Taoiseach's top trumps - who is Enda Kenny's successor?

How do the candidates in the Fine Gael leadership race stand up against each other?

It’s the téte-á-téte on everyone’s lips, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny steps down as Fine Gael leader.

Following their official declarations this week, either Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar or Minister for Housing Simon Coveney will be Fine Gael's next leader.

So who are they?

Coveney

Since winning his late father Hugh Coveney’s seat in the Cork South Central by-election in 1998 at the age of 26, Simon Coveney has had nowhere to go but up. He was promoted to the position of deputy chief whip in 2001, was re-elected to the Dáil in 2002 and subsequently made the Fine Gael spokesperson for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

In 2004, he was elected to the European Parliament for the South constituency, before returning to the Dáil in 2007.

2011 saw Coveney appointed as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the new Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition government. In 2014, Coveney assumed the mantle of Minister for Defence in a cabinet reshuffle following the resignation of Eamon Gilmore as Tánaiste.

Last year saw him take charge of the Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government portfolio.

Image: RollingNews.com

Varadkar

After Leo Varadkar was co-opted to Fingal County Council in 2003 as a replacement for Sheila Terry and winning the local elections in 2004, Varadkar became the Fine Gael spokesperson for Enterprise, Trade and Employment three years later.

At the 2011 general election, Varadkar was re-elected to the Dáil with 8,359 first preference votes (a 19.7% share of the poll in a 4-seat constituency), inheriting the widely-regarded ‘poison chalice’ that is the Department of Health.

That year, Varadkar was appointed Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport - a surprise appointment, given by his own admission that he does not play sport.

In the cabinet reshuffle of July 2014, Varadkar replaced Dr James Reilly as Minister for Health.

At the February 2016 general election, he retained the health portfolio in an acting capacity until May that year, due to a delay in government formation, before taking over the Department of Social Protection in 2016.

(L-R) Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney arrive for the morning session of the Fine Gael Think-In, in the Raddison Hotel in Limerick in 2008. Image: RollingNews.com

On leadership

Coveney

In June 2010, Coveney and a number of other Fine Gael front bench spokespeople stated that they had no confidence in their party leader, Enda Kenny. Coveney threw his support behind current-Minister for Education Richard Bruton.

A subsequent confidence motion in the leader was won. Coveney was re-appointed to the front bench as spokesperson on Transport - an endorsement which Coveney said he accepted. 

"I don't (have any regrets)," he said following the move. "As long as I make decisions on the basis of what's right for the people who elect me, then I'm comfortable with that but I also respect the fact that I don't have any monopoly on wisdom or integrity here," Coveney said at the time.

"I don't expect to be in favour this week when he (Mr Kenny) is putting his frontbench together but I am certainly not going to betray the party by actually refusing to work with a leader that has now had his leadership reaffirmed," he added.

Speaking outside Fine Gael headquarters after he declared his candidacy Minister Coveney said: "For me, I'm in politics to be positive, to be constructive".

He pledged "honesty" and "big ideas", saying the party now needs to "rebuild a strong society in Ireland".

Varadkar

Varadkar also participated in the 2010 heave against Kenny, but he returned to ministerial rank almost immediately.

In an interview with RTE's Prime Time that year, Vardakar said it wasn't a case of him losing confidence in the Fine Gael leader, but the fact that the public were.

Prior to that, he spoke out against the then-opposition leader Brian Cowen of Fianna Fáil on several occasions.

Varadkar took Mr Cowen on in the area of ministerial pay, saying the then-Taoiseach wasted an opportunity to show political will and real leadership as well as delivering for the taxpayer.

"Instead he chose to continue along the same route his Government has been taking for over a decade and ignore all notions of accountability and delivery to focus on internal Fianna Fáil politics," he added.

In July last year, Varadkar has said he would love to lead Fine Gael "whenever a vacancy arises", saying it is something he has wanted to do since he joined the party as a teenager.

"Of course I'd love to lead my party - I've been dedicated to it since I was 17 or 18 years old," Varadkar told KFM. "But that's something you have to consider at the appropriate time, when a vacancy arises."

Most recently, Varadkar said he believes Enda Kenny will know when the time is right to step aside as Fine Gael leader.

"Enda Kenny has been a fabulous leader of Fine Gael for the last 15 years. The events of this week show the timeline for a general election is now shorter [...] I have absolutely every confidence that he’ll know when the right time is, for himself and for the party.”

On Enda Kenny's legacy

Coveney

Coveney called Enda Kenny "a towering figure in modern Irish history" and that he will be recognised as such.

"With his vision, determination, positivity and relentless work-rate he led our party back from defeat and to sustained electoral success, culminating in victory in the 2011 general election and a record result for our party."

"I am proud to have served in opposition and then in Government with Enda.

"I saw at close quarters how skilled and driven he was to succeed for our party, in Government and for our country.

"His record in Government since 2011 will be viewed very positively by historians, not least how he led the restoration of our economic financial independence over that period, which was a landmark event."

Image: Eamonn Farrell

Varadkar

Leo Varadkar said the outgoing Taoiseach "brought Fine Gael from the edge of extinction to its current position".

"Enda Kenny has been an extraordinary Taoiseach and Fine Gael's most successful leader ever. After decades of service to our Party and country, we owe him a debt of gratitude.

“On a personal level, I owe him so much. He appointed me to the Party’s Front Bench following my first election as a TD. I was honoured to accept a Ministerial position from him after the 2011 election.

"I have learned a lot from Enda, in particular how to lead a team of people with many talents and diverse views.”

Image: Eamonn Farrell

 

On the issue of the Eighth Amendment

Coveney

Coveney said he does not support proposals that would allow abortion on demand in Ireland.

Speaking in Dublin, Coveney suggested a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment could be held on the same day as extending voting rights to emigrants.

He said: "Hopefully next year we will have a referendum day whereby we ask a number of fundamental questions, of course we have to be ready for that, though.

"I think there’s a lot of work to be done to be ready for that – in particular, on issues around the 8th amendment.

"I am uncomfortable with some of those recommendations, I do think that there is change necessary in this area - but I don't support an approach that effectively facilitates abortion on demand in Ireland".

Varadkar

Varadkar has previously stated he does not favour abortion on request but supports terminations in the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and when a mother’s life is at risk.

When asked by The Irish Times yesterday if he supported the Citizens' Assembly’s proposals - recommending to the Oireachtas that unrestricted legal abortion be introduced - Varadkar said they were sincerely held and different views held by members of each of the political parties and a respectful debate was required.

Endorsements

Coveney

Way back in 1998, the then-Fine Gael leader John Bruton fully endorsed Coveney’s character.

On Coveney, Bruton said that: "despite being only 26, had already shown positive signs of leadership".

He said the best candidate was being put forward and the party was giving him its full support, adding it would be "foolhardy" for other candidates to oppose Coveney.

(L-R) Former Fine Gael TD Deirdre Clune with former party leader John Bruton and then newly elected Simon Coveney and his mother Pauline as he entered the Dáil for the first time. Image: RollingNews.ie

However, former Labour candidate Kathleen Lynch didn’t mince her words when it came to the Cork TD - she previously called him disloyal for talking about a possible coalition with Fianna Fáil in 2015 in the lead up to the general election.

"We've stood by Fine Gael. It's a bit disloyal now at a certain level to be making that kind of remark. But then again, Simon is involved in two battles. One with Leo Varadkar, and one with the electorate", she told Newstalk's Lunchtime two years ago.

Louth Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, has announced he will vote for Coveney. Minister for Health Simon Harris, has also backed the Housing Minister.

Minister Dara Murphy suggested that Simon Coveney has the qualities needed to lead Ireland.

The Cork North Central TD is backing his fellow Cork man to take over as leader of the Fine Gael party and Taoiseach.

Speaking to Cork's 96 FM News, the Minister for European Affairs said: "I've worked and known Simon Coveney for many years, and I think he's got the qualities we need at this time to lead the country."

Former Health Minister James Reilly has also given his backing to Mr Coveney.

Senator Reilly, who has stepped down as deputy leader of the Fine Gael party, told Newstalk Drive Mr Coveney is the right man to lead the party.

"He's got tremendous experience, he's got tremendous collegiality, a sense of teamwork and a hard worker.

"But he's also not afraid to take on the hard issues - take on housing, take on Irish Water.

"He's a very good negotiator: he's polite but he's firm, he's not antagonistic".

Varadkar

Meanwhile, former Labour TD John Lyons praised Varadkar’s communication skills.

"He responds to texts, is very frank and doesn’t promise the moon and the stars ... He comes back with an answer in a couple of days, and sometimes that’s all you need: to be kept in the loop," he said.

Fine Gael TD Noel Rock backed Varadkar as “an obvious choice” for the party.

Not everyone’s a fan of Leo, mind. In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Kathleen Lynch appeared to imply that the Minister was not only obsessed with publicity, but difficult to work with.

 

 

Minister Paschal Donohoe has declared his support for Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership race.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast earlier, the Public Expenditure Minister described Varadkar as "the most substantial and capable politician of my generation".

Minister Donohoe explained: "He has a rare combination of intellect and judgement that I believe make him the best person to lead Ireland as we deal with new risks, and make the most of some great opportunities."

He said he made the decision on the back of his experiences dealing with the two men over several years in Cabinet.

Ministers Charlie Flanagan and Paul Kehoe, as well as TD Fergus O'Dowd, have also backed Varadkar.

Paul Kehoe argued: "As the political landscape continues to shift, at home and abroad, his forthright style and ability to effect change, makes him the best placed candidate to deal with the challenges facing us."

Newstalk presenter and former minister Ivan Yates has said Varadkar has an early lead in terms of support from TDs and senators.

He observed: "I think we're now at a point, if you were to ask me to name the voting intentions of the 73 members of parliamentary party ... I think most people have a good idea about how 60 of them are voting.

"The way I see the campaign developing, is when it eventually does start, there will be a race to get to 40 declarations of support - making it virtually impossible for the other person to win."

He added: "In February I said I thought Leo would win. I think that Leo is not too far off 40 declarations.

"I think Leo has a substantial lead, and I think he will win."

Achievements

Varadkar

In the area of transport, Varadkar lists additional funding of €75 million to create or sustain 1,000 jobs, including €60 million for road maintenance works, awarded €1 million for improvements at a number of commuter train stations, and €14 million allocated specifically to 'smarter transport projects' including cycle schemes, bus corridors, park and ride, and pedestrian facilities.

Then-Transport Minister Leo Varadkar with former Labour Party Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton and former Mayor of Fingal Kieran Dennison at the official opening of Hansfield Station in their constituency of West Dublin. Photo: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

As Minister for Health, Varadkar established an expert group to address the X case, resulting in the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act was passed in 2013. Reference pricing was introduced in the same year.

The Department also reviewed the Mental Health Act 2001 in consultation with service users, carers and other stakeholders. The total non-capital budget for mental health services in 2017 is €851.3 million.

The trolley crisis ultimately came to a head for Varadkar during his time as Minister for Health in 2015, while he was on holiday in Miami.

"I was away for a full three days”, he said. "The trolley numbers spiked on the second day and then I came back. But with modern technology you are always in touch."

The children’s hospital debacle has also proved to be problematic for the Minister, as the cost of the building contract continues to rack up. The build was also not realised in his lifetime as Minister for Health.

Earlier this month, Varadkar told the Irish Times the “decision was made where we would have the hospital, based on clinical grounds. It was not based on the cheapest place to build it, or nearest to motorway.”

Varadkar also failed to deliver a single-tier health service and the planned abolition of the Health Service Executive (HSE). No legislation was drawn up on organ donation, stem cell research and clarifying the law surrounding assisted human reproduction including the law relating parental relationships arising from assisted human reproduction.

As Minister for Social Protection, Varadkar succeeded in passing paternity benefit, set up a survey on PRSI for the self-employed, and has begun tackling the pensions shortfall predicted down the tracks.

This month, he announced provisional plans for the introduction of a ‘name and shame’ list of social welfare fraudsters, similar to that of Revenue’s ‘blacklist’ of tax defaulters.

Coveney

As Minister for Agriculture, Coveney’s fishing quotas and a ban on discards at sea of several whitefish species was welcomed by fishermen.

He’s also set out the national planning framework, which will attempt to map out the State’s population growth over the next 25 years. The plan, called Ireland 2040, is now open for public consultation, and Coveney will travel around the State holding townhall-style meetings on it before a final document is put before the Dáil in advance of October’s budget.

In January, Coveney confirmed all local authority members will receive an increase in the fixed allowance used to cover expenses incurred when on duty which will amount to up to about €2,500 - changes were welcomed Local Authority Members Association (LAMA).

Coveney took over as Minister for Housing at possibly the most difficult time in Government, facing three challenges in the form of homelessness, waste management and water charges.

Early in the Government, he put through legislation to suspend water charges for nine months.

The fruits of his €5bn Action Plan on Housing will probably not be seen until after the leadership contest and general election, as he promised to build 47,000 social houses by 2021.

His introduction of 4% rent caps - and the botched legislation which saw its passage delayed - has also been criticised.

Simon Coveney launching Pillar 2 of Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. This Pillar is said to be an accelerated provision of Social Housing. The Ministers were pictured at the development on the Tom Kelly Road off Charlemont Street in Dublin. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

 

So who’s it going to be?

A new Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes Poll showed Simon Coveney has taken a lead over Leo Varadkar for the first time among Fine Gael voters as their preferred successor to Enda Kenny.

Support for Mr Coveney is up two points to 33%, while Mr Varadkar is down six to 28%.

At the time of writing,Boylesports reports Coveney is now 6/4 from 7/4 to be the new Fine Gael leader, with Leo Varadkar remaining the odds on favourite to get the job with odds eased to 8/15 from 2/5.