Wednesday 22 November 2017

Varadkar urged to axe Harris as TDs fight for ministries

New Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
New Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

New Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar is being urged by supporters to stamp his authority on the party as he prepares to be elected Taoiseach.

He is facing demands to sack Health Minister Simon Harris, a close ally of Mr Varadkar's rival for the leadership, Simon Coveney.

The Sunday Independent can reveal Mr Coveney's supporters are pushing for the Housing Minister to be appointed Tanaiste after securing almost two-thirds of the membership's support in the leadership contest.

Mr Varadkar is also to come under intense pressure from some key political allies to sack Simon Harris as they believe they "cannot trust" the Health Minister.

However, Mr Harris's position in Cabinet could be saved if Mr Coveney insists his most senior supporter be retained.

Mr Varadkar is also to consider a radical overhaul of government departments which could see the Department of Justice split to allow the creation of a Department of Home Affairs for the first time in the history of the State.

It has also emerged Paschal Donohoe is expected to become the most powerful Cabinet minister, with responsibility for both the Department of Finance and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

The departments would not be merged but Mr Donohoe would have sole responsibility for the two portfolios. It is also expected a number of junior ministers would be appointed in the two departments to take up some of the workload.

Mr Varadkar's advisers yesterday insisted there will "definitely be a new look to the Cabinet" as the 38-year-old new leader prepares to make history by becoming the youngest and first openly gay Taoiseach.

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Last night, Mr Varadkar spoke by phone with Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and they agreed to speak again this week.

It is not expected Mr Varadkar will face opposition from either Independent TDs in Government or from Fianna Fail when he is proposed as Taoiseach in two weeks' time.

But the new Fine Gael leader is facing the toughest challenge of his political career as he moves to reward loyal supporters who weighed in behind him during the divisive election contest.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney met yesterday to discuss the Housing Minister's future at the Cabinet table.

Supporters of both Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney yesterday said the Housing Minister deserved to be appointed to the position of Tanaiste after his resounding victory among the Fine Gael membership. One Varadkar supporter said Mr Coveney "can have what he wants - except Finance".

The news will come as a blow to the current Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

Asked if he would appoint Mr Coveney as Tanaiste after his election victory last Friday, Mr Varadkar said: "We have a Tanaiste, it's Frances Fitzgerald and I think she's doing an excellent job."

After his meeting with Mr Coveney yesterday, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said: "It was a positive and constructive meeting where they discussed Mr Varadkar's plans for the party and the country."

Asked if Mr Coveney would be promoted to Tanaiste, the spokesman said: "Cabinet formation is under consideration."

Mr Coveney's spokeswoman said: "The focus is on putting a Government together and the intensive work around that, not on individual positions - anything further is just speculation."

Meanwhile, two senior ministers who supported Mr Varadkar yesterday called for the new party leader to sack Simon Harris from Cabinet.

One minister told the Sunday Independent Mr Varadkar should "leave him in Health or get rid of him". And another minister dismissed the suggestion that Mr Varadkar will be "seen as vindictive" if he sacks Mr Harris.

The minister said "Leo needs to trust his Cabinet 100pc" and added: "Peace can be made with Simon Coveney in other ways and will be."

However, one of Mr Varadkar's senior advisers insisted Mr Harris was "an effective Minister for Health" and said he did not believe he would be axed from the Cabinet.

There were also demands yesterday from within Fine Gael to appoint Minister of State for Regional Economic Development Michael Ring to a full Cabinet position. Supporters of the Mayo junior minister said there "would be war" if Mr Varadkar did not appoint a minister from the west of Ireland.

"He cannot fill his Cabinet full of ministers from Dublin and Leinster after we got hammered in the west at the last election," a Fine Gael source said.

The new Taoiseach is widely expected to appoint his campaign director Eoghan Murphy, who is currently a Minister of State in the Department of Finance, to the Cabinet. Carlow Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan has been tipped to replace Regina Doherty as the Government Chief Whip. However, Ms Doherty is expected to be promoted to another department.

Minister of State at the Departments of An Taoiseach and Defence Paul Kehoe, who sits at Cabinet, is expected to be rewarded for the key role he also played in Mr Varadkar's campaign.

To make room for new ministers and accommodate those currently around the Cabinet table, Mr Varadkar will consider a landmark overhaul of government departments. With Mr Donohoe set to oversee the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr Varadkar will be able to create a new Cabinet position.

It is understood central to Cabinet discussions will be a proposal to split the Department of Justice which has been under siege with Garda scandals for the past four years. It has been proposed that Ireland should follow other European countries and have a Department of Home Affairs, which would oversee the police force and security, along with a separate government department with responsibility for the judiciary and other legal affairs.

"It would be like in the UK where you have the lord chancellor and the home secretary. The lord chancellor does the legal stuff and the home secretary does security," a source said.

There was no suggestion from Mr Varadkar's team last night that he would be sacking any of the current Cabinet ministers. There was some speculation Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor may face being demoted.

However, one of Mr Varadkar's advisers said: "Mary's role in the campaign is fully acknowledged." Tanaiste Fitzgerald could lose her title as the deputy to the Taoiseach but is expected to remain in Cabinet. Education Minister Richard Bruton is in line for promotion and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan may remain in his position.

Sunday Independent

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