Saturday 17 March 2018

Junior minister walking a shaky tightrope amid cabinet scepticism about her position

Mary Mitchell O'Connor Picture: David Conachy
Mary Mitchell O'Connor Picture: David Conachy
John Downing

John Downing

Mary Mitchell O'Connor finds herself engaged in a tricky political high-wire act. Suddenly becoming the teacher unions' darling and an unwitting Fianna Fáil ally will not endear her to cabinet room colleagues, some of whom are already deeply sceptical about her.

But against that, if she really is clinging on to Government team membership, just what has she got to lose?

On Wednesday, the junior minister responsible for higher education managed to reignite controversy about teacher union demands to end the two-tier pay system introduced as a cost-saver amid recession.

The minister was the only member of the Cabinet to take a fall when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar unveiled his team on June 14 last.

The Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown TD had been Jobs and Enterprise Minister under Enda Kenny from May 2016, a period in which she attracted controversy like a magnet attracts iron filings. Mr Varadkar dropped her to the junior ranks, but appeared to ease the fall by talking up her new post and pointing out she would be systematically attending Cabinet meetings.

The last bit proved to be a sympathy sop too far. It turned out that she cannot get the €16,000 per year extra allowance because current legislation only allows for two such allowances, which go to longer-standing junior ministers with Cabinet-attending rights, Finian McGrath and Paul Kehoe.

The only way Mr Varadkar could overcome this obstacle, which also affects Gaeltacht Minister Joe McHugh, would be to bring in special legislation for pay top-ups. Everyone in the vicinity of Leinster Buildings and Government Buildings agrees that is a complete non-starter given the current Dáil deadlock on numbers.

Questions about the pay-gap for herself caused her to comment simply: "Everyone who does the same job deserves the same pay." This response clearly begged a question about whether teachers deserved equal pay. After all, a teacher starting this autumn will be paid just over €32,000 per year, compared with a slightly older colleague who started in 2011 on almost €41,000.

Ms Mitchell O'Connor, herself a former principal teacher, had no doubts about her stance. "I think they do and I'm going to stand by that. That's my comment," she told reporters while her immediate boss, Education Minister Richard Bruton, looked on stony-faced.

Now, many of her Government colleagues have been less than kind since her promotion to the ranks three years ago. Many Fine Gael party colleagues are of the firm belief she should not have been kept in the Government team when Mr Varadkar took over.

Stoking the teacher pay row will only confirm that hostile view. But, for now at least, it is a reasonable bet that the Taoiseach will choose to turn a blind eye.

Irish Independent

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