Fine Gael TDs praise Simon Coveney but some say ‘he jumped before he was pushed’

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill tipped for Cabinet post, with one backbencher identifying her as future leader

Simon Coveney’s decision to step down as a Cabinet Minister has come as no surprise to some of his party colleagues after repeated speculation about his future.

One TD suggested “he jumped before he was pushed”.

But while most praised his achievements after 13 years in Government and five ministerial portfolios, his departure was welcomed by some.

“Delighted,” said one backbencher at his announcement. “He has been kept for too long” as a Minister. The TD who did not want to be identified, believes three Ministers of State – Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Peter Burke and Patrick O’Donovan – are in contention for the two available Cabinet positions, Mr Coveney’s enterprise portfolio and Mr Harris’s own role as Minister for Further and Higher Education.

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But the TD warned of geographical requirements that mean “Munster will have to have someone”.

For another backbencher Ms Carroll MacNeill is not only the preferred TD for a senior ministerial position but also for the top job.

Some have suggested that Mr Harris knows she is his main rival and could be reluctant to promote her. “Without hesitation, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill (for a Cabinet position) and for leader. Unless I’m greatly mistaken she is the future leader of Fine Gael,” said the TD, also off the record.

“I would have preferred Paschal as leader. Simon will do a good job, no doubt, but in terms of statesmanship and other competencies that’s Paschal.”

One backbencher warned that experience and suggested former minister Michael Ring, a TD for Mayo since 1994. There was a need to “resurrect the party” and “he’s a wild card, but he’s a very strong rural voice and the party needs that”. The TD also worried “about the stories coming out” and feared there was too much emphasis on law and order and not enough on social conscience.

Former minister and party chairman Richard Bruton said “Simon by any standard has made a massive contribution” as deputy leader, and minister for agriculture, defence, housing, foreign affairs and enterprise.

And as for who should be in Cabinet, “undoubtedly the question that every leader has is ‘are you running in the next election’ because he’s building a team into the next election”.

Mr Coveney has equivocated on whether he would be standing again but Mr Bruton said it was key that anyone standing for Cabinet would run in the next election. “If you’re part of the frontline you can’t desert the field when the battle is starting.”

The Dublin Bay North TD said there was a lot of talent in the party and “in the context of the priorities he wants to set he will want to have ministers in place who can best articulate those”.

Former Minister of State Ciaran Cannon praised Mr Coveney’s achievements and said he was surprised at his announcement. The Galway East TD recently announced his own departure from politics after 20 years, saying he had “no more to give”. He said maybe Mr Coveney had also reached that point.

“He has made a huge contribution, particularly in foreign affairs,” said Mr Cannon who served as a Minister of State for foreign affairs alongside him. “He was a superb representative for Ireland at the UN, in Brussels and especially during Brexit, he was particularly effective.”

He added that the former Tánaiste was always very careful with the North and “not doing anything” to damage the peace process. He too declined to speculate on Cabinet positions and said it would undermine what was a matter for the leader.

Cork North Central TD Colm Burke was equally reluctant to state a preference. “It would be unfair of me to make any comment on that. It’s very much up in the air who’s in and who’s out.”

But he said Mr Coveney’s departure was a big lost for Cork. “When Simon became a Minister in 2011 we had 15 per cent unemployment. Now there are 35,000/40,000 more people at work. In the country there are 800,000 more people at work. There has been commercial development in the Cork area and he had a substantial role in that. He had a really central role in the development of infrastructure for the pharma and IT sectors.”

Cork East TD David Stanton “said he’s had a long time at the top of Irish politics and done a good job wherever he was and is highly respected in this area. My most recent serious engagement with him was the flooding and he put in place a scheme to help businesses get started again. He put a lot of personal time and effort into it.”

He added that Mr Coveney, with whom he worked for four years in the Department of Justice, will be missed in the Cork region. Mr Stanton said the job of a minister was “48/7 not 24/7”.

On the new positions he would only say “it does make it easier for him that he now has two Cabinet roles he can promote people to”.

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