Saturday 20 October 2018

Mary Coughlan will plough a unique farming furrow

GOING from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, Mary Coughlan now becomes the first female Minister for Agriculture in the history of the State.

At 39, the Donegal South West deputy is also the youngest member of the Cabinet.

Today her first official engagement will be at the National Ploughing Championships in Tullow - the same venue that saw the end of the long career of her predecessor, Joe Walsh.

The promotion of Ms Coughlan is one of the genuine surprises of yesterday's reshuffle by the Taoiseach, as it was generally felt that she had turned in a competent, rather than stellar, performance at the Department of Family and Social Affairs.

Indeed, many backbenchers had predicted that she would be a casualty of this reshuffle. That was because she instituted a highly-controversial Government cutback before the local and European elections. The cuts in the entitlement of widow and widowers after the death of their spouse angered many, and eventually had to be reversed by the Coalition in an embarrassing U-turn.

The measure would have saved only a few million euro, but the effect of its imposition led the Government to far more embarrassment than it was worth.

Because of this, many felt that the "widow's mite" would put the bite on Ms Coughlan's chances of holding onto her existing portfolio - certainly, few imagined that she would step up to ministerial control of Ireland's most important industry, even though its contribution to the overall economy is declining.

The highly-popular and relaxed minister was first elected to the Dail in 1987, her father, Cathal, having been a TD from 1983 until 1986 when his career was cruelly ended by cancer.

Yesterday Ms Coughlan said she was looking forward to the "challenge and opportunity" now before her, while paying tribute to her retiring colleague.

"Joe Walsh leaves large Wellington boots to step into," she said, adding that she hoped to help ensure the prosperity and long-term viability of the agriculture industry.

She pointed to her successes at Social and Family Affairs, where she pioneered automatic child benefit for the mothers of newborns, the establishment of the Family Support Agency, and a record ?11.2bn to be spent on social welfare this year.

She also oversaw the introduction of Personal Retirement Savings Accounts to increase pension cover for workers across the country.

- Senan Molony

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