Monday 29 December 2014

It's business as usual in the boys' club, ladies

Tuesday's reshuffle 
made Fine Gael look like the Irish Catholic 
Bishops' Conference

Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30

SISTER ACT: Pictured last year, Fine Gael’s Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy TD, Aine Collins TD, Catherine Byrne TD, Michelle Mulherin TD, Imelda Henry TD, Mary Mitchell-O’Connor TD, Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice and Equality; Deirdre Clune MEP, Olivia Mitchell TD, Senator Fidelma Healy Eames (who is now with the Reform Alliance), Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; Senator Cait Keane
SISTER ACT: Pictured last year, Fine Gael’s Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy TD, Aine Collins TD, Catherine Byrne TD, Michelle Mulherin TD, Imelda Henry TD, Mary Mitchell-O’Connor TD, Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice and Equality; Deirdre Clune MEP, Olivia Mitchell TD, Senator Fidelma Healy Eames (who is now with the Reform Alliance), Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; Senator Cait Keane

Tuesday was a tale of two very different reshuffles. In the UK, David Cameron's official Twitter account grinded out job announcements all day. Ten of his new ministers were women. Some of them were even young enough to join Kim Kardashian's butt and the cast of TOWIE on the Daily Mail website. It was billed as the end of the grey old men. Armed with loads of 'Big Data' on voters and their concerns, Cameron retooled his cabinet for the upcoming UK elections.

He won fans among half the voters by appointing lots of women, and he went some way to neutralising his greatest threat, UKIP, by appointing plenty of Eurosceptics, even causing some concerns that the looney wing of the Tory party was in the ascendant. He even showed a willingness to get rid of pals and close allies like Michael Gove. It was a modern, politically shrewd reshuffle and the first move in a general election campaign that would learn from the lessons of the recent European elections, where the established parties had been blindsided by a previously fringe nationalist party.

We had a reshuffle in Ireland too on Tuesday. More accurately, the second half of a reshuffle. Enda Kenny had intervened minimally and surgically enough in part one of his reshuffle. He had managed to surprise everyone by hanging on to old pals like James Reilly, who was perceived to have had a disastrous tenure in Health, and Jimmy Deenihan, who was apparently spared the axe after the intervention of Michael Noonan, and given a job dining for Ireland to spare his blushes and keep him in the tent.

The only 'Big Data' Kenny seemed to have consulted was the opinions of those closest to him. So he was minded to look after his cronies, to do things like get his gaffe-prone, unpopular pal Big Phil off to a nice cushy number in Europe. His most radical appointment, which was the obvious move of putting Leo Varadkar into Health, was probably more of a punishment than anything; an attempt to curtail Varadkar's popularity. But that aside, it had largely been business as usual for the grey old men.

Joan Burton, it has to be said, had pursued a much braver path, closer to that of Cameron. Never mind that Joan actually did the unthinkable and promoted a few women; even more audacious than that was her cleaning out of the grey old men. Right at the start of her campaign for the Labour leadership, Joan indicated to me on the Saturday Night Show that she would be getting rid of the old guard out of Labour's end of the cabinet. Two of them - Ruairi Quinn and Gilmore - went reasonably gracefully in the end, but poor Pat Rabbitte had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of Cabinet, apparently still seeking a reprieve until the last minute.

But Joan did it. She stood down the old men. She was shrewd, too, in her appointments. Because it is always good to be magnanimous in the short term, she appointed Alex White as Minister for Pylons, even though no one would have held it against Joan if she had given White no job. Then again, White is probably better keeping busy with pylons than plotting revenge against Joan, and it was presumably a way of keeping the quasi-DL wing in the tent. White was apparently close to Rabbitte's wing of the party and, possibly, to have Alex sitting on the backbenches feeling sore next to Gilmore and Rabbitte would have been foolish.

While Joan's deputy leader Alan Kelly apparently now won't have to deal with water charges in his post in Environment, he will still have property tax and other matters to contend with, which will no doubt keep him busy, and presumably put his leadership ambitions on ice for now. Both White and Kelly are also seen as a bit of new blood. All in all, Joan seemed progressive and politically astute.

Going into the announcement of his junior ministers, Enda Kenny had two females out of ten senior ministers, which is a respectable-ish number. He could have easily tipped the balance more in his favour by appointing a few of his very capable female backbenchers as junior ministers. But it was the starkness of appointing no women at all that threw everything into such a bad light. Next to the zeitgeisty reshuffle across the water, Kenny looked old and out of touch. While there is no doubt that the most capable people should be put into senior jobs, we all know that doesn't happen. Reshuffles are a mixture of political expediency, rewarding loyalty and getting the geography right. So any argument about Kenny having to pick the best junior ministerial team and none of them happening to be women doesn't hold water.

There are probably several TDs, some of them women, who would have been just as capable of taking on any of the nine junior ministries doled out on Tuesday. As for the geographical imperative, that doesn't really stack up either. Mary Mitchell-O'Connor had geography on her side on top of her many other advantages - competence, ambition, warmth and popularity - and she still got nothing. You'd have to wonder, had she been a man would she have been made the customary South Dublin minister?

All in all, Kenny fatally misjudged a moment in time. The so-called third wave of feminism is a huge force around the world. There is a general recognition too that the homogenous perspective of middle-aged or elderly men is not healthy for running a company, never mind a society. Diversity is crucial to seeing things in different and new ways. The old model of the grey old men is broken. There is a new world out there. It is a world of diversity - of exotic creatures like women, gay people, immigrants, even people with disabilities. And they are all tired of being ruled over by cabals of old men who don't understand them, or their perspectives. There would be nothing condescending about choosing a woman over a man for a junior ministerial job because she happens to be a woman. The likelihood is she is just as capable as the man - both will be unproven - and at least she will bring the perspective of the other half of the population, which has traditionally been excluded from the boys' clubs who destroyed the world.

Kenny could have made a very important statement here. Instead, it is almost as if he chose to make the opposite statement, to say that it is business as usual in the boys' club, no women needed. He has alienated half the population, at a time when he needs all the support he can get.

Meanwhile, two largely unknown Sinn Fein women stormed the European elections; the heir apparent of Sinn Fein, a woman, is regarded as one of the best performers in the Dail and in Committee. In the ranks of the Independents and "others" the likes of Clare Daly and Joan Collins continue to make waves with a passionate and human politics. You could even argue that Ming and Mick Wallace represent a new, feminised kind of politics. And that is the politics that is exciting people right now, that the public is drawn towards.

But Kenny doesn't seem to get all that. He is in danger of just looking like an out-of-touch old man, going around shaking hands like a politician from the days of black-and-white TV.

There had been much talk about how Kenny was going to use this reshuffle to neutralise the threat of Sinn Fein, as Cameron used his to keep UKIP at bay. All Kenny really did was to make Sinn Fein look more like a party of the real world, of modern Ireland, while making Fine Gael look more like the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference. This missed opportunity is going to come back and bite him on the ass. It's a new world out there, a new day, a new Ireland. You'd be tempted to say Kenny should get out to see it more. But that's the scary bit. He does. But he still hasn't got it.

Brendan O'Connor

Sunday Independent

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