Simon Coveney to stand down from Cabinet

Fine Gael Minister’s impending departure means incoming taoiseach Simon Harris now has three ministerial vacancies to fill

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Simon Coveney has said he will step down from Cabinet when the Dáil resumes next week after 13 years as a senior minister.

His announcement means that presumptive taoiseach Simon Harris now has three ministerial vacancies to assign, two of which are at Cabinet level.

Mr Coveney said he knew Mr Harris had been “struggling” with the decision as to who to have in his Cabinet since becoming Fine Gael leader and he felt it was time “to give him space” to create new opportunities within the party and in Government.

Mr Harris, who is expected to be elected as taoiseach next week, will also have to assign a new minister to the Department of Further and Higher Education, his own current brief.

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He will also have to appoint a new Minister of State at the Department of Education after Dublin Rathdown TD Josepha Madigan resigned from that job and confirmed she will not contest the next election.

Fine Gael Ministers of State who will be hoping for a promotion to Cabinet include Neale Richmond, currently the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Peter Burke.

Mr Coveney’s impending departure leaves Fine Gael without any Cork-based ministers, which might boost Cork North-Central backbencher Colm Burke’s chances of elevation to the ministerial ranks, though others like Mayo’s Alan Dillion and Dublin Mid-West’s Emer Higgins could also be in with a chance of promotion.

He told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that it had been an amazing experience to serve in Cabinet over the past 13 years.

Asked if he intended to seek re-election at the next general election, Mr Coveney said that was not a question for this week. Late last month he said he would be running to retain his seat in Cork South Central.

Eleven sitting Fine Gael TDs have announced they will not contest the next general election. A 12th, former minister Eoghan Murphy, left politics in 2021.

Mr Coveney said one of the most difficult things for an incoming party leader was to form a team that could “slot into government”, particularly in an election year.

“That’s a really difficult decision for Simon. He’s going to be the youngest taoiseach ever. He’s a really talented person. I think he’ll want to bring forward new ideas and new energy in the party. And I think he’ll want to bring a team with him to do that,” he said.

“And I don’t know whether he was going to ask me to be in Cabinet as part of that team or not. I know he was he was weighing that up. And we spoke about that both last week and again this week. But I think it makes life easier for him. And I think it’s also, you know, a recognition by me, too, that Fine Gael needs renewal.”

Mr Coveney said Fine Gael would go into the next general election seeking to be part of government for a fourth successive term.

“And I think a party needs to find a way of renewing itself, refreshing itself, bringing forward new faces, new voices, new ideas. And, in many ways, when Leo Varadkar decided to step down a couple of weeks ago, he started that process,” he said.

“And obviously my initial reaction to that was to steady the ship, if you like, to work within the party to make sure that we could manage the transition to a new leader quickly and efficiently and professionally, because the country needs that right now.

When asked about commentary suggesting that, following Mr Varadkar’s decision, he was being “sidelined”, Mr Coveney responded that when there was a change of leadership there would always be “jockeying for position” and people who were ambitious would want to create space for themselves.

“And they’ll talk to journalists and create stories and narratives. You know, that’s normal politics.”

The decision of Mr Varadkar to stand aside could be a positive for Fine Gael, Mr Coveney added.

“It’s a new opportunity. It’s an exciting opportunity. I think we’re a party, like any other that that needs to renew all the time. And, you know, it’s the same in sport. It’s the same in business. It’s the same in politics,” he said.

“When you’ve been effectively at the helm for a long period of time, when there’s significant change created, which is what Leo has done, then I think everybody needs to reflect on their own position and how they fit into the future plans.”

Mr Varadkar praised Mr Coveney as “one of the hardest working and most loyal people I have ever had the privilege of working with”.

In a post on social media, he wrote: “Simon has been a trusted colleague for my entire period in the Dáil and in Government.

“He was alongside me as a fellow Minister in Enda Kenny’s first Cabinet in 2011, and has worked diligently in the interests of the nation, the Government and the Party since then.”

Mr Varadkar said he was “blessed” to have Mr Coveney as Fine Gael’s deputy leader, tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs.

“This was particularly so on Brexit and our successful campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council and our policies to increase the budget for international development and our diplomatic footprint,” he added.

Following Mr Coveney’s announcement, Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly said it was time for a general election rather than electing “a taoiseach who has no mandate from the people”.

“People don’t want more of the same. They want change, and it is time for new people with new ideas,” she said. “We need a fresh mandate and a new government, and we need a general election now.”

Danny McCoy, chief executive of business lobby group Ibec, paid tribute to Mr Coveney who he said “played an instrumental role” on issues important to the business community during his time in Cabinet.

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