Tuesday 25 June 2019

Leo's new politics sure looks a lot like the actions of the old guard

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with his newly-appointed Cabinet at Áras an Uachtaráin – but the new Cabinet closely resembles the old one. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with his newly-appointed Cabinet at Áras an Uachtaráin – but the new Cabinet closely resembles the old one. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Upon being elected Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar promised to create a "Republic of Opportunity" - but failed to clarify that the primary beneficiaries of this glorious new era would be his friends and colleagues.

It's gas really. After all the talk of reform, all of the commitments to new politics and all of the finger-wagging moralising about Fianna Fáil strokes, it took less than 24 hours for the sheen of probity to evaporate from Mr Varadkar's administration.

While international media ooh and aah over our youthful new Taoiseach, casting him as the personification of a liberal Ireland that has escaped the clerical shackles of our theocratic past, the more mundane reality is that it's business as usual in Leinster House, with baubles dispensed to wizened loyalists.

Instead of a Cabinet reshuffle, what we got was musical chairs, with the old guard jealously guarding their positions. The only one to be axed, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, was given a consolation prize of a newly created super junior position so that she still gets to sit at the top table.

If you're keeping count, we now have three super-junior ministers - whose only superpower appears to be their ability to get an extra €16,288-a-year allowance - when not so long ago there were none.

And to think, as recently as 2010, Mr Varadkar was railing against "Planet Bertie" and "jobs for the boys".

The irony is that, in his maiden speech as Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar effusively praised Enda Kenny for recognising his potential and promoting him to Cabinet at a young age.

"[Enda Kenny] gave me the opportunity to serve on the front bench and then as a minister, an opportunity to demonstrate my ability and potential.

"Without opportunity, there is no hope and there can be no progress," he said.

Are we then to assume that the only Fine Gael whippersnapper, among the entire parliamentary party, in whom Mr Varadkar recognises any ability or potential is the new Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy?

Worse than his botched attempt at a reshuffle was Mr Varadkar's rewarding of failure.

Simon Coveney, despite having spent the past year repeatedly telling the nation of his commitment to dealing with the housing crisis, was airlifted out of that department as soon as he sent up a flare.

What has he left in his wake? Record numbers of homeless, the rebranding of direct provision centres for homeless families as the much more cheery sounding 'family hubs' and a help-to-buy scheme for first-time buyers that has driven up prices.

If Mr Coveney was really committed to resolving the housing crisis, then surely he would have lobbied to remain in situ so that he could see his much-vaunted 'Rebuilding Ireland' plan through.

Instead, less than a year after its launch, he's gratefully abandoning ship, happy to let someone else pick up the pieces, and has commandeered the Foreign Affairs brief.

Perhaps Mr Coveney will be better suited to Foreign Affairs where he will be mingling with English Brexiteers with whom he has at least one affinity, his disdainful attitude to expert advice.

He stubbornly introduced his help-to-buy scheme, despite ubiquitous warnings from independent experts that it would inflate property prices, and now the first item on his successor's agenda will be trying to scrap it before it can do any more damage.

Elsewhere, the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal, without even the veneer of independent selection that comes from the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB), tells you all you need to know about the apparent reforming zeal of the new generation of Irish politics.

There is every possibility that Ms Whelan was the best candidate for the job, but she, as well as the three High Court judges who expressed an interest in the position, has been let down by the nature of her appointment.

It's not as if Enda Kenny's departure as Taoiseach wasn't well flagged - Government TDs have been consumed by little else for months.

In those circumstances, it is beyond belief that the express statutory procedure for the appointment of an attorney general to judicial office, detailed in section 18 of the Courts and Courts Officer Act 1995, wasn't adhered to.

For the record, that act states that if an attorney general is being considered for appointment to the bench, JAAB can make that recommendation.

Ultimately, the person most damaged by this particular controversy is the Independent Alliance TD Shane Ross, who has been caterwauling about political appointments to the judiciary for as long as he has been knocking around Leinster House.

Mr Ross even went as far, when he first entered Government, as blocking any judicial appointments for a number of months, creating havoc in the courts in the process, so committed was he to reform of the system.

However, as soon as the prospect of the reopening of his local Garda station in Stepaside was dangled before him, Mr Ross suddenly lost his aversion to political appointments and happily signed off on the deal.

Hilariously, the Independent Alliance is now calling for a review of the appointment, with Mr Ross vowing to raise the matter in today's Cabinet meeting - 24 hours after the President made the appointment official.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil, for its part, despite its bluster on the issue, is all bark and no bite.

The party could use its influence to force change on any number of issues, but is happy to snipe from the sidelines while simultaneously keeping the current administration in power.

New politics, eh?

It looks an awful lot like the old politics.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss