News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

Mandy Johnston: Be warned, Enda – get the reshuffle wrong and there'll be no end of pain

Published 11/02/2014 | 02:30

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An anti-pylon protest in Co Meath. The government has neatly parked the pylon programme for now.
An anti-pylon protest in Co Meath. The government has neatly parked the pylon programme for now.

Is Enda Kenny any good at doing jigsaws? I hope so, because over the coming months he will be examining the pieces of his Government to see if he can re-assemble the existing parts in an attempt to come up with a completely different picture. Not an easy task. The cabinet reshuffle is the political equivalent of Viagra, a one-step manoeuvre that aims to inject a bit of life into the old dog. But a reshuffle does have a more subtle value. And that is the now omnipresent promise of promotion for some, coupled with the threat of dreaded demotion for others.

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This should help to deliver a renewed discipline within the cabinet ranks and by extension to the ambitious backbenchers from both parties. But ultimately if we are left with exactly the same pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, will the picture really change at all?

In political terms, the next five months will be extremely interesting with the prize of the local and European elections held out as the midterm political goal to play for in the life of this Government, followed by a potential mid-term re-shuffle. For political anoraks and journalists, the months ahead stretch out like the qualifying rounds of a major national sporting occasion as we await the big day and the final results. But it is the little matches and politically charged tussles between now and polling day that will form the match-day conditions for players on the pitch come election-day.

The job of this Government now is to simply make things as easy as possible for its selected candidates to ensure their election either locally or in Europe. Simple. Or so you might think. The reality of day-to-day politics is vastly different. It's the small things that trip you up.

This means making no announcements that might hinder the prospective candidates. It requires careful and arduous political proofing of everything that comes from Government to ensure that their policies or programmes do not hinder the chances of the chosen ones. The prize on offer at first glance is the pride of the political win and the power that it brings with it. But the overarching threat of demotion for those responsible for delivering government policy can lead people to do strange things.

In times of economic constraint, the possible prizes to deliver to the electorate via Government are very few. Indeed it is probably not the right thing to do in any economic conditions but politicians will do it time and time again, and the electorate will expect over and over again. Our economic and, by extension, our social destiny, is already pre-determined by the troika. They are gone but their legacy lives on. This Government is charged with delivering the remainder of their remedies. There are very few announcements that the Government can make that will influence the electorate in a positive way. But this does not divest them of their responsibilities to their councillors and candidates to manage the policies that remain in order not to avoid angering any significant body of voters.

In the absence of any "sweeties" to distribute, the Labour Party seems to have favoured the pursuit of a more liberal social agenda. If it can't deliver on social welfare, it seems intent on pursuing our "social wellbeing" as evidenced by its pledge for a referendum on same-sex marriage and its concerns on religion in our schools, while at the same time announcing Irish Embassy Vatican II. It is not completely immune to parish pump politics as demonstrated by the recent kite-flying exercise regarding the reduction in local property taxes. So, no water charges until after the local elections; a banking inquiry; and they have managed to neatly park the pylon programme for now. One thing's for sure, when it comes to parking policies between now and election time, there will be fewer cars parked at Croke Park for Garth Brooks.

There are major considerations when re-assigning cabinet positions most of which are not policy driven. First and foremost are the considerations of geographical location and the effects on future elections. After that, it is about experience, loyalty, internal party considerations, external party considerations, oh and finally gender. Yes, amazingly gender is the last, the very last consideration (ask Joan Burton).

If you get the reconfiguration of a cabinet right, the commentariat will blithely nod and move on. There are very few positive headlines gleaned from a reshuffle. The game is around the speculation rather than the specifics. The juicier headlines only come when there is blood on the fluffy carpet of the corridors of power. Non-offensive reshuffle delivered, everyone moves on and the vicious cycle starts again in earnest for the general election. Promise of promotion, threat of political extinction and on it goes.

But if you get a reshuffle wrong there can be no end of pain. Winston Churchill once said "restructuring the cabinet was like trying to do a jigsaw of a kaleidoscope". Enda may be dealing with a lot of endless grey borders and needs to tread carefully. Indeed for all the promise of change, new beginnings can spell the beginning of the end. Significant change requires political bravery. Political courage creates endless enemies. That is the thing about a jigsaw, it's only as useful as the sum of its parts – miss a bit and you might as well buy a new jigsaw.

Irish Independent

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