Saturday 20 January 2018

'Enda paced... and then held out his hand. We shook on it'

Media glare: Kenny and Gilmore announce they are to form a Coalition government
Media glare: Kenny and Gilmore announce they are to form a Coalition government

With the Fine Gael/Labour Programme for government agreed in March 2011, all eyes were on the new Tánaiste and his cabinet choices. The incoming Taoiseach had some reservations...

'Early on Sunday morning I called Máire Whelan SC and asked her if she would consider being the next Attorney General (AG). She confirmed to me her willingness to serve.

The appointment would not be announced until Wednesday, but speculation was already alive in the press as to whom Labour would nominate as the new AG. A number of names were mentioned, including Máire's. As attention began to settle on her, something of a campaign against her appointment was begun by a small number of senior legal figures. They lobbied colleagues, some on behalf of other possible contenders, but also just to block the appointment of Máire. There was a strong whiff of misogyny in some of the comments.

This campaign also targeted Fine Gael, and on Tuesday, Enda raised the issue with me. I confirmed to him that my nominee was Máire. He didn't know her, but he expressed strong doubts about her appointment.

'She is an officer of the Labour Party!' he exclaimed. 'You cannot seriously appoint a political figure to such an important and sensitive position in government.'

I pointed out to him that Fine Gael had previously appointed serving TDs (Declan Costello and John Kelly) to the position, and that they were hardly apolitical. Through Tuesday, as we met to tidy up the issues before the reconvening of the Dáil the following day, we spoke several times about the AG ­appointment. Late on Tuesday night, we met in Enda's office on the fourth floor of LH2000. He paced the floor as he ­struggled with my refusal to consider a different ­appointment.

Eventually, I said to him: 'Enda, we are about to start governing in very difficult circumstances. We will have to learn to trust each other. I know how important the AG's role is, and that the AG reports through the Taoiseach. I am not going to begin this government by making a bad appointment. I believe that Máire Whelan will make an excellent AG and that it won't be long before you see this for yourself. You will just have to trust my judgment on this.'

He paused, and then held out his hand. We shook on it. It was the beginning of a new working relationship between the two of us. Several times over our years in government together, he remarked that Máire Whelan was indeed an outstanding choice for AG, and she continued to impress all the members of Cabinet with her good advice and extraordinary appetite for the work.

With the Programme for Government agreed, all eyes now turned to the appointment of ministers. Labour's 37 TDs represented a talented pool. Many of them, I knew, would make good ministers. A couple of the newly elected ones expressed an interest, but as would be expected, most attention was focused on the 23 who had previous experience as TDs or senators. Some mentioned their interests directly to me: Róisín Shortall, as we met briefly in RTÉ; later in the week Ruairí Quinn made a passing remark about his passion for education reform; and Joan Burton told me she would be interested in the foreign affairs portfolio.

For myself, I initially considered not taking a ministerial role at all, as I knew it would result in my having four jobs: as a TD for my constituency of Dún Laoghaire, as leader of the Labour Party, as a minister responsible for a government department, and as Tánaiste in a coalition with huge cross-party responsibilities.

I foresaw problems with this, though. The first was that I would be out of the government loop. I would not have access to cabinet papers or cabinet committees and would therefore be unable to directly influence what was happening in government. Meanwhile, as leader, I would have to continue to defend the actions and decisions of ministers while being open to the charge that I had personally dodged the draft! So I explored the possibility of being Tánaiste without departmental portfolio. This did not seem to be constitutionally possible, and would probably have resulted in one less department for the Labour Party.

My decision was to select a department that would be compatible with the role of Tánaiste by having a whole-of-government remit. Foreign Affairs and Trade was the obvious one and, in fact, the only one that fitted the bill, and at this time, I felt it was particularly relevant.

Picking the team was something I had to do by myself. For obvious reasons, I could not share my thinking with colleagues who were hopeful candidates for appointment.

Ita McAuliffe, whom I had appointed General Secretary of the party in 2008, gave me a useful piece of personal advice just before the General Election: 'The loneliest day of your life and your most difficult day in politics will be the day the new Government is formed.'

I anticipated that our biggest battles with Fine Gael would be over social welfare. If Labour was going to protect pensioners, the widowed, the unemployed and the poor from the worst effects of the crisis, we would need our toughest fighter as Minister for Social Protection. I valued Joan Burton's considerable abilities, and as I thought about those challenges, I felt that she would be the ideal person for the portfolio.

Unfortunately, Joan didn't see it the same way I did, and reacted very negatively when I told her. She was visibly shocked at the appointment. She asked me about the allocation of the other Labour portfolios and the answer did not quell her growing anger. She told me that I was making a big mistake in appointing her as Minister for Social Protection, that it would go down very badly in the party. I was taken aback by Joan's reaction. The Department of Social Protection was responsible for nearly 40pc of all State spending. It reached into every home in the country. Every time the party participated in government, this portfolio was always held by one of Labour's most senior figures.

With the new ministers all informed, we filed in traditional order into the packed and expectant Dáil chamber, led by Enda Kenny, followed by me as Tánaiste, and then each Minister in order of their length of service as Minister. I caught sight of my wife, Carol, and two of our children, Gráinne and Seán, sitting in the distinguished visitors' gallery, and smiled. It was, in many ways, a proud moment for our family, considering the long, hard slog of my political life that had brought me to this point: the Deputy Prime Minister of my country.

At the same time, it was an awkward moment. I could sense the disappointment of many of my colleagues who had not been appointed to office."

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