Simon Coveney profile: substantial figure who played a starring role in the Brexit wars

The way he contested the leadership of Fine Gael with Leo Varadkar in 2017 won him many admirers

Simon Coveney, then minister of foreign affairs, with the former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in 2022. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Simon Coveney’s decision to retire from politics is not a surprise.

But it deprives Fine Gael of a truly front-rank political figure, a household name whose work as minister for foreign affairs during the Brexit wars, though it did not yield the anticipated electoral dividend in 2020, garnered him much respect.

As well as being a significant national player, Coveney was also a big presence in his party.

Although Leo Varadkar had the leadership election all but sewn up with majority support from the party’s elected representatives in 2017, Coveney’s refusal to duck out of the contest and his insistence that the membership must have its say won him support and admirers, and he went on to beat Varadkar comfortably in the vote among the party’s grassroots members.


The party’s electoral college system meant that Varadkar’s advantage was decisive – but Coveney’s support didn’t mean nothing, either.

For Coveney, just 52 years old but with a quarter-century in front-line politics - half of that in cabinet - behind him, the news signals the end of a political career that although it did not achieve the highest office, made a substantial contribution to the welfare of party and country.

His most significant period came as tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs as the Fine Gael-Independent minority government dealt with the fallout from Brexit in a series of increasingly tense negotiations.

Ireland’s achievement of its ultimate objectives – the avoidance of a hard border on the island and the maintenance of Ireland’s full and unencumbered place in the European single market – owed much to Coveney and the team of diplomats that he led throughout the period. And though he had a reputation among journalists and officials for long-windedness, he was never less than in command of a brief that was at times comprised of a bewildering array of moving parts.

During this period, as deputy leader of the party, he would have been the natural successor to Varadkar. With the agreement of the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-Green coalition in 2020, however, he began to play a less important role in Government decision-making as the locus of power inevitably moved from the Coveney-Varadkar-Paschal Donohoe axis at the top of Fine Gael to the three Coalition party leaders.

By the time he moved from his much-favoured Department of Foreign Affairs to the Department of Enterprise in late 2022, his name was less mentioned in discussions about the succession to Varadkar. Nonetheless, many were surprised that he did not contest the leadership after Varadkar’s shock decision to step down earlier this year. His decision to step back from his cabinet role then was a clear sign that his political career was winding down.

He was first elected in a byelection in Cork South Central caused by the sudden death of his father Hugh in an accident in 1998. From a large family of high achievers (his brother Patrick was chief executive of Greencore for many years; his brother Rory a senior executive in RTÉ who left last year amid the controversy engulfing the station), Simon was the one who chose politics, leaving behind a career as an agricultural adviser and farm manager.

He survived the cull of Fine Gael TDs in 2002, but moved to the European Parliament in 2004, winning a seat for Fine Gael in the South constituency. By 2007, however, he was back in the Dáil and on the party’s front bench. He was made minister for agriculture by Enda Kenny in 2011 when Fine Gael returned to government amid the devastation of the financial crash. He added the Defence portfolio in 2014.

When Fine Gael – though much diminished – returned to government after the 2016 election, he was made minister for housing, as the first pains of the housing crisis began to bite. His response was “Rebuilding Ireland”, a strategy to address homelessness and increase home building. But although progress was made it was woefully inadequate given demographic pressures that were beginning to press hard.

Within a year, though, he had moved on. When Kenny stepped down – pushed, but gently, by Varadkar and Coveney – the two standard-bearers of the new generation duked it out for the leadership. Varadkar won, but Coveney’s conduct and his victory among the grassroots of the party added to his stature. He was made minister for foreign affairs and tánaiste. It was in this role that he was probably happiest, and in which he made his greatest contribution.