Not even twenty-four hours had passed before the big guns in Fine Gael began to form ranks and jump in behind one of the two contenders for the throne vacated by Enda Kenny this week. This battle, despite being crucial with regards to Ireland’s future political scene, is also a perfect example of personality driven centre politics.
How so, you may ask? Well, one only needs to look at the two men who have put themselves forward for both the leadership of the party and as head of the Government until the next election. Leo Varadkar, the flashy Dublin based Libertarian who sits on the right of the party political line, but could also be the first gay Prime Minister or Taoiseach in the history of Irish politics, faces down Simon Coveney, the social democrat who hails from Cork, is a favourite with the vast rural electorate and is viewed as a more moderate, conservative candidate.
Where do we stand?
Confusing, isn’t it? Welcome to Irish politics – a place where the centre really is in the centre and as far as political extremism goes, it is practically non-existent. Fine Gael currently sit in government courtesy of its rival party – Fianna Fáil who have accommodated a minority government. Both parties sit in the centre of politics with Fianna Fáil on the ever so slightly left, while Fine Gael hangs around occasionally on the right. And just to keep things neat and tidy, in the European Parliament, Fianna Fáil bunk in with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) while Fine Gael try to look conservative in the European People’s Party (EPP). But despite what is written on paper, neither party can really call itself right or left.
So while our two potential leaders are trying desperately to push different agendas, despite their best efforts, this will be all about them. Any member of the Fine Gael party will have a vote and that means that 18000 people will decide who leads us in government for the next couple of years. This leadership will be decided by an electoral college that gives the parliamentary party, made up of TDs, senators and MEPs, 65% of the vote while paid-up members of the party have 25% and councillors 10%.
A perfect partner
Fianna Fáil will have no influence on who will be Taoiseach due to the agreement made when establishing the last government and it’s probably safe to say that they won’t be too pushed on who is nominated anyway, because it’s most likely going to be same old same old. They claim to be bitter rivals, but ideologically, the two parties are identical and when it comes to running the country, nobody sees a major threat to the political situation in the two candidates. This symbiosis is a coalition in every way except officially, and in Coveney and Varadkar, Fianna Fáil knows exactly what they will get. Both contenders have served as government ministers in various departments including transport, health and housing over the last ten years. And while they adopt very different tactics, the candidates are pretty savvy and well able to deal with the media and rival parties.
So what do you get from these two guys? Coveney has been a politician since 1998 and is seen as the moderate, calm type – not prone to outbursts or emotional decision making, while Varadkar is controversial in that he has gone against the party line on a number of occasions and can be somewhat impulsive in his comments and decisions since his arrival on the scene in 2007. Strangely enough, Varadkar would be considered as more conservative – despite the fact that he is openly gay- and has been seen as having less faith in the social system. Nevertheless, he has strong support in the party, in particular in the younger sections, and at 38, certainly has time on his side. Coveney however, despite being only 44, is already struggling with the challenge that he is too old compared to his rival, which is not surprising really in today’s flash and splash political sphere. But yet again we go back to the problem with Irish politics in that it is very difficult to determine who will be the best person for Taoiseach, because there is so little difference between them and the policies they believe in. One would think that the more aggressive and impulsive Varadkar could be the right choice to lead Ireland in the Brexit negotiations in that he seems the type that would not hold back, and frankly, take no messing about from Britain. However, Coveney has served in the EU Parliament as an MEP so has experience in understanding how Europe works and would be able to view the situation with both eyes so to speak. It almost has you thinking that if you could somehow splice them together, you would have the perfect leader for the next couple of years, which unfortunately is impossible, but is a good thought anyway.
But despite the fact that we have only until Friday, June 2nd, I think we can expect some in-house jostling between the candidates and maybe we will see a more diverse set of characteristics from each of them. But until then, we now face a contest that is only about the personalities, and not the policies, because you’ll find that both their lists will be re-worded rather than re-written.