Saturday 3 December 2016

Kenny does main leadership rivals few favours in Cabinet shake-up

Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30

It could be argued that Leo Varadkar no longer has to face the thankless task of being Minister for Health
It could be argued that Leo Varadkar no longer has to face the thankless task of being Minister for Health

Labour Party leader Joan Burton leaned over her seat in the Dáil chamber to get the attention of her constituency colleague Leo Varadkar.

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What they spoke about could not be heard from the press gallery.

But after Mr Varadkar answered her question, Ms Burton clasped her hand over her mouth and leaned back into her seat in hysterics.

Moments later it emerged Mr Varadkar had been appointed to Ms Burton's former office - the Department of Social Protection. Many point to Ms Burton's appointment to the same position as the beginning of her campaign to oust former Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.

However, Mr Varadkar's camp was last night insisting the move from Health to Social Protection was not a snub by the newly elected Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Rather it was an area the minister, who is tipped to replace Mr Kenny, has "always expressed an interest in". It could even be argued that he no longer has to face the thankless Department of Health.

And his supporters say, unlike Ms Burton during her tenure, he will not be forced to implement cuts across the welfare system, and will be able to roll out Fine Gael's flagship election policy, the 'working family payment'.

However, within Fine Gael the appointment was seen as a slight on Mr Varadkar.

Meanwhile, the other Fine Gael leadership frontrunners - Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald - appeared to be given promotions by Mr Kenny, though Mr Coveney will have to deal with a banana skin in the form of Irish Water.

Ms Fitzgerald will remain in the Department of Justice, but will also be Tánaiste. She has faced down a number of crises within justice since she took office and clearly impressed Mr Kenny.

Mr Coveney will oversee the new Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The appointment puts huge responsibility on the minister as the Government seeks to find a solution to the housing and homelessness crisis.

More ominously for Mr Coveney, however, his new role also encompasses responsibility for Irish Water.

The other big surprises in the Taoiseach's new Cabinet are the appointments of Simon Harris to the Department of Health and Paschal Donohoe to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Mr Harris is facing a daunting task, with waiting lists, patients on trolleys and possible industrial unrest.

Yet, despite his young years, he has instilled confidence in Mr Kenny through his loyalty and polished media performance.

Similarly, Mr Donohoe has proven his credentials through his work with the unions in the Department of Transport. His calm head and steady hand will be essential for future pay talks as unrest grows.

He will work alongside Finance Minister Michael Noonan who will remain in place despite speculation he might step aside.

Charlie Flanagan will also stay in place - at the Department of Foreign Affairs - and will continue his work on Britain's referendum on leaving the European Union.

Cork North West TD Michael Creed's inclusion as Agriculture Minister will be seen as a nod to the dissident element in Fine Gael. Mr Creed was a close ally of Mr Kenny but turned on the Fine Gael leader during the 2010 leadership heave.

Mr Kenny did not stick to his pre-election pledge to introduce a 50/50 gender split in his Cabinet. But there are now more women in Cabinet than at any other time in the country's history.

The appointments were expected for the most part - both Regina Doherty and Mary Mitchell O'Connor were long tipped for promotion.

Ms Doherty, the new Government Chief Whip, is well-respected in Fine Gael and is regularly sent out to bat for the party in the media when difficult decisions have been made.

Ms Mitchell O'Connor has been eager for more responsibility and has worked hard to prove herself to Mr Kenny. She will now replace Richard Bruton in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

Mr Bruton, meanwhile, will take up a new role in the Department of Education - an area he has previously said he would like to oversee.

Heather Humphreys was rewarded for her work on the 1916 Rising celebrations and is now the minister of the newly formed Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht.

Then there's the Independents - all nine of them. Bringing them on board was always going to involve a certain degree of generosity on Kenny's part. But it was not expected that eight of them would require job titles.

The big jobs went to Shane Ross, Minister for Transport, Sport and Tourism; Denis Naughten, Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources; and Katherine Zappone, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

Ross will have the unenviable task of locking horns with the transport unions in the coming months.

It will be interesting to see if the Dublin Rathdown TD applies the slash and burn attitude to public expenditure he expressed during his time in the Public Accounts Committee.

The grim reality of holding the purse strings rather than criticising those that do will be a significant challenge for Mr Ross. Mr Naughten will now sit around the Cabinet table with his former Fine Gael colleagues.

He is believed to have turned down the Regional Development and Rural Affairs portfolio when it was first presented to him.

Mr Naughten is understood to have thought it would be too challenging to take on a brand new department which may not be up and running by the time the next election is called.

Ms Zappone's background is in working in education and with children. She was appointed to the Seanad by Mr Kenny in 2011.

She was also central to the Government's marriage equality referendum.

Dublin Bay North TD Finian McGrath will be super junior minister with special responsibility for disability issues.

Irish Independent

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