Garrett Fitzgerald”?

I’d say you could hear the scrape of silver cutlery on plates that night in the Coveney headquarters. But I loved this desecration of so much that Fine Gael holds dear. There have been some glimmers of a social justice agenda in Fine Gael’s history, however, and perhaps fanning that flame is better than lighting a new one.

I’m sure Mr Varadkar is a social liberal but I’m not so sure he stands for social justice. He first came to my attention in the mid-2000s when he suggested incentivising new economic immigrants, who were mostly from Eastern Europe, to go home.

It turned out there was a big incentive coming in the form of mass unemployment. But even now, Mr Varadkar’s utterances on immigration do not reassure me. Speaking last year in the wake of the rape of women by refugees in Cologne, he said: “People who can’t accept our culture and our standards and our freedoms well then they wouldn’t be welcome here” — when surely it is obvious that few cultures legitimise rape and all you need demand of new-comers is that they be law-abiding.

He has not articulated a new vision in Health or in Social Protection, whereas Mr Coveney has gone all-out when it comes to housing. While the number of homeless families has decreased there are still more than 2,000 homeless children in the State and his commitment that no family would be in B&B accommodation by July 1 looks doubtful of being met. But he is trying. Most of all, he has risked his political skin among “entitled” blueshirt landlords by capping rent increases at 4% in Dublin and Cork.

It hardly makes him a Fidel Castro, but no-one else has ever capped rents in this country, including those in politics now shouting loudest that it is too little, too late.

It was way back in 2010 that I woke up to the fact that Simon ‘Princeling’ Coveney was prepared to risk his political neck to do the right thing. Fine Gael were in opposition. The most swingeing budget in the history of the State, amounting to €6bn in cuts, was about to be put to the Dáil. On its passage depended our safe passage into the IMF deal which would save this country from disaster.

Needless to say, every rat in the Dáil could sniff the sinking ship, and the numbers were tight. That was when Mr Coveney came out and said he would vote with the Government if necessary to get us access to IMF funding.

I love the Edwardian hero stuff. Mr Coveney came up with it. What’s more, he played a huge part in the safe passage of the State from one government to another at a time of extreme crisis.

In January 2011, the ruling Coalition had two confidence motions down against it and would have fallen before the Finance Act could make the Budget legal. This State would have gone into limbo and the new Government would have had to pick up the pieces. It would probably not have survived bringing in the budget of €6bn cuts. The recovery we have had would have been at least delayed, if not derailed.

Mr Coveney opened up a back channel of talks between the out-going and in-coming Government which resulted in the no confidence motions being dropped to facilitate the passing of the Finance Act. This was a big part of the political software which meant our social cohesion was safe-guarded to the extent it was during the financial crisis.

The media never bothered to see the real story behind Election 2011. Enda Kenny was let ride in on a white horse, the “lucky general” as the writer Stephen Collins dubbed him. The truth is that he is not as responsible for the recovery as Mr Coveney and has nothing to offer on the international stage of which Coveney does not have more.

As a Dub, I would find it scary if the two most politically powerful men in the State were thin, anguished Corkmen who look as if their dinner is going down the wrong way. Don’t ask me to pick between them.

But if I had a blueshirt and a vote for the Fine Gael leadership, ‘Princeling’ Coveney would find safe harbour with me.


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