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Cowen to stick with key team in reshuffle

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen will stand by key figures in his Cabinet despite pressure within Fianna Fail for a wide-ranging reshuffle.

Mr Cowen will stick with an inner circle of high-profile figures, but will rejig the portfolios of individual ministers.

The Taoiseach is understood to be planning to reshuffle the Cabinet and change various government departments before the Green Party conference next month, in a bid to boost Fianna Fail's battered coalition partners.

But by staying with his tried and trusted team, Mr Cowen runs the risk of disappointing those calling for the introduction of new faces at the top.

Outspoken Fianna Fail TD Mattie McGrath became the latest figure within the party to call for the removal of several ministers. Top of his list appeared to be Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, with whom Mr McGrath has clashed over new drink-driving laws. But Mr Dempsey is close to Mr Cowen, so it would be a major surprise to see him dropped.

Mr Cowen yesterday confirmed he was looking at overhauling key government departments as part of his shake-up.

"The organisation of government and the arrangements as to how we organise government is a matter for me as Taoiseach and that is a matter that is under continual review," he said.

When asked how soon it would happen, he said: "We are certainly looking to the issue presently and we will be back to you." Green Party leader John Gormley said he had not been consulted yet on the proposed changes but expected to be.

The Greens will aim to influence change in the movement of the equality section away from the Department of Justice, the prioritisation of public sector reform, and changes to the system for training of the unemployed. The Green Party conference takes place on the last weekend in March.

"Out of courtesy, he would probably do it before that, maybe that week. It would be untidy otherwise and it gives them something to trumpet," a senior source said.

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A cautious Taoiseach is thought to be unlikely to remove a substantial number of existing ministers from the Cabinet for his reshuffle. Instead a specific minister in charge of public sector reform will be created, with a 'Super Junior Minister' linked to the Departments of the Taoiseach and Finance being considered.

There is a widespread belief that a new economic department will be created, tasked with job creation.


The changes to Tanaiste Mary Coughlan's department are a clear indication her duties will be reduced by Mr Cowen.

The removal of job training from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is just one of the functions expected to be carved up from that portfolio. "There is a tacit acknowledgement that Enterprise, Trade and Employment is too big and the responsibilities are too wide. And it could be channelled better," a coalition source said.

The training of the unemployed will be assigned either to the Department of Social and Family Affairs or the Department of Education.

At present, there is a debate in government about whether to link training schemes to social welfare benefits or to mainstream education.

Despite the demise of the PDs, Health Minister Mary Harney is regarded by most within the Government as being safe in her job due to Mr Cowen's high regard for her performance.

"As long as she wants to stay, she stays," a source said.

Community Affairs Minister Eamon O Cuiv's influence is not being taken for granted. Tourism Minister Martin Cullen is still regarded as the favourite to be let go, even if it will leave the south-east of the country without a cabinet member.

Beyond speculation about the future of these three ministers, there is a feeling Mr Cowen would not even think about dropping anybody else.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said talk of a ministerial reshuffle was a distraction from the real needs of the country.

And cabinet members were keen to stay out of the debate, with Finance Minister Brian Lenihan stressing it was all a matter for the Taoiseach to resolve. "I don't have an appetite (for it). He'll deal with that matter in due course," he said.

Mr Lenihan added that he was still sticking to his previous statements that he was fit to continue in his job, despite battling cancer.

"I made it very clear last January what my position was. I made a full public disclosure and my position has not changed since then," he said.

There has been speculation that Green Party member and Communications Minister Eamon Ryan could take the new economic and job creation portfolio, or get additional powers in his existing department.

But Mr Ryan indicated he would like to stay put in his current position.

"No, it's up to the Taoiseach. I found working in my ministry hugely fulfilling and there's a hugely important role there as part of the recovery," he said.

"There is a green recovery possible here, and if we get our banks sorted, which I believe we can, I'm keen to be part of the economic recovery by creating green jobs. They're out there and we are creating them."

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