independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Enda knows the trick to shuffling pack is to keep everyone guessing

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, who seem intent on staying put in roles.
Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, who seem intent on staying put in roles.

BRACE yourselves. For the next nine months, get used to endless speculation about a Cabinet reshuffle. You have to hand it to Enda Kenny. His government's ability to control the message is without parallel. Witness the recent bailout exit. A good news story, for sure. But to secure pretty much a week of positive headlines took no little skill and news management.

And now the Taoiseach has hopped the ball about a shake-up of his cabinet, secure in the knowledge that no political journalist (yes, this one included) can resist the lure of a cabinet reshuffle.

Who'll be in? Who'll be out? Who's going where? And who'll get the poisoned chalice of health? It's all grist to the journalistic mill, as Kenny knows full well. Like the parable of the scorpion and the frog, we in the media can't resist biting on the reshuffle bait -- despite knowing full well it's probably ultimately going to lead, if not to doom, then to disappointment.

Because most reshuffles are ultimately damp squibs. Months of build-up and then minimal shifting of deckchairs.

That said, there have been exceptions. Albert Reynolds sacked eight ministers when he took over from Charlie Haughey. Bertie Ahern was painfully cautious when it came to cabinet changes. But he did shift his most important minister, Charlie McCreevy, out to Brussels when he felt the Finance Minister's tougher line on the public finances had become an electoral liability.

Ahern was probably right to be cautious with his switches.

Because on the few occasions when they're not being unbelievably tedious, reshuffles can go spectacularly wrong.

Garret FitzGerald's attempts to freshen up his government in the mid-1980s backfired with some ministers refusing to move. It was a further blow to the credibility of an unpopular government. And then of course, there was Brian Cowen's doomed attempt to appoint new ministers in the dying days of his administration. It proved the straw that broke the FF-Green coalition's back and precipitated his resignation as leader of Fianna Fail.

Even Albert Reynolds' night of the long knives in 1992 arguably came back to bite him. When his coalition with Labour collapsed in acrimony in late 1994, his enemies in Fianna Fail were waiting in the long grass.

Enda Kenny and his government are, of course, in a far stronger position than any of those examples. But he is, by nature, highly conservative and will tread carefully.

For starters, a little like the old soccer cliche of not making a substitution when you're about to defend a corner kick, nothing will happen before the local and European elections.

September looks the most likely month for change.

By then, the plum European Commission job will have been filled. And it is almost certain that Maire Geoghegan-Quinn's successor will come from the Cabinet.

Those close to Eamon Gilmore dismiss out of hand the suggestion that he is a potential candidate to move to Brussels.

Reports continue to link Enda Kenny with the even more prestigious job of European Commission president. While he seems to be a credible candidate, there are lots of 'ifs' and 'buts' involved. Besides, the word is Kenny is far more interested in making history by becoming the first ever Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected.

On the assumption that he and Gilmore are staying put, Kenny's close ally Phil Hogan looks the clear front runner to be the next commissioner.

If Labour has first call on the job -- which seems unlikely -- then Ruairi Quinn or Pat Rabbitte will be the obvious contenders.

Whoever it is, there should be one vacancy to fill at the cabinet come the autumn.

If there are to be other changes, Jimmy Deenihan is perceived to be the most vulnerable to demotion of the Fine Gael ministers -- but he is highly popular with colleagues and voters.

THERE is constant speculation about the beleaguered James Reilly's future in Health. He exasperates some of his fellow ministers; however, the Fine Gael deputy leader is close personally and politically to the Taoiseach and nobody else wants the job. Senior sources say Reilly is "more likely rather than less likely" to stay in Health.

For Labour, veteran minister Ruairi Quinn is seen as being in the firing line. However, his experience and calm head have been huge assets over the past three turbulent years. Gilmore may be reluctant to lose that. So despite the Taoiseach's talk about allowing backbenchers the opportunity to "give vent to their flair", it all points to fairly minimal change. Any moves may be largely confined to a humdrum shake-up of junior ministers.

Not that this will stop a cascade of conjecture on the matter between now and next autumn. And that, one suspects, is exactly as Enda Kenny wants it.

SHANE COLEMAN IS POLITICAL EDITOR OF NEWSTALK 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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