John Downing

Monday 28 July 2014

Backbench demands for a radical reshuffle could sound the death knell for loyal Reilly

John Downing

Published 04/06/2014|02:30

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Health Minister James Reilly may be set for a shuffle. Photo: Mark Condren
Health Minister James Reilly may be set for a shuffle. Photo: Mark Condren

IT IS shaping up to be a very long and very public cabinet reshuffle, which ultimately may not help Enda Kenny. The calls from some impatient Fine Gael backbenchers for "a radical reshuffle" of the nine senior and nine junior Fine Gael ministers were not especially surprising. These calls could also empower the Taoiseach to be more radical in his forthcoming surgery, explaining the need to drop some loyal supporters.

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So, some sort of indirect nod from Government Buildings for dissonant backbench statements cannot be ruled out. The idea of choreography became even more likely when the Taoiseach noticeably failed yesterday afternoon to express confidence in his long-struggling Health Minister James Reilly.

Mr Kenny preferred to say he would be discussing the new Cabinet with the new Labour leader. Such responses are rarely if ever a matter of accidental oversight. It adds to the likelihood that the Health Minister's cabinet days are numbered.

The Health Minister has been an obvious target for some time. In fact, Dr Reilly has been alternatively struggling on a good day and floundering on a bad day since autumn 2012, when Junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall resigned.

Dr Reilly's loyalty to Kenny in the July 2010 heave, his experience as a former doctors' union leader, and the general air of fatalism surrounding the health ministry, all appeared to combine to save him.

But this has clearly been overtaken by events. There are growing calls in Fine Gael and Labour for Dr Reilly's replacement.

The discretionary medical card debacle – deemed one of three or four major factors in the recent election reverses – is being largely laid at Dr Reilly's door.

The situation is not without its ironies. The reality is that everyone in Government, from the Taoiseach down, spent a year insisting there was no issue around discretionary medical cards.

One of the strident defenders was the Junior Health Minister Alex White, who is now one of the two contenders for the Labour leadership.

Yesterday Mr White also said he would like to be Health Minister. Doubtless he knows that the last leader of a junior coalition party, Mary Harney of the Progressive Democrats, struggled to show results for herself and her party. It all ended rather badly. But that is for another day.

This reshuffle, originally flagged for the middle of this month, will be delayed. This is largely due to the Labour Party leadership election by postal ballot of its 5,000 members, for which the start gun was fired yesterday and from which we will not have the result until this very day next month.

We expect that the outcome of the Labour leadership elections would be followed by talks on a new set of government priorities. And then they would also talk about a newly revamped Cabinet.

The reshuffle delay and the emerging public expressions of rancour mean that Kenny may not get what he needs from this process: a fresh-looking team ready to lead the country on to the next phase of economic recovery. And in the process provide a first ever back-to-back general election win for Fine Gael leaving them primed to lead government again after 2016. The danger in delay means that the new team could be old hat before it is finally unveiled.

The utter devastation of Labour in the local and European elections, plunging them into a sudden leadership election, has overshadowed internal convulsions in the bigger coalition partner.

Fine Gael's loss of 12 percentage points in vote share compared with the February 2011 general election, and the loss of more than 100 council seats, has rung internal alarm bells.

A similar return in the next general election, coupled with a bad bounce of the PR ball, could lead to the loss of half the record 76 Dail seats won in February 2011. It has concentrated the minds of many, not least the "FG Class of 2011", who do not appreciate the prospect of being one-term TDs.

So, we have heard various strident statements of dissatisfaction from first-timers, Pat Deering in Carlow-Kilkenny, Martin Heydon in Kildare South, Paul Connaughton in Galway East, Brendan Griffin in Kerry South and Jim Daly in Cork South West. All are able people and hard workers.

If they were on the opposition benches we would be hearing a lot more from them in strident media performances.

But the constraints of the government backbenches could be offset against future promotion prospects – provided Fine Gael can turn their electoral fortunes around.

There is a heck of a lot riding on a successful reshuffle.

The struggle between Joan Burton and Alex White for the Labour leadership and the competition between the four deputy leadership contenders will soak up a lot of media coverage in the coming month.

But theirs is not the only internal party struggle for high stakes right now.

Fine Gael, like Labour, is going to have to learn to moderate its tone of discourse. Otherwise they could do more damage in an already difficult situation.

Irish Independent

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