THE only thing that’s clear from the Programme for Government is that the Taoiseach’s Office will change between the leader of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael 10 days before Christmas .
For posterity, this is exactly what it says: “The leader of Fianna Fáil will hold the office of An Taoiseach from that point until December 15, 2022, on which date he will offer his resignation to the President and all parties and TDs supporting the Government will support the nomination of the leader of the Fine Gael Party.”
Leo Varadkar’s Christmas present this year will be moving back into the Department of the Taoiseach after a brief hiatus following the resignation of Enda Kenny in 2017.
The Programme for Government says little else about what should happen when the leader of the country is rotated between two elected TDs for the first time in the history of the State.
For those who hold lucrative ministries, the coming months will be a nervous period during which they will anxiously hope to retain their prominent positions at the Cabinet table or at minister of state level.
The Programme for Government does give passing mention to what may happen in December as regards the ‘Mercs and Perks’ of serving in Coalition.
“Membership of Government and the roles of ministers will be continued save where agreed in advance by party leaders,” it says.
“Each party acknowledges that the leadership and ministerial nominations of their respective parties is entirely a matter for the party concerned.”
The pertinent words in each segment are that the ministerial roles will continue unless the three coalition leaders decide otherwise, and nominees to the roles are decided by the leader who appointed a minister in the first instance.
This leads us to what or what may not happen on December 15.
We know Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar will be the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin will be the Tánaiste. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan will also remain Green Party leader unless, of course, Culture Minister Catherine Martin decides to launch another coup.
But after that, it’s a guessing game. However, there are a number of schools of thought on what might transpire when the two main coalition leaders change office.
It’s commonly believed in Government circles Micheál Martin will want to become Minister for Foreign Affairs along with being Tánaiste. So where goes the Fine Gael deputy leader Simon Coveney?
Perhaps Coveney could be swapped into Varadkar’s Department of Enterprise, which would allow him to continue his international jet-setting, albeit without the gravitas.
There are also questions surrounding what happens in Finance. It’s almost taken for granted there will be a straight swap of roles between Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath.
There is nothing set in stone, or, at least, writing, but Government sources says it’s a done deal.
But what does that mean for other conflicting offices such as the Attorney General’s office, which is held by Fianna Fáil supporter Paul Gallagher? And the justice ministry currently held by Helen McEntee? McEntee is going on maternity leave for a second time shortly and Fine Gael will be eager to hold the Attorney General’s office.
So where does this leave McEntee if her office is handed over to Fianna Fáil? And who should get it? The smart money might be on Jack Chambers, who has impressed many in Fianna Fáil in his role as chief whip.
Fine Gael will then get the Whip’s Office, which could be handed to Higher Education Minister Simon Harris in an attempt to neutralise the ambitious TD. But some in the party say this would be a wasted move given Harris’ potential to take on Sinn Féin in election debates. Sources suggest he could take up the more senior Education Minister job and the incumbent Norma Foley move in the opposite direction.
The other big question is what happens with the headache departments of housing and health. Fianna Fáil insisted on holding the two pivotal portfolios during coalition talks but may be eager to offload them in the run-up to the next general election.
What would Fine Gael think of the prospect of swapping Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys and Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien? Both win lots of plaudits in their departments for their work, but you can be sure there’s only one who would like to change position.
Humphreys’ jobs also includes Rural Affairs, which is essentially a cash giveaway portfolio, and Coalition sources insist Fianna Fáil could not hold both this job and the Department of Agriculture. So what does this mean for the climate-change-agenda-fighting Charlie McConalogue, who also has electorate hot potato of mica hanging over his head? Micheál Martin could hardly cut him loose after his efforts during the climate change targets talks.
Junior Roads Minister Hildegarde Naughten is far from a popular figure in Fine Gael and could be up for the chop, although geography and gender are in her favour.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly’s fate is also unknown, but it is suggested he has a deal which holds him in place.
Overall, it looks like less is more when it comes to change in Cabinet positions in the current cost-of-living crisis, and the bigger decisions might be among the junior ministerial ranks.