Saturday 7 December 2019

Reshuffle will test Taoiseach's ability to overcome curse of the bloated majority

Enda Kenny knows that whopping overall majorities bring their own trials and tribulations to a government. He had a ringside seat as he watched the last two governments, which had apparently invincible majorities, end in calamity for various reasons.

Mr Kenny was a second-time TD with 18 months' experience when Jack Lynch swept back into government with the biggest majority in the State's history in June 1977. Fianna Fail had 84 TDs in a Dail of 144 seats.

But within two years the tide had ebbed, with by-election and local election reverses forcing Lynch to step down in late 1979.

Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fail lost the subsequent 1981 general election and never again held an overall majority. More than 15 years later, Mr Kenny was an experienced Leinster House resident in January 1993, when Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring put together the first ever Fianna Fail-Labour coalition with a total of 102 out of the 166 TDs. And within another two years that government had fallen apart in a welter of confusion and acrimony.

When Enda Kenny's own hour of glory came and he was elected Taoiseach on March 9, 2011, this Fine Gael-Labour coalition had the biggest of all majorities with a combined total of 113 out of 166 TDs. For a long time after that Kenny looked like he walked upon water. But the sheer extent of the local election reverses delivered on May 23 last to Labour, and even more surprisingly to Fine Gael, surely carries some echoes of recent history.

We have also already noted in these pages that Enda Kenny had a really close-up view in February 1986 as his boss Garret FitzGerald made a total botch of his long-delayed re-shuffle. It brought Kenny his first government job as Junior Minister for Youth Affairs and it generated some feel-good among Mayo Fine Gael. But the overall outcome was that an unpopular and floundering government was further diminished and it lost a general election within a year.

For these and other reasons Enda Kenny and Joan Burton have a date with destiny today as they sit down and plot how they make a limited pool of political talent go a long way. They need to bring more, younger people into the frame; they need more women in the more high-profile jobs; and they must not neglect Dublin where there will 44 of the total 158 TDs next time out.

Mr Kenny and Ms Burton have two big dilemmas in picking their new team. In Mr Kenny's case it is whether he moves his deputy leader, James Reilly, from the Health Department or whether he drops him altogether. It appears impossible for Dr Reilly to stay in health and it seems improbable that he would fit in elsewhere. But it remains a big call for Kenny.

In Ms Burton's case it is whether or not she promotes leadership election rival Alex White to a full cabinet position. The Junior Health Minister polled poorly with 22pc in the contest and was never really at the races.

But geography is in his favour with the need to keep some south Dublin Labour people in cabinet.

There is a major cross-over of interests in the choice of EU Commissioner.

Smart money remains on Fine Gael's Phil Hogan to take it, with Labour's push for its outgoing leader, Eamon Gilmore, seen as part of an overall negotiating strategy. It is hard to see Mr Gilmore returning to cabinet.

There have been some pious statements about the need to take this commission appointment 'out of politics'. Such talk is unrealistic and pointless as politics since the dawn of time has had a strong element of alliances and patronage about it.

The other reality is that either Mr Hogan or Mr Gilmore would make excellent commissioners and could command a decent portfolio extending Ireland's clout in Brussels. There is little to choose between either of them.

There is no doubt, as reported in the 'Sunday Independent' yesterday, that another former Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte, is headed for the backbenches along with his immediate leadership predecessor Ruairi Quinn.

We can expect Ms Burton to promote women and it will be hard for her to overlook Kathleen Lynch from Cork who has courage and political judgment. It will be a surprise if Alan Kelly, the clear winner of the Labour deputy leadership, does not get promotion to cabinet.

On the Fine Gael side, after Dr Reilly, Jimmy Deenihan appears most vulnerable. If Mr Hogan goes to Brussels, that would leave Mr Kenny with three posts to fill.

The loyal and able government chief whip, Paul Kehoe, is in the reckoning, though he may be a victim of his own success in his current role.

One-time friend of Mr Kenny's, Michael Creed, might have done his penance for joining rebels in the botched heave of June 2010. And Dublin Central's Paschal Donohoe has not put a foot wrong since he was appointed a junior minister last summer.

This week will tell us much about Enda Kenny's ability to overcome the curse of the bloated overall majority.

John Downing

Irish Independent

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