Six key questions to be answered in Cowen's reshuffle
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen is expected finally to announce his long-awaited reshuffle this afternoon.
It will most likely be Mr Cowen's final throw of the dice in terms of personnel changes before the next general election.
The Taoiseach's decision will afford an insight into his thinking as leader of the country and his party at a challenging time.
And he will provide answers to the following key questions:
1. Who will he drop?
Mr Cowen has two vacancies to play with -- and would have to wield the axe to create more, which would be a surprise.
Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Minister Eamon O Cuiv wields a lot of influence in terms of the specific rural lobby he caters to, so there would be a backlash if he was dropped. Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith, however, hasn't covered himself in glory.
2. What is his vision for government departments?
The current configuration of government departments was more or less devised in 2002 at the height of the Celtic Tiger.
The economic downturn means changes are needed to put a greater emphasis on economic matters. Mr Cowen's move regarding specific responsibility for public sector reform will reveal how serious he is about tackling it.
Expect mergers in some areas like Arts, Sport and Tourism and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and carve-ups in Enterprise, Trade and Employment, with the creation of a Department of Economic Development.
3. Where does he see the fresh talent in Fianna Fail?
On current trends, the Soldiers of Destiny are destined for a lengthy spell in opposition after the next general election.
Mr Cowen's decisions about promoting fresh blood will position these younger ministers to take a leading role on the party's frontbench in opposition. Dara Calleary, Billy Kelleher, Conor Lenihan and Peter Power are being mooted for cabinet positions.
There are demands for several newly elected TDs to be given the boost, such as Thomas Byrne, Darragh O'Brien, Niall Collins, Michael McGrath and Sean Connick.
4. When does he think the general election will happen?
If Mr Cowen goes for conservative changes, then it is an indication he doesn't want to take risks. If he goes radical, he is signalling he believes there is more than two years left for new ministers to make a mark.
5. Why is he keeping Mary Harney?
There are precious few suggestions she won't be retained, but Ms Harney is now formally an Independent. Without the pressure of accommodating a coalition partner, Mr Cowen will be giving her personally a vote of confidence.
6. How do you solve a problem like Mary Coughlan?
The Tanaiste tells the 'Donegal Democrat': "I have never, ever, ever, let down this country or my county when I have travelled abroad, never."
But enough about the cringe factor. Mr Cowen's problem is he made Ms Coughlan his second-in-command and gave her a key economic portfolio -- a big mistake. Decapitating her department will save blushes, while demoting her outright would diminish her authority and admit the failings. Tricky.