Sunday 23 October 2016

Fine Gael lauds Frances Fitzgerald as a 'future Taoiseach'. Why?

Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Mark Condren
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Mark Condren

It's a great scenario for people in Fine Gael playing "happy families" at the ard fheis.

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In brief it goes like this: this Coalition, or a variant of it, is returned. New Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who turns 65 in April, cashes in his chips within two years, possibly with an eye on the autumn 2018 presidential election.

Then the two "young bulls" of the Cabinet, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, cancel each other out and a compromise safe-pair-of-hands candidate emerges. Enter Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland's first woman Taoiseach.

But while those of us who enjoy politics like a bit of "fantasy Taoiseach", it's time to back up a bit here. There is the little detail of the fortunes of an embattled people on an island nation who have suffered more than their share in recent times.

So, let us ask: What exactly has Frances Fitzgerald done to deserve this much-vaunted tag? Better again, would she be up to the job of Taoiseach?

The job of Justice Minister is a high-pressure appointment. But then again so is the job of leading the entire nation.

Up to recently, Ms Fitzgerald benefited from a certain honeymoon period. She also definitely benefited from following in the wake of Alan Shatter, who got no prizes for diplomatic handling of sensitive matters.

Frances Fitzgerald benefited from entering on a promise of a host of new reforms which would move our justice system into the 21st Century. She was also chief among the women leaders in that most traditional of male bastions of justice, policing, prisons and lawyers.

Many of us were prepared to take our entry to a brave new world at face value. Nothing much had changed for decades - why not embrace some change?

But Ms Fitzgerald has been in Cabinet since March 2011, first as Children's Minister. She has been in the Justice Department since May of last year, a lengthy period to learn that tricky political terrain.

Her form over the past seven days has raised doubts about her grasp of the job. It raises serious doubt about the happy scenario of "Frances for Taoiseach".

Firstly, there was her less than assured handling of the revelation that several journalists' phone records were being assessed by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). Initially, she made very little of it, saying there was an annual review by a High Court judge and the right of redress to the courts.

Then she decided it would be the subject of a "scoping exercise". We wondered was that inspired by strong and critical comments from Health Minister Leo Varadkar? Finally, she was upstaged last Monday by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, who signalled a "full review" in efforts to defuse a growing controversy.

But her performance on this Thursday's 'Today With Seán O'Rourke' was even more disconcerting. She said the battle against burglaries was being won - despite a 6.2pc increase and CSO data showing 78 burglaries occurred every day in the 12 months to September 2015.

We must wait until April for figures to back other assertions. The Government blames "media hype" for people's feelings of insecurity. But that won't wash. People know there are too few gardaí and the 1,150 in training will only maintain current staff levels once retirements and career breaks are taken into account.

Irish Independent

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