Fionnan Sheahan: Labour should be careful what it wishes for in Cabinet reshuffle
Published 27/01/2014 | 02:30
LEO Varadkar, Minister for Social Protection. It has a certain ring to it. In the Labour Party, that ring would be an alarm bell.
Be careful what you wish for. Labour wants everything on the table in this year's cabinet reshuffle. The junior coalition party wants the rejig to not just be limited to personnel changes within the portfolios held by the respective partners agreed when they entered Government.
On that occasion, Fine Gael got 10 positions and the Labour Party five, plus a Super Junior who sits at the cabinet table. And a party associate was appointed as Attorney General.
Furthermore, the party secured a key economic and budgetary portfolio through the division of the Department of Finance and the creation of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
The setting up of the Economic Management Council, comprising the four heavy hitters in the Coalition, guaranteed that Labour was kept in the loop and directly involved in any major developments.
There would be no repeat of Green Party ministers being woken up in the middle of the night to be told the banking system was about to collapse.
The usually respectful relationship between the leaders on the Fine Gael side, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan, with their Labour counterparts, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin, has helped ensure the mystical EMC has headed off much trouble.
Several disputes have still arisen between the parties, most notably at Budget time, but also around ideological differences over workers' rights and abortion.
The Budget fissures have centred on the size of adjustment packages and tax measures.
But a recurring pattern has been the spats over spending cuts in health and social welfare – the two largest spending portfolios in Government.
Labour believes the problems in Health centre on inadequate financial management and failure to implement structural changes by Dr James Reilly. The goal of implementing Universal Health Insurance is shared between the parties, but Labour questions the level of progress.
But Labour regards the Health Minister as a liability and would rather he was replaced.
Fine Gael feels the potential for the Social Welfare system is not being achieved and there is a resistance to cuts in benefits.
The party is constantly pushing for the reform of the system to remove poverty traps, which restrict the ability of workers to take up jobs, as it will reduce their family's income.
And there is also resentment at the perception that Joan Burton is allowed to get away without having to implement the maximum level of cuts, while Dr Reilly is constantly being pushed to reduce budgets in the health service.
The Health portfolio is one of a number being eyed up by Labour ahead of the cabinet reshuffle later this year.
The Tanaiste badly needs to get out of Foreign Affairs, into a more relevant post, preferably Jobs.
Labour wants the reshuffle to be a blank canvas, with more or less any combinations possible.
Obviously, there is no question of rotating the role of Taoiseach, and the Finance and Public Expenditure divide is working well.
Beyond that, the number of ministers allocated to each party will likely remain the same, but Labour wants to see give and take on the allocation of departments. Fine Gael figures argue such an approach would be disruptive to the Government.
The party is playing hardball and well it might, as it holds the upper hand with twice as many posts to share around. The opening shots are just being fired, and there's a long way to go.