News Shane Coleman

Thursday 28 August 2014

Frances Fitzgerald is a safe pair of hands on tiller until storm clouds blow over at Justice

Shane Coleman

Published 09/05/2014 | 02:30

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New Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald speaking to media at Government Buildings, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
New Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald speaking to media at Government Buildings, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Newly appointed Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Frances Fitzgerald and Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured at Aras an Uachtarain
Newly appointed Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Frances Fitzgerald and Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured at Aras an Uachtarain

In the end, Enda Kenny did what most leaders do in times of crisis – he plumped for the person he knew best, and trusted most, to replace Alan Shatter.

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Frances Fitzgerald wouldn't have been many people's tip to take over in the Department of Justice (though there were a few around Leinster House who took advantage of odds of 7-2 to win a few euro).

But, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, she was the obvious choice. The jury is certainly out though on whether she is the right one.

Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar seemed more obvious contenders to succeed Shatter on Wednesday afternoon.

However, purely from the Taoiseach's perspective, Fitzgerald had advantages the two heirs apparent couldn't match.

Firstly, unlike the Agriculture and Transport Ministers, she was unambiguously on the "right" side in the heave against Kenny. Loyalty is clearly a quality Kenny ranks highly. With Phil Hogan likely off to Brussels, James Reilly clearly not an option for Justice and Paul Kehoe indispensable as chief whip, Fitzgerald is the closest ally the Taoiseach could have appointed.

Given her placing on the 'liberal' wing of Fine Gael, she is also somebody Labour trusts with key social policy issues such as gay marriage.

It helped considerably that, liberal views aside, Fitzgerald was also the furthest thing from Alan Shatter you could possibly get (within the limited context of the Fine Gael gene pool).

She's not an intellectual, a legislator or a conceptual thinker in the way we were constantly told Shatter was. But she has common sense and far more emotional intelligence than her predecessor. She is also very warm and gets on with people. Her style will also play much better with the public than the prickly Shatter.

In the words of one senior Labour figure, she might just be what that department needs. "What Shatter had in spades, Frances doesn't have. But that might be to her advantage," was the verdict of one Fine Gaeler.

Not everybody is convinced. In hushed conversations around the Dail yesterday, the blunt question was being asked as to whether Fitzgerald would be out of her depth in Justice.

The general verdict is that she has done 'okay' in the Department of Children, perhaps not setting the world alight, but certainly showing competence and performing reasonably well in the media.

However, the Department of Justice is different. Some big names have gone into that department. Not all have emerged with their reputations intact. Civil servants there see themselves as being akin to guardians of the security of the State. There is a scepticism towards politics and politicians. Critics say there is a tendency for incoming ministers to "go native" pretty quickly in this "other world".

Is Fitzgerald independent, decisive and bloody-minded enough to resist that in the way Leo Varadkar, for example, certainly would? There's also a worry that, despite being first elected to the Dail in 1992, she hasn't endured anything remotely like the pressure that comes with being Justice Minister, particularly at the moment. She will be sorely tested on that score – sooner, rather than later.

Her friends counter that Fitzgerald has always been seriously underestimated. They say, despite being a genuinely nice person, there is steel there. And that she is very bright, with very good political instincts.

A number of close observers say that after the crash, bang, wallop 'I know best' approach of Shatter, her calm and measured style, along with a willingness to take counsel, will stand to her. They speak of a stopgap minister who'll pour oil on troubled waters. But given the reforms required, particularly in the Garda Siochana, is that what's needed?

One theory doing the rounds yesterday is that Fitzgerald's role may be circumscribed, with the Taoiseach taking a much more hands-on role in Justice. As a close ally of Kenny's, she may be more open to such intervention than a Varadkar or a Coveney, who have their eyes on the top job.

Certainly, the subcommittee on Justice Reform – involving the Taoiseach, Tanaiste, the AG, the justice minister and Pat Rabbitte – will play a key role in overseeing Garda reform. While Shatter would only have reluctantly accepted such oversight, this shared responsibility and teasing out of issues may actually suit Fitzgerald's style.

Time will tell.

But right now her appointment by the Taoiseach smacks of caution and nervousness – the least unsafe option.

Appointing Varadkar would have been a real signal of intent that radical change was afoot. Kenny was clearly worried Varadkar would be too headstrong, but one wonders would the bullish, confident Kenny of two or three years ago have been more inclined to go for the bolder option.

The Taoiseach's body language has certainly changed since then and so has his government's. It speaks volumes that Eamon Gilmore only became aware of the Guerin report and Shatter's impending resignation just before it was announced.

All is clearly not well within the Coalition.

It will take a lot more than the removal of a problematic justice minister to change that.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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