Honestly, you should all watch this video, a leftover from yesterday, if you haven’t already. It really makes you wonder: Where would Ireland be, without Simon Coveney?
Simon Coveney is an asset to Ireland and his record is clear.
Housing, health and the vaccine roll-out, education, climate action, quality of life. These are the areas that Fine Gael and Simon are focused on. pic.twitter.com/EaLC77aRsF
— Fine Gael (@FineGael) September 15, 2021
Probably in roughly the same place, is the honest answer. As widely predicted, he survived the vote of confidence tabled in him last night, as, absent Marc MacSharry, who had enough and threw in the towel, Fianna Fáil TDs trooped sullenly through the lobby to vote for him. So now he is free to continue the good work.
The question about this video, and strategy, really, is why Fine Gael have chosen to make Coveney, as a personality, a virtue at a time when they are trailing Sinn Fein in the polls. Is there really an audience out there of people who are thinking “well, I was opposed to the Government and leaning towards Sinn Fein, but then Fine Gael reminded me that Simon Coveney chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council recently, so that’s given me a whole new perspective on him?”
No, that’s not the point. The video is a base-rallying exercise: the objective is to remind hardcore Fine Gaelers who may have been going a bit wobbly on Coveney something to point to in private conversations with family and friends. “How can you possibly defend the cronyism?” their friends ask. The video gives them the answer: “well, he did a good job on Brexit”. That’s why the video makes no mention of Coveney’s time as Housing Minister: There’s not much positive to say about it.
But of course, there’s no real evidence that he did make the difference, or any difference, on Brexit. The key points of the Brexit deal, you will recall, were hammered out between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at a special summit in Cheshire a few weeks before the deal emerged. Simon Coveney was not there. When it came to the crunch, he wasn’t even in the meeting.
And how has the country fared, on his watch as foreign Minister? Is it any coincidence that his term in that job has resulted in the worst relations between Northern Unionism and the Dublin Government than at any time since before 1997? It takes two, you might say, to tango, and therefore you might be tempted to lay all the blame for that state of affairs at the feet of the DUP. But the point of the job – as Ireland’s chief diplomat – is to retain good relationships with our closest neighbours. Speak to any Unionist about Coveney, or indeed to any member of the British establishment about Coveney, and you will find that in their view, he has personally contributed to bad relations, not good ones.
What has he achieved, in reality, as foreign Minister? In his tenure, Ireland has become almost slavishly pro-Chinese on the international level, refusing to criticise anything that country does, and remaining conspicuously silent on the rights of Uighers to live, or Taiwan to be its own country. He has loyally supported the World Health Organisation, and indeed upped Ireland’s contributions to it, in the face of the WHO’s incompetence during the pandemic. Fine Gael presents him as a key member of the UN’s deliberations on the Taliban: But what have those deliberations achieved? Can anyone, even a Fine Gael member, say what the UN’s actual position on Afghanistan and the Taliban is?
Irish Foreign Minister is not a job with a lot of power. We are a tiny, geopolitically insignificant country. We are not going to shape EU policy, or UN policy, or determine the outcome of wars. We cannot alleviate famine or fix climate change. The only thing a Foreign Minister can do, really, is maintain good relationships with our most important strategic partners.
Under Coveney, those relationships have nearly all become worse. We are further from Washington and London, despised in Tel Aviv, not especially relevant in Brussels (look, if you do not believe me, at our surrender on the Global Minimum Tax) and regarded as pliable in Beijing.
Of course, many Irish people will be perfectly happy with this state of affairs. After all, there is tribal comfort to be taken in being disliked by Unionists and Brits, being loyal members of the EU, and opposing Israel. Coveney has, at every turn, put domestic political concerns at the heart of Ireland’s foreign policy. And, at the end of the day, this video is all he has to show for it.