Monday 20 November 2017

Be bold, Enda: in with the new -- and out with the old

A reshuffle would inject life into a jaded Cabinet, says political correspondent Daniel McConnell

Junior minister Brian Hayes TD at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Junior minister Brian Hayes TD at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Jimmy Deenihan
Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

SWEPT into office in early 2011 on a tidal wave of what he called a "democratic revolution", Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his Labour party counterpart, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, went on to appoint arguably the most conservative Cabinet possible.

With the exception of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, the Cabinet was made up of those in their 50s and 60s, and many had been in Cabinet 20 years before. The absence of fresh talent was noticeable.

Given how dire was the position facing the country at that time, it is perhaps understandable that Kenny prioritised experience over youthful enthusiasm and energy.

At his annual round table chat with political correspondents just before Christmas, Kenny confirmed that he will reshuffle his Cabinet in the second half of 2014. Since then, a plethora of stories have appeared as to who is likely to be dropped and who could have be granted preferment.

Kenny himself has been the subject of speculation linking him to one of the top jobs in Europe, that of European Commission President. At the same briefing, he said he has no intention of going to Europe, rather he intends to become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected.

Much of the speculation has centred on the appointment of Ireland's next EU Commissioner. It has long been regarded as a Fine Gael appointment, with Environment Minister Phil Hogan touted as the favourite to take the post, as a reward for his stout defence of Kenny in the summer 2010 failed heave.

But as a decision on who will replace Maire Geoghegan-Quinn as Ireland's next Commissioner is not likely until September, it could still transpire that Labour could get first choice on filling the plum post.

Talk of Eamon Gilmore being granted a dignified exit has diminished given the party's upward movement in recent opinion polls.

Given this, Gilmore is most likely to move out of Foreign Affairs to another domestic ministry, leaving some to conclude that Education Minister Ruairi Quinn would get the nod, should it be a Labour choice.

Quinn, who turns 68 next April, does not have time on his side, and could be Europe-bound or else could face being dropped altogether in order to make room. It has been suggested he only expected to stay in Government for two and a half years.

Quinn in the past two weeks has said he is not interested in the EU job, but one suspects this is not the end of the story.

Aside from the vacancy created by the EU Commissionership, embattled Health Minister James Reilly has repeatedly been targeted as one who could move. Openly criticised by his cabinet colleagues for the ongoing mess that is Health, Dr Reilly has endured a torrid time as minister and his manner forced the resignation of junior minister Roisin Shortall.

Yet, given his close links to Kenny, who has stood by his man through thick and thin since 2011, he is unlikely to be dumped altogether. Should a move from Hawkins House happen for Dr Reilly, who survived despite being named in Stubbs Gazette on foot of personal financial difficulties, he is likely to be moved to another portfolio.

Should this happen, Leo Varadkar, himself a GP and current Transport Minister, has been touted as the most likely replacement as health minister.

The other vulnerable Fine Gael minister at this stage is Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan, who has struggled to keep pace with some of his cabinet colleagues. Deenihan, a former All-Ireland winning Kerry footballer, is a popular member of the Fine Gael party, but there would be few tears shed if he was dropped in favour of younger blood.

The defeat of the Seanad referendum has led to the name of Jobs Minister Richard Bruton being added to the list of those who may be demoted.

'There would be few tears shed if he was dropped in favour of younger blood'

Bruton was the director of elections for the rejected referendum and the belief is that Eamon Gilmore wants a move to Jobs, which could give Kenny enough impetus to dump his former rival.

Bruton's pal, junior Finance Minister Brian Hayes, is known to be frustrated at not being in Cabinet, and feels that promotion is unlikely given his central role in the failed heave. It is in this context that talk of Hayes looking to become an MEP next summer has surfaced.

The pending reshuffle presents Kenny with a glorious opportunity to blood new talent and to rid the Cabinet of its wrinkly image. Having stabilised the economy, the time has come for Kenny to be bold and sweep out the old guard, who have done their time, and replenish with the best and brightest of the next generation.

Had Lucinda Creighton not walked the plank on the abortion issue last summer, she was an obvious contender for high office.

On the Fine Gael side, Paschal Donohoe, who replaced Creighton, is seen as one who has managed to salvage his position within the party, despite supporting Bruton in the heave.

Donohoe has an uphill battle to retain his seat, having been hit badly by the redrawing of constituency boundaries. His name has also been mooted as a possible successor to Reilly should he leave the Department of Health.

But, it is likely that movement at cabinet level will be limited, with greater movement at junior minister level.

From the Fine Gael side, those in the mix for promotion include party chairman Charlie Flanagan, Cork North West TD Michael Creed and Meath West TD Damien English.

If he was brave, Kenny could do worse than give a nod to one of the new breed of trouble-making youngsters such as Eoghan Murphy or Simon Harris.

On the Labour side, should any of the five current cabinet ministers leave, then it is almost certain that Dublin South TD and junior Health Minister Alex White would be promoted. Well respected by Gilmore and the party leadership, White is regarded as a leader in waiting.

The two other names most talked about are those of junior ministers Sean Sherlock and Alan Kelly, given their solid if unremarkable performances so far.

Talk of a reshuffle is also a useful tool with which to keep potentially troublesome troops in line for the next nine months.

Undoubtedly wary that if he is too radical in his movements, Enda Kenny could inflict serious damage on himself. But, at the same time, one fears caution will impede what is a golden chance for Kenny to be radical and go some way in delivering on that democratic revolution he spoke of on March 9, 2011.

Prove us wrong, Enda.

Irish Independent

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