- 10 Jun 15
The son of a wealthy ‘merchant prince’ and politician, Simon Coveney was plunged into politics aged 25 when his father died suddenly. He has had a colourful career, encompassing ‘heaves’ against two Fine Gael leaders and a key part in the gay marriage campaign. In an extensive interview, the Minister speaks openly about the challenge of balancing family life and political ambitions – and lots more besides.
"Jesus, you barely even asked me about the same sex marriage referendum,” observes Minister Simon Coveney as he walks Hot Press out of a meeting room in the Department of Agriculture at the conclusion of this hour-long interview.
A tall, prematurely grey-haired Corkonian of 42, he nods sagely when it’s explained that there hadn't seemed much point: the whole thing will be done and dusted by the time this is in print. “Yeah, I suppose,” he says. As it happened, there were plenty of other matters to discuss. The son of the late Hugh Coveney (a Fine Gael TD and a member of one of Cork’s most prominent merchant prince families), Simon entered politics in 1998, at the tender age of 25, when he took his father’s Cork South-Central seat in the by-election caused by his death. His rise through the ranks of Fine Gael since has been steady. He served as an MEP from 2004 to 2007. Despite being involved in a challenge to Enda Kenny’s leadership in 2010, he was appointed as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in March 2011. In last year’s cabinet reshuffle, he was appointed Minister for Defence.
OLAF TYARANSEN: What’s your earliest memory?
SIMON COVENEY: Probably being on the beach with my family as a child in Cork. A beach called Rocky Bay or Fountainstown, throwing stones into the sea with my parents...
You come from quite a big family...
Yeah, seven children – six boys and a girl. I’ve had an extraordinarily lucky upbringing in that I had two very loving parents, an incredibly stable family relationship and household. Never really wanted for anything, either financially or emotionally. So I was one of the lucky ones.
Was it a religious household?
Reasonably. We'd have gone to mass on Sundays. I grew up in Blackrock in Cork until fifth class in primary school. And then we moved to a farm in a place called Minane Bridge, which is just south of Cork. It was like chalk and cheese, going from an urban school to very much a rural school that had one teacher for the last three classes. But all of the siblings are very, very close. We talk to each other regularly. And now that my father isn’t alive, incredibly close to my mother as well...
You had a bad stammer as a child?
When I started in secondary school I had quite a serious stutter. I literally wasn’t able to read out loud and it was one of the reasons why I didn’t do well in languages. I wasn’t able to do oral exams very well. If I’m reading Irish, it’s still difficult. French is a bit easier because it’s just an easier language to speak in terms of getting words out. Luckily for me, I’ve learned how to cope with it.
Does it recur in moments of stress?
It’s not normally stress-related for me. It's a really weird condition. No one has a solution to it. Everything has been tried from breathing programmes to hypnosis to drugs. I think individuals have to find a way through. You’ll rarely see me read a speech, because I like to choose my words as I speak. People who stammer know the words and the syllables that they will have difficulty with, and so they tend to avoid them. Often, for example, people stutter on words that begin with C. So instead of talking about cows in the field, I might talk about the Friesians in the field (laughs). My stammer started to get a lot better when I was 15 or 16. Who'd have thought that a spotty teenager, as I was, with a stammer, would end up as a government Minister who’s literally giving three or four speeches every day? And speaking on television debates without having any difficulty with my speech, most of the time. Hopefully the two or three per cent of people in
the country that do have a stammer, particularly younger ones, will get some encouragement from that.
Were you bullied because of it?
No, although you get slagged off for whatever weakness you have. I only got involved in a couple of fights in school. Normally it was in response to somebody slagging me off over how I spoke. I was lucky enough to be reasonably physically big and quite athletic. I wasn’t the kind of person who was going to be physically bullied. But, look, not everyone’s that fortunate.
You were expelled from Clongowes Wood College...
I suppose I was (smiles). I was asked back again though so ‘expelled’ sounds like a strong word. When I was in fourth year, I did go through a phase of deliberately breaking the rules: I wouldn’t be alone in that. It was a boarding school so I basically ran away a couple of times – and ended up getting asked to leave. I had become quite friendly with a number of the teachers, and some of them probably went to the principal and said, “Look, this is a bit over the top. We don’t really think Simon’s the kind of person we should be kicking out of the school.” It was relatively innocent stuff, but I think they had to make an example of me.
How did your parents react?
It was probably the only time I had a strained relationship with my parents for a short period.
What age were you when you had your first drink?
Oh God, I’d say probably 14 or 15. I don’t think I’d be anything unusual there.
Being in an all-male boarding school, I presume young women were not easily available...
We'd have ‘social evenings’ in fourth or fifth year with girl schools that would have been very controlled. We came home every month and would have gone out like anyone else. I think boarding school was really good for me actually. I became very independent at a young age.
What age were you when you lost your virginity?
Oh Jesus! (laughs) I’m not sure if I should be revealing that. I think I’ll keep that one to myself.
Did you experiment with any illegal drugs in your youth?
I didn’t use any hard illegal drugs. I did smoke cannabis maybe three times or something like that, experimenting at parties rather than... (pauses). I never bought any illegal drugs. I never traded any illegal drugs. Out of pure curiosity, I had a drag of a cigarette maybe two or three times. To be honest, it wasn’t for me. I never really understood the fascination. I saw it as more of a dirty thing. When I was growing up, I was very interested in sport, whether it was swimming or rugby, and fitness generally was something I was interested in. So I was curious about what all the talk was about. It never really impacted on my life one way or the other. As regards alcohol I was like a lot of other young people. I would’ve celebrated and gone out a lot when I was in college.
Where did you go to college?
I was in UCC for a while and then I was in college in England for three years. And I was in agricultural college in between the two: Gurteen Agricultural College in Tipperary. I was a bit of a messer through college, enjoyed life, played a fair bit of sport, and had lots of relationships.
Lots of relationships?
Ha! Actually probably not that many relationships, come to think of it, because I was with my now-wife for, not all, but most of that period. I don’t think I was anything out of the ordinary.
You worked as a manager on a farm for a while...
I was in UCC for a year. I did history, economics, sociology and psychology. But we’d moved to a farm, and nobody in my family knew anything about farming. I was interested in it: I saw it as an opportunity to be my own boss essentially by my mid-20s, which sounded like an appealing career choice because it was a decent-sized commercial farm. So I decided I'd take a year out of UCC and I went to Gurteen, where I was bit of a fish out of water at first because I didn’t know anything about practical farming. Everyone else would have grown up on farms. I’d never driven a tractor. But I really enjoyed that year and decided that I wanted to build a career in agriculture and food. And so I subsequently did a science degree in agriculture and land management in England.
Did you work on your family’s farm?
I wanted to make my mistakes away from home so I ended up working with a family in Mallow called the Crowleys, who were a very hard-working and very successful commercial farming family. I learned a lot there, but before settling down to business on my own family farm, we decided that we wanted to do something adventurous and different as a family, that would raise a lot of money for a charity that a number of us believed strongly in, the Chernobyl Children’s Project.
This was your charity sailing trip around the world?
We had a family boat that was built by a Norwegian guy in Crosshaven back in the late ‘70s to sail around the world in. He died before it was finished and his wife sold it on. Dad then bought it cheaply and finished it. I, with a couple of my other brothers, said, “Look, why don’t we try sail across the Atlantic. That’s what the boat was built for. It'd be great adventure before we settled down into serious careers.” We knew Adi Roche and she inspired a number of us – she still does, in my case.
What age were you at this point?
I was the oldest, at 24, in this conversation. I’d a brother two years younger; two brothers, twins, four years younger; and a sister six years younger than me. We didn’t want any other adult on board, and wanted all the money to go directly to the charity – which was what happened. As we were planning a transatlantic trip, the others were going to have to take a full year out of university. We said, “Jesus, how far can we get in a year? Could we get around the world?” It took 22 months in the end. And the objective was to raise the equivalent of a million euros for charity. We headed off full of excitement in the autumn of 1997.
Your father drowned in Cork while you were away...
Of all ironies, we were in the Galapagos Islands in the middle of the Pacific, having sailed across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal. Dad drowned in Cork Harbour while we were at the place on the planet that is seen as the cradle, where life began. Everyone was worrying about us having an accident and, so close to home, we were hit with a tragedy like that. There wasn’t even a phone that we could access without going to the middle of an island called San Cristobal in the middle of the Galapagos Islands. But we had an email system on board, so we were getting messages saying you’ve got to ring home straight away. So we all came home and, subsequently, I got involved in politics and the others went back and finished that trip.
Had you been interested in politics?
Ah, yeah. I would've been involved in a couple of campaigns with Dad. I certainly never anticipated I’d be entering politics at 25. That was never the plan. I think real life experience around careers and jobs and the highs and lows of relationships and life and family does add something to a politician.
You first came to wider public attention in the heave against John Bruton...
You know, I really came from nowhere. I got elected on the back of a very emotional campaign and on a very emotional tragedy, I’d say out of respect for my dad, and out of sympathy for me and the family. I think people probably voted to give me a chance, if I’m truthful. It wasn’t because of any great campaign by me. I don’t think I was inspiring people. I’ve managed to win every election since and hopefully earned the respect of the electorate. I think I was a bit of a feature in that leadership challenge against John Bruton – which I didn’t enjoy, because I have a huge amount of time for John. I thought it the right thing to do. And I stuck with what I thought was correct.
Later on, you were also involved in the failed heave against Enda Kenny.
I wouldn’t say involved. There was a challenge to Enda’s leadership and I took a position. It would be inaccurate to say that I’m involved in heaves. I wasn’t involved in the heave against John. When a leader is challenged, I believe that people should take a position. I took a position, the one I thought was the right one. As I say, I didn’t get any pleasure out of it. Politics is a tough game. Fine Gael leadership contests have been difficult and nasty, and people and colleagues and friends fall out as a result of it, and hopefully they’re mature enough to be able to rebuild those relationships afterwards.
Why hasn’t the government acted on the findings of the Moriarty Report?
Enda Kenny isn’t responsible for the Moriarty Tribunal report!
He promised he would act swiftly on it.
He has acted on it in a major way. Political donations are basically non-existent now. They’re totally transparent. The relationship between politics and the business community in Ireland is totally different. The way politics and government operates now, even on things like State board appointments, is totally different. We have a screening system. When Fianna Fail was in government they just appointed pals, basically, and Bertie Ahern wasn’t even hiding it. I mean he openly would have said, “I support my friends and I put them into boards. So what?” The whole atmosphere that would have contributed to business people effectively looking to bribe politicians, to influence decisions... that has totally changed.
It doesn’t happen anymore?
Genuinely, I don’t think that happens now. Of course people try to influence politicians. I think that’s the very nature of it. When you’re a Minister, you make decisions that impact people’s lives. People will try to persuade you to make different decisions. I can assure you, the rules and regulations now around corporate donations and personal donations to politicians and political parties are such that it would be a very foolish businessperson who would try to influence politicians by giving large contributions to them. You’ve got to publish it all.
There are many ways of giving money without it being published.
There’s no perfect system and there will always be people who will try. If you have a corrupt politician, he’ll find a way around that. If you’ve a corrupt business person, they’ll try to find a way around it. We have a system in place to make the relationship between business and politics much, much more transparent – and not before time.
You gave an emotional speech at a business summit about the heavy toll politics takes on family life.
The most difficult part of my job is being a father at the same time, and a good husband. People do need to know that politicians are human beings as well. I have three beautiful daughters. I got a call this morning to say one had a fall in school and needed to be collected because she was pale and nauseous and, when you’re a father, you need to drop what you’re doing and solve those problems. Because your children come first. That is difficult for me at times and I miss magic moments with my children in terms of their growing up.
What ages are your daughters?
One is nearly six, I’ve a four-year-old, and I’ve a two-year-old. So that's why, when I’m not working, I don’t go golfing or go sailing or go to a match for the day. On a rare occasion I might. Generally when not working I’m with my family and we do things together.
Are you in Dublin most of the week?
Normally I come on Monday night, sometimes Sunday, it depends what’s on. I’m always in Dublin till Thursday night, sometimes Friday. Fridays and Saturdays are busy days for politicians so I try to keep Sundays free. If I don’t have a function on, we have this rule that Friday is DVD night with me and the kids. We set the bedroom up accordingly and it’s fun. You need to create moments like that. Otherwise you lose connection with your kids when you have a job that’s as demanding as being a Minister in government. I love what I’m doing. I get a huge kick out of it. I see it as an extraordinary privilege to be essentially in the cockpit of government in terms of how a country runs. So in terms of my career, I am where I wanted to be. As a father, I’m sometimes tested in terms of being where I want to be. And that for me is a big priority. When you’ve got the IFA baying for blood on something, and when you’ve got fishermen looking for something, and when you’ve got soldiers that have an issue in terms of the defence forces.... And that’s on top of trying to run a referendum campaign, as well as look after a constituency – it’s a challenge.
As Minister for Defence, are you concerned that Russian fighter jets have been entering Irish airspace?
They haven’t. They’ve been entering international airspace that the Irish Aviation Authority is responsible for. There is a difference. If they’d entered Irish airspace, they’d have been breaking the law.
What can be done?
Very little. The last paper which determines defence policy was put in place in 2000. That made it clear that, really, our air corps has a surveillance capacity and minor defence capacity in terms of our helicopters. Essentially what our air corps does is it supports An Garda Síochana and the naval service. We don’t have an air defence capacity of any significance. Whether that’s right or that’s wrong we’re actually debating at the moment in the context of a new white paper on defence which we’ll hopefully have over the line and agreed by government by the end of July. It’s a big priority for me in terms of policy between now and the election. So, yeah, we had Russian bombers flying down the west coast of Ireland just outside Irish airspace. With no notice and with their radar signals switched off, which is reckless behaviour. Out of courtesy that shouldn’t be happening. The only reason we knew they were coming into Irish-controlled airspace – international airspace – was because the UK let us know. And they were tailing them with RAF fighter jets, so we have a good relationship with the UK now. We have a memorandum of understanding with them on defence. I think that has led to a trust and a cooperation and a sharing of information that is probably more constructive than we’ve ever had before.
Are you concerned that rendition flights could still be passing through Shannon?
I don’t think there’s any question of rendition flights now. When I was in the European Parliament, I asked questions about that. There seemed to be no evidence that rendition flights were taking place at the time. There was never conclusive evidence that they were happening through Shannon. The last government, and certainly this government, has made it clear that this is not something that we would facilitate.
Given that some US states have legalised marijuana, can you ever see drugs being legalised here?
I’d be uncomfortable with it. When you legalise something you’re essentially saying that it’s okay and that you’re giving a signal that it is not a problem – and I think it is. I think marijuana used for recreational purposes is a cause of a lot of problems. In terms of a linkage with mental health issues and there being a negative downside to it. Actually the first job I got when I became a TD was to be an opposition spokesperson on drugs policy in youth. We did a lot of work on the impact of marijuana... I had and have an open mind to being convinced. I haven’t been persuaded that any countries that have looked at legalising marijuana have had a significant upside from that in terms of its use. So on balance, I’m supportive of continuing to support it being illegal. Having said that, I think that we do need new thinking in terms of drugs policy. We have a new minister with responsibility for drugs, Aodhán Ó Riordáin. I’d be really interested to see what he’s going to come forward with because I expect, knowing him, that he will come forward with some new thinking in this area. We have a heroin problem, for example, in Cork now, which wasn’t there seven or eight years ago. It’s the same in Galway. And we need to aggressively try to deal with that before it spirals out of control because when it reaches a certain point it’s almost impossible to respond in a way that actually rids a city of it. Because it is so addictive and so linked to organised and very profitable crimes, we need new thinking that brings addicts into a supportive structure quickly rather than forces addicts to hide, which is what some drugs policies have done.
I’m a big believer in getting people into controlled environments, where we have clean needles and a supportive environment with experts who know how to deal with the consequences of intense addiction. And helping to wean people off that, so that they can rebuild their lives. So I would be quite open-minded in terms of what is the most effective response, as opposed to the perception that some people may have of me or Fine Gael as a party that we simply want to use enforcement alone through the Gardai. By and large, addicts are victims rather than criminals. My view on prostitution would be similar. So the people we really have to go after aggressively are people who are actually peddling drugs, selling drugs, making money out of it. The same applies to prostitution. We need to help the victims – who really need to be taken into supportive structures that can help them rebuild their lives.
But for many sex workers that is their career choice...
I think the focus that we should have on prostitution should be on the demand side. There is a lot of evidence to suggest, particularly in Scandinavian countries, that if you target the demand side pro-actively as a state, you reduce the activity.
It just drives the sex trade further underground surely?
I don’t think so. I mean that’s what happens when you target prostitutes – they just go underground. Most prostitution happens behind closed doors, where people interact online. Meetings are set up and, you know, they use modern technology essentially to interact in advance of meeting and paying for prostitution. I think that results in a lot of victims who are often brutalised and abused and trafficked. There may be some people who will speak out and say that they’re not, and it’s a lifestyle choice. They’re in a small minority.
Do you have a ministerial car?
No, I don’t. I have my own car. I’m not sure I’m popular with this. I would have been very strong with my view that ministers should be driven around in their own cars and that the days of the black Merc for ministers should be over, and that that sort of symbol of government being separate to the normal way of life should... my view was we should make a very clear statement on that. Having said that, I recognise ministers do need drivers. We’re rushing around the country to lots of different things. We’re often driving through the night. I could spend ten hours in my car in the week, and it’s very productive time for me. I spend virtually all my time in the car on my phone or else reading files. I don’t think ministers need Garda drivers and, again, I would have been one of the key people pushing that hard. So the cost of providing ministerial transport is about a third of what it cost for the last government. And I think that’s the way it should be. Obviously the Taoiseach needs a Garda driver. So does the Minister for Justice, so does the Tánaiste. Unfortunately, we’ve seen some instances recently where ministers have been targeted at events, which I think is very unfortunate and very undemocratic. I think the Guards have been phenomenally patient with some of those protests, which are supposedly peaceful but in some cases clearly are not.
Many citizens are justifiably angry.
That is part of the friction and the tension that comes when a country has been through the kind of trauma we’ve been through over the last seven or eight years. It’s been a pretty dark place for a lot of families, and that has spilled over into frustration and protest – and that’s okay. I think the government understands that, and our focus now is to try and build an optimism and a positivity and an understanding that things are getting better because of the sacrifices people have made. We’ll hopefully see the kind of intimidating protests that have been a feature over the past couple of years becoming a lot less common.
Has the setting up of Irish Water been a fiasco?
Politically, yeah, it has. If we were to do it again, we’d do it differently. We tried to change approach halfway through. We had to, because we were listening to what people were saying. Irish people were simply rejecting the model that was being proposed... The idea here was to set up a commercial semi-state body like a Bord Gáis, like an ESB, and that they would then build the company out from there. But that isn’t what people accepted. There was all sorts of mistakes made. Hopefully over time we will move through the difficult introduction and implementation phase and people will start to see the benefits sooner rather than later. Having said that, the process of setting up Irish Water has been a very painful, divisive and negative issue politically.
You were a friend of the late Shane McEntee, who took his own life. Is the pressure on politicians too much these days?
I’d be very careful about what I’d say about Shane because first of all, he was a very good friend of mine. Secondly his daughter, Helen, is now a very good friend of mine. And his wife as well is a lovely woman. So I’d be very sensitive. First of all, he was a larger than life, fantastic character, passionate about everything he did, whether that was Gaelic football or politics or his family. He unfortunately found himself getting incredibly emotionally caught up in his work. He was targeted by people who were campaigning against the government. Shane took it very personally. And a tragedy unfolded that should never have unfolded. But
it did. Those of us who knew him were shocked by it and are still trying to get our heads around exactly what happened. It was a reminder, were it needed, that politicians are human beings, that they’re vulnerable and that, when people target them, they’re targeting a human being. A lot of the vulnerabilities that we all have were exposed in a very, very tragic way by what happened to Shane. You hope to try to keep perspective around the job we do, particularly if we make mistakes and we come under huge pressure. You want to put that pressure into context. Unfortunately, I think Shane wasn’t able to do that, and that had very, very sad consequences.
What makes your blood boil?
Cynicism. One of the things that has been a real pleasure for me in the Marriage Equality referendum campaign has been the lack of cynicism in terms of the response of the public. It’s been non-party political. It’s been so refreshing that there’s been a whole new generation of activism coming into the political system and a whole new generation of voters as well – about 66,000 of them joining the supplementary register just because they want to get involved in something they believe has a real purpose in terms of changing their country for the better. That has been a really refreshing change from the last eight years in politics, when there’s been a terrible defeatism across Ireland. But it’s the cynicism that frustrates me. The kind of hurler of the ditch who makes all of the kind of clichéd assumption around politics – that “You’re all corrupt, none of ye care about people” – when actually I stay up at night worrying about how I can deliver as a Minister because of the responsibilities I have. So I find people who have nothing positive to contribute but a lot of negative comment to make – that infuriates me.
Do you have a motto?
'Never the backward glance’. I like to look forward and I like to make decisions on the basis of what I think is the right thing to do as opposed to what’s the popular thing to do. And I think that has served me well in politics.