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Home / News / Coveney sets sail from Cabinet as FG faces choppy waters

Coveney sets sail from Cabinet as FG faces choppy waters

The decision of the merchant prince of Cork, Simon Coveney, to up anchor and set sail from the shores of Cabinet was never going to provoke the same shock as Leo Varadkar’s revelation that he was abandoning ship a fortnight ago.

However, news of a second lifeboat being launched from a party that has been in power for 13 years, at the same time as 11 Fine Gael TDs making a swim for it themselves, and with one other 2020 General Election TD Eoghan Murphy long since departing, is not a minor matter either.

With the local and European elections two months away and a general election just over the ever-nearing horizon, a clear change of command is taking place within Fine Gael’s officer ranks.

Two of its biggest names are stepping back, if not yet retiring completely.

The party’s historically strong Cork heartland has been diluted.

Simon Coveney announced his decision to leave Cabinet on Tuesday

And with Fine Gael, at least for now, no longer having a senior minister south of Wicklow, the new leader may be forced to allow geographical practicalities to play a bigger role than expected in deciding who is promoted to the two now empty Cabinet seats.

A stormy sea of issues which taoiseach-in-waiting Simon Harris will have to navigate carefully at his first Ard Fheis as party leader in Co Galway this weekend.

Coveney’s legacy

Many of these issues, of course, would not be as clearly on the radar if a politician of less importance than Mr Coveney was stepping down.

Alongside Mr Varadkar, Mr Coveney is the last of the senior ministers to have been in place when Fine Gael returned to government in February 2011, with Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan, James Reilly, Frances Fitzgerald and Phil Hogan all either retiring, departing to sunnier climes or withdrawing into the still influential political shadows in subsequent years.

That connection with the start of Fine Gael’s longest consecutive term in power since the foundation of the State was not insignificant.

And while change is at times for the best, stability is never a bad thing either.

Mr Coveney was also widely seen as a leader in waiting for much of his career, only falling short in the summer 2017 leadership race against the campaign juggernaut of Mr Varadkar.

But even then, that race was if not closer, then more nuanced, than is sometimes acknowledged, as while Mr Varadkar won 51 of Fine Gael’s 73 parliamentary party votes, the percentage flipped at grassroots level where Mr Coveney won 65.1% of ordinary party member support, indicating solid backing among the heartbeat of the party.

Mr Coveney fell short to Leo Varadkar in the 2017 Fine Gael leadership contest

While he was criticised, sometimes unfairly, within party ranks and by media commentators for lacking star quality and being functional if not inspiring, Mr Coveney also held numerous Cabinet roles in his 13 years at the top table of Irish politics.

His calm and professional approach to Brexit as minister for foreign affairs was acknowledged even by detractors at home and abroad, while he also held roles in agriculture, defence, housing and enterprise – positions which if not always successful, at least allowed for a genuine insight into the realities of issues different people around the country.

Insight and experience that must now be replaced, and quickly.

Consequences for Cork

While he has not confirmed if he will run in the next general election, Mr Coveney’s departure from Cabinet has raised eyebrows in his Cork South Central base.

Since winning the 1998 by-election after the tragic death of his father Hugh Coveney, who himself was a sitting Fine Gael TD, Simon Coveney has been a standard-bearer for the party, both in the constituency and Munster itself.

He held onto his seat during Fine Gael’s disastrous 2002 general election, a position he has retained, including during a three-year period as an MEP between 2004 and 2007.

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While some of the success may have been down to the family name and some of it due to the make-up of the constituency itself – Cork South Central is historically dominated, if not entirely controlled, by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – being elected to represent your community six times in a row is no joke.

As such, party officials will not be laughing at the prospect of finding a suitable replacement for him, should he leave.

Although Mr Coveney has previously indicated he will contest the next general election, when asked about his future plans on RTÉ’s Today With Claire Byrne programme on Tuesday, he was more circumspect.

He said: “It’s not a yes, or it’s not a no, it’s me just being honest about it. I have to decide what the future holds for me and how I can contribute.

“That’s something I’m not going to rush. It’s something, to be honest, I haven’t really thought about really because I’ve been so focused and busy with the various the jobs I’ve been lucky to have.”

The lukewarm, undecided answer will do nothing to end political gossip that Mr Coveney, who recently moved his family home an admittedly short distance to the Cork East constituency, may not seek re-election.

Simon Coveney was first elected to the Dáil in 1998

And, while there is always an ambitious councillor or senator waiting in the wings, it is not without its potential problems.

Fine Gael currently has four Cork-based TDs: Mr Coveney, Michael Creed (Cork North West), Colm Burke (Cork North Central) and David Stanton (Cork East).

However, two – Mr Creed and Mr Stanton – have already confirmed they are not seeking re-election, meaning if Mr Coveney does not run, Fine Gael will have just one sitting Cork-based TD in the run-in to the next general election.

For a party which so often heavily promotes its close links to the most Corkman of them all, Michael Collins, and which is keen to emphasise it is not overly-weighted to what is sometimes referred to as the Dublin elite, it is an image that will need to be addressed.

Consequences for Cabinet

Those same geographical consequences are also likely to now influence the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

With Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar both confirming they will be leaving Cabinet in the coming days, two seats – Mr Coveney’s enterprise portfolio, and Mr Harris’ further and higher education portfolio – are now available for Mr Harris to fill with new Cabinet names and faces when the Dáil returns next week.

Until now, the taoiseach-in-waiting had limited room to manoeuvre, with Dublin-based junior ministers Neale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown) and Jennifer Carroll McNeill (Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown) competing for full Cabinet positions alongside Longford-Westmeath junior minister Peter Burke, and potentially Limerick junior minister Patrick O’Donovan or Galway West TD and Government chief whip Hildegarde Naughton.

The positive in this dilemma, of course, is obvious – Mr Harris can now potentially keep two of the five happy rather than one, and may even be able to use some of the reshuffled junior minister posts to calm any hidden frustrations.

But Mr Coveney’s Cabinet departure also opens up a new potential issue, in that unless Mr Harris makes a left-field promotion, Fine Gael will have no senior minister south of Wicklow – not exactly an image that will sell well in Munster.

Simon Harris has room to fill in his new cabinet

Promoting Mr O Donovan – who had a short-lived falling out with Mr Harris over leak claims in 2021 – could address the problem, as could making a fresh attempt to persuade outgoing Kerry TD Brendan Griffin to reluctantly accept the higher political calling, which he has so far publicly said he would not be interested in taking.

But neither option is clear cut, and while the rumoured promotion of Mr Burke would go some way to addressing any rural-urban divide concerns, unless Longford-Westmeath is somehow physically picked up and anchored off the southwest coast, one look at a map indicates the same issue.

While Mr Harris has been keen to stress he will not make any decisions on his Cabinet team until next week when, barring a sudden revolt, he is likely to be elected by the Dáil, Mr Coveney’s departure does have one further impact on the Cabinet reshuffle.

Since Mr Varadkar’s shock announcement that he was stepping down a fortnight ago, Helen McEntee’s name has been among those raised in discussions over who may be swept away by the new leader broom.

That now seems less likely, as moving three high-profile Cabinet members to the backbenches in one go may be more change than is needed, while it could also backfire if an upswing in public support does not happen.

And while a change in portfolio is not yet ruled out – Mr Harris has emphasised the need for a new approach to law and order in recent speeches – expectations are growing that Mr Coveney’s departure means Ms McEntee is likely to remain at the Cabinet table.

Insight into Harris

What, if anything, Mr Coveney’s departure indicates about Mr Harris’s approach to his embryonic leadership remains to be seen.

The new Fine Gael leader and taoiseach-in-waiting was quick to speak highly of Mr Coveney after Tuesday’s announcement, giving gushing praise to a man he himself backed to become party leader in 2017.

“I have known and worked alongside Simon Coveney for many years, and I have seen very few people more dedicated to public service and proud of Ireland and the EU,” Mr Harris said in a statement.

“Simon [Coveney] is a pivotal figure in Fine Gael, and his announcement today that he will step down from cabinet next week will not change that. I look forward to working with him, but for today, I want to thank Simon [Coveney] for his service and his friendship,” he said.

With Mr Coveney similarly praising his namesake as “a really talented person” who will “bring forward new ideas and energy”, any suggestion he was encouraged to step down by a new leader keen to re-energise the party would appear to be wide of the mark.

Harris and Coveney spoke highly of each other following the latter’s announcement

But it should be noted there is also no suggestion that Mr Harris made any strong attempt for his colleague to stay, while days earlier eyebrows were raised in media circles when it emerged Mr Coveney’s long-time advisor and former broadcaster Chris Donoghue was leaving him to take up a new role as Government press secretary.

While Mr Coveney’s departure will be a loss for Fine Gael, the party is in a renewal stage, inevitably meaning change must take place.

And although those close to Mr Harris have insisted there was no attempt to convince his colleague to step aside, the suspicion that Mr Coveney saw the signs and may have decided to go with dignity rather than be removed has not been completely shelved.

Asked by RTÉ’s Gavin Jennings on Tuesday’s News at One if Mr Coveney’s decision to step down from Cabinet had a degree of him wanting to go and Mr Harris not wanting him to stay, RTÉ Southern Editor Paschal Sheehy said he believed the polite answer is “a bit of both”.

As Mr Harris’s leadership sets sail for the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Galway this weekend with another colleague preparing to depart, how both men navigate the choppy waters of the coming days will be watched closely by those still on board.

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