Friday 13 December 2019

Arts Minister will confound the 'luvvies'

Heather Humphreys is admired by colleagues and brings added value 
to the Cabinet role

Heather Humphreys
Heather Humphreys

Fionnan Sheahan

The Arts scored a dramatic win in the Cabinet reshuffle.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was retained in its current format, when there was informed speculation about it being broken up and its component parts being scattered across government.

There wouldn't have been much sympathy if the department was sacrificed to allow the creation of a designated Department of Equality and Law Reform, or Department of Housing and Mortgages.

The Arts could have been viewed as an indulgence by the Taoiseach, not sufficiently important to justify a place at the Cabinet table.

Instead, not only did he retain the portfolio, but he appointed a highly capable and well-rounded individual as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Needless to say, the 'Orts community' was being its usual clueless self in its response to the appointment of Humphreys.

A similar reaction was generated by the appointment of John O'Donoghue in 2002, as the snoots turned up their nose at a minister who wasn't 'one of their own'. O'Donoghue went on to become an able Arts Minister, with a wide range of cultural interests, who brought in future Abbey Theatre director Fiach Mac Conghail as his adviser.

No doubt Humphreys will also go on to prove the doubters wrong.

Luvvie laureate Fintan O'Toole led the charge of the enlightened brigade lamenting "how the arts have lost out in the political game".

The former almost-a-general-election-candidate-who-chickened-out-of-running claimed the Cabinet reshuffle shows "how little the Government values our cultural assets".

"In all the speculation leading up to the Cabinet reshuffle, and the appointment of Heather Humphreys as Minister for the Arts, political commentators have been unanimous in writing about the arts brief as a makeweight, a consolation prize, the next worst thing to being kicked out of the Cabinet altogether," he wrote in yesterday's Irish Times.

How quick O'Toole was to dismiss Humphreys - who he confessed on Friday had "never heard of".

Of course he hasn't. She's only a TD who actually stood before the electorate and received a mandate.

Humphreys may not be a regular at the poetry-reading salons of southside Dublin; she may not attend premieres in the Peacock, but she is deserving of her status in Cabinet.

Her appointment was immensely popular within Fine Gael, as she is regarded as genuine and hard-working with a no-nonsense style.

Living in the rural parish of Aghabog, near Monaghan town, her husband, Eric, is a farmer and the couple have two children, Tara and Eva, both in their 20s.

She worked as a bank official for Ulster Bank in west Cavan and as the Credit Union manager in Cootehill, Co Cavan, and brings that experience to bear in her work as the chair of Fine Gael's finance committee.

Of the new intake of TDs into the Dail from the class of 2011, she is viewed as one of the few with no enemies.

Independent TD Shane Ross, who doesn't hold back from criticising the Government, said yesterday that every TD who knows Humphreys "seems to speak highly of her".

"Is this unique for a politician? Good luck to her," he said.

Fine Gael backbencher Patrick O'Donovan said she will be sadly missed as a valued confidante who is trusted by colleagues on the party corridor in Leinster House.

"She is two doors up from me. She is the salt of the earth. She is a good friend and she can be relied on. She is a deadly serious politician. She is universally liked. You could see that today when she was appointed," he said.

Fine Gael sources say she's also the right woman to focus on whether there are further efficiencies to be made in the Arts budget, but that she will also be a strong advocate for funding if she believes it is delivering a community benefit.

The only new arrival into the Oireachtas from 2011 to make it as a full Cabinet minister, she is clearly trusted by the Taoiseach and will make her mark.

Beyond the Arts brief, of far wider interest, is the significance of Humphreys, a member of the Presbyterian community from a border county, being in charge of the events around the 1916 centenary.

Already a member of the National Commemoration Committee, she has been involved in the planning to date and brings a different perspective to the organisation.

Coming from a rural background, she will also bring her experience to the Heritage portfolio, and has been involved in numerous community groups, including the campaign for the redevelopment of the Ulster Canal.

The Irish Times has plenty of well-informed political commentators. If O'Toole had bothered to ask the likes of Stephen Collins, Michael O'Regan or Miriam Lord, they would have told him of her capabilities.

Humphreys' appointment was the coup de grace of the Taoiseach's reshuffle and helped to cover over the stunt pulled in finding a role for Dr James Reilly as Children's Minister, with his own pet projects around public health added on.

Children's rights activists like Fergus Finlay of Barnardos were immediately concerned about the dilution of the importance of the role by the unnecessary inclusion of added responsibilities.

The necessity to include Reilly in the Cabinet because he is Fine Gael's deputy leader resulted in Charlie Flanagan being moved to the Foreign Affairs brief. Ahead of the reshuffle there were concerns about where Reilly would end up. "If he goes into Transport, there'll be strikes in a week," a minister pithily noted before the appointment.

Pity the little children of the nation.

Sunday Independent

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