Northern Ireland

Simon Coveney was both hero and villain north of the border

As Simon Coveney announces his departure from government John Manley looks back on the former foreign affairs minister’s impact in Northern Ireland...

Simon Coveney will also travel to Korea (Brian Lawless/PA)
Former tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

Simon Coveney is big in stature and he also looms large, relatively speaking, in the Northern Ireland public’s imagination. A hero for nationalists and a villain to many loyalists, the former tánaiste played a central role in the post-Brexit negotiations and in restoring the Stormont institutions in 2020 after a three-year hiatus.

First elected to the Dáil in 1998 following the sudden death of his father, he was initially a backbencher before taking ministerial roles under Enda Kenny. Coming second to Leo Varadkar in the 2017 Fine Gael leadership contest, despite being more popular among the party membership, Mr Coveney was nonetheless a loyal and effective deputy.

He came to prominence north of border at this time when appointed minister for foreign affairs and trade, with special responsibilities for Brexit. The change of guard to many represented a hardening of the Irish government’s stance on UK withdrawal from the EU, including completely rejecting the notion of border checks on the island of Ireland.

Simon Coveney is informed of a security alert while speaking at a peace-building event at The Houben Centre in Belfast
Simon Coveney is informed of a security alert in 2022 while speaking in Belfast

Mr Coveney was instead a cheerleader for the ‘backstop’, an arrangement that would, in the event of no deal, keep Northern Ireland in some aspects of the Single Market. This was abandoned following an intervention by then DUP leader Arlene Foster and replaced with a plan to keep the entire UK aligned, which was ultimately the undoing of Theresa May.

In a BBC interview in January 2019, the then tánaiste said the there was no sensible legally-sound alternative to the backstop, and that the European Parliament would not ratify a Brexit withdrawal agreement without it. Mrs May was replaced by Boris Johnson in July 2019 and despite the latter’s initial gung-ho attitude, by year end he had acquiesced to the EU’s plan, signing up to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In September that year, when Anglo-Irish relations were arguably at their lowest point, Mr Coveney became embroiled in a spat about joint authority. In the absence of the Stormont institutions, he faced predictable criticism from unionists for articulating nationalists’ desire not to have a lopsided arrangement that allowed no input from Dublin.

It was one of a number of statements the tánaiste made that appeared to anger unionists.

In March 2022, Mr Coveney was giving a speech in Belfast when he was forced to leave the stage, following the discovery of a “suspect device” in a hijacked van nearby.

In December of that year he gave what was to prove one of his last interviews as minister for foreign affairs, he told The Irish News that the Irish government was opposed to the British government’s controversial legacy legislation.

“Legally, I don’t believe it’s sound – I don’t believe it’s consistent with the UK’s obligations under international humanitarian law,” he said, in what was a precursor to a later interstate action.