'Momentum can change', insists defiant Coveney
Housing Minister Simon Coveney is confident he can still win the Fine Gael leadership race if he can regain the backing of six TDs or senators.
The Cork TD's supporters are contacting colleagues in a bid to convince them to abandon rival Leo Varadkar.
"People have spoken about the numbers being a real mountain to climb for me, but those of you who have been studying this in some detail would know that, if half a dozen people switch and if we were to do very well with the other two colleges, this would be a real contest," Mr Coveney said last night.
"I think that is absolutely achievable. Of my 73 parliamentary colleagues, many of them were very supportive of me only a week ago.
"Some of them decided to move with the momentum in the first 24 or 48 hours. But I think momentum can change," he added at a rally in Athlone that was attended by about 300 grassroots members.
Mr Coveney said there has been too much attention on the parliamentary party and he wants to "shift the focus".
"This is 21,000 people voting, not 73. Nobody has cast a vote yet," he said.
"Whoever wins this contest, I want them to be tested. I want them to be questioned. I want them to be forced to outline in some detail what they're about, what their value system is."
Mr Varadkar was asked about the claims the Coveney camp is targeting at least half a dozen of his supporters.
He said that can work "both ways", adding he is hopeful that some of Mr Coveney's backers will reconsider and vote for him instead.
Mr Varadkar made the remarks in Wicklow town, where he visited the historic Wicklow Gaol. Among the promises made by the social protection minister yesterday was a pledge to issue water charge refunds this year - a move that could result in a first major clash with Mr Coveney after the Fine Gael leadership contest.
Mr Coveney has insisted it is too soon to set a timeline for refunding those who paid their bill, with almost one million in line to receive up to €325.
His officials are devising options for paying the money back but Mr Coveney has indicated there is still much work to do.
Mr Varadkar indicated he would speed the process up.
Responding last night, Mr Coveney said a date could not be set without agreement from Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, who will have to find funds for the pay-outs.