News John Downing

Monday 22 September 2014

Kenny knew exactly what he was doing by delaying the second part of this reshuffle

Published 14/07/2014 | 02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke

IT was the pinnacle of his own father's 21-year political career and it took Enda Kenny over 10 years to get his leg on that first rung of the government ladder.

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So this Taoiseach knows the importance of Part II in this Cabinet reshuffle, the appointment of Ministers of State.

We expect he'll do that tomorrow but, given last week's foot-dragging senior reshuffle, we will hope it can be done this side of Thursday and the Dail holidays.

In February 1973 Henry Kenny, the Taoiseach's father, was appointed to what was then termed 'Parliamentary Secretary at the Department of Finance.'

It was, and remains to this day, a pivotal government job – the most senior of the junior government positions, known to many as 'minister for diggers', a position in which a rural TD especially can make things happen.

Henry Kenny got that prestigious job because Mayo West had delivered a second Fine Gael seat which helped secure a very narrow majority for the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition which ran from 1973 to 1977.

FG leader Liam Cosgrave had his doubts about Henry Kenny's commitment to politics beyond his constituency and, while he was on the FG front bench in June 1970, he was dropped in April 1972 – almost a year ahead of that 1973 general election. But Fine Gael winning two out of three in Mayo West was something Liam Cosgrave had to recognise – Kenny senior became 'minister for diggers'.

Tragically, cancer took Henry Kenny in September 1975 and a 24-year-old Enda Kenny won the ensuing by-election two months later.

On February 13, 1986 – more than nine years after his arrival at Leinster House – Enda Kenny became Minister of State for Youth Affairs, his first government job.

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had not really rated Enda Kenny and part of the reason for his promotion was the fear that the formidable Cllr Frank Durcan might field in the next general election for the fledgling Progressive Democrats who were threatening FG all across the nation.

These career tales of Kenny senior and junior tell us rather forcefully that the appointment of junior ministers is, and always has been, even more closely correlated to party matters and Dail seats than the appointment of senior ministers.

In fact it was Jack Lynch who really developed the idea of these junior ministers just days after he delivered a landslide victory for Fianna Fail in June 1977.

Up to then there had been just seven "parliamentary secretaries" whose job it was to assist ministers in departments with a particularly heavy workload.

Jack Lynch argued that the world was changing and government was becoming more complex and Ireland's EU involvement needed more people to cover an increasing number of responsibilities.

"In my view there is a clear need to appoint such junior ministers to help members of the Government who have especially heavy workloads by reason of modern developments and international commitments," he summed up in the Dail in June 1977.

The law was changed to facilitate these appointments, which began with 10 in number.

But from start to finish the junior ministers generally have occupied a strange, ill-defined role. Some of them have well-delineated responsibilities delegated to them by law and others do not.

The law is also very clear that, whatever responsibility a junior minister may have it cannot dilute the overall authority of the senior minister with whom the buck stops.

Too often a junior minister has been somebody who deputises for the senior minister on public occasions, making a very poor job of reading a department-written script handed to him or her at the very last minute. There have been exceptions to this rather dreary prospect. In the 1973-77 FG-Labour coalition, Labour's Frank Cluskey effectively ran social welfare policy as a junior at the joint Department of Health and Social Welfare. In the 1989-92 Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat coalition, Mary Harney as junior environment minister drove through a ban "smokey coal" and helped end winter smog in Dublin. Inevitably, the number of junior ministers grew. In 1980 Charlie Haughey increased them from the original 10 to 15; in 1995, the Rainbow Government upped it to 17; and after the 2007 general election, Bertie Ahern increased the number again to a whopping 20.

It's hard to believe that government had become so much more complex and demanding in the 30 years between 1977 and 2007.

The paying of political debts, patronage to maintain loyalty, and the need to accommodate Coalition partners' demands had a big say in this bloating of numbers.

But the economic collapse did force some sense in April 2009 when the Green Party in coalition successfully drove demands to cut the number of juniors from the excessive 20 to 15 where it now stands.

More innocent people at Leinster House last week asked why Enda Kenny did not announce junior and senior ministers in one go.

The answer was blindingly obvious: "You have to wait and see how the senior announcements play. Then you can use the juniors to pour oil on troubled waters," said a war-weary Government politician.

John Downing

Irish Independent

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