WITH confirmation this afternoon that Enda Kenny is to stand down as leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar has vowed to put Donegal front and centre should he be named the party’s next chief.
The Taoiseach made the long-awaited announcement at the weekly meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators on Wednesday evening, triggering the contest to succeed him.
Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar and Minister for Housing Simon Coveney are seen as the two front-runners.
Minister Varadkar made the promise to make Donegal a priority during a two-day visit to the county on Friday and Saturday last.
In an interview with the Donegal News on Friday evening, Minister Varadkar said that Donegal is a county that he has always had an interest in, from his days working in the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Health right through to his current Social Protection portfolio.
He has also attended a week-long Irish language course at Oideas Gael in Glencolmcille recently and is currently brushing up on his native tongue.
“In transport, I was working on the A5 and I am absolutely determined that it gets built as soon as possible – particularly for people in Inishowen, Letterkenny and this part of Donegal to ensure they are on the motorway network which makes a big difference for economic reasons.
“I was involved with Joe (McHugh) in keeping Malin open and investing in it and with Michael Ring and the Wild Atlantic Way when we were both in tourism and then, in health, trying to tie up Altnagelvin and Letterkenny.
“Joe has an interest in the additional breast surgeon and trying to get one working between the two hospitals as well as the cardiology service too. That’s the future really – tying up the two hospitals to make sure there is a good service for all the North West.
“You can be sure the county will not be forgotten but will be very much front and centre,” Minister Varadkar said.
During his two day visit to Donegal, the Minister for Social Protection visited offices in Buncrana and Letterkeny before attending a Fine Gael party event in Gweedore. He also spoke to representatives from Icare and a local fishermen’s group.
“I was keen to do two things during my visit to in Donegal. First of all was to visit our social protection operations in Buncrana and Letterkenny,” he explained.
Donegal is a very important county from the department’s point of view with some of the major schemes and benefits run out of the county. Paternity and maternity benefits are administered from Buncrana while child benefit and treatment benefits are processed through the Letterkenny office.
“A lot of additional work that the department has taken on has fallen to Donegal. The extension of treatment benefits for self-employed is run out of Letterkenny with more happening in treatment benefits later in the year with the subsidised dental treatments coming back – and that has to be run out of here too,” Minister Varadkar said.
There have been some issues relating to processing maternity benefits out of the Buncrana office in recent times but the minister said that they should be eased in the coming weeks and months.
“There have been some issues there (Buncrana) processing maternity benefits so what I wanted to do was meet the staff and to follow a claim from the moment the envelope is opened.
“The real delay there is down to two things – shortage of staff and also a new system whereby everything is now scanned. We thought more people would apply online and we’re encouraging people who are facing any delay in getting maternity benefit to apply online.
“We’re putting in some additional staff – some Letterkenny staff are helping out there. We’ve also extended overtime and there will now be staff available in the evenings and on Saturdays to clear the backlog,” he said.
Minister Varadkar will be a leading contender to be the next leader of Fine Gael to succeed Taoiseach Enda Kenny who has announced his decision to step down.
“When the vacancy arises there will be a contest and I’ll be a candidate in that. In the meantime, I’m pretty busy doing the day job,” he said.
The two-day visit to Donegal isn’t the start of his campaign trail?
“I’ve been travelling the country attending Fine Gael events and meeting councillors and different people ever since I’ve been a member of the party. It’s not my first time in Donegal as a minister or as a Fine Gael representative. I’ve been here a number of times but people are aware that a contest coming up and if the subject comes up I won’t lie to you I will talk about it,” Minister Varadkar said.
The Minister for Social Protection also used Friday’s interview to pay tribute to his colleague Minister Joe McHugh.
“Joe is an enormous advocate for Donegal and I think we’re very lucky to have him as a minister,” he said.
“Donegal has always had unique problems in being cut off from rest of State almost from day one. It was cut off from the economic centre in Derry and while the free market and single market in Europe helped to ease that, there is a risk that if Brexit goes wrong and Ireland suffers more than Britain then Donegal will suffer more than the rest of Ireland.
“That’s why the Government is working towards a situation whereby there should be no economic border at all. The border should be at ports and airports but not between Donegal and Tyrone or Donegal and Fermanagh.
“It’s not something that we fully control but it is our objective,” Minister Varadkar added.
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