Political pop quiz: what's the difference between the 'half car' and the 'high chair'? And who sat in the 'high chairs' in the last government?
The anoraks and hacks will know the answers easily but the public at large will probably struggle. The 'half car' is a moniker for a junior minister or Minister of State, who used to get a civilian driver for their car as they had to travel about quite a bit on official business. The 'high chair' is the nickname for the junior minister who attends Cabinet meetings but isn't one of the 15 full Cabinet ministers. In the last government, these were Finian McGrath, Paul Kehoe and Mary Mitchell O'Connor.
The reality of the level of recognition of politicians in the public eye is often forgotten within the bubble of Leinster House, where every step and utterance is parsed and analysed. Only a handful are known by their first names: Micheál, Leo, Mary Lou, Paschal, Simon, Eamon.
Contrary to the belief within the square mile around the Dáil, this trivia makes little impact on the public, who probably struggle to handily recognise more than two-thirds of Cabinet ministers.
Cabinet ministers profiles fall into three categories: A. The fierce big jobs - In any Government, along with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, the ministers for Finance, Foreign Affairs and Health tend to be household names; B. The society impact jobs - Social Welfare, Justice and Education cross the radar for many; C. The topical jobs - The PR depends on whether the role or the occupant is firmly in the public eye or controversial, so Housing and Transport were up there last time and Climate Change will be this time out. Beyond that, the minister tends to be key to people and interests affected by their area and be known generally, without being a household name across the country. As for junior ministers, they'd want to have really made a hames of an issue or have done something stupid to be known.
Hence the omission of a full Cabinet minister from west of the Shannon is all the more remarkable. One of the Government triumvirate was embarrassingly trying to spin that a first-time Minister of State with an obscure job was "the current Government's most senior minister in the west of Ireland" and therefore would be "a voice for... the broader region in Government".
Give me strength. This is politics.
The optics matter and a junior minister doesn't cut it.
Now being tagged as the 'Cromwell Cabinet', due to the eastern and southern focus of the prime jobs, the glaring lack of regional balance is a blatant own goal by the new government. They can't have it both ways: on the one hand claiming ministers are national, not local figures, and on the other having a junior minister be a "voice" for the west. Coupled with the scrapping of the Department for Rural and Community Development, rammed in under the Minister for Social Protection in a tokenistic fashion, the narrative of an entire chunk of the country being abandoned is an inauspicious start to what is a promising government. It reeks of Liam Cosgrave's Fine Gael-Labour coalition of 1973 to 1977, 'the government of all the talents', which was seen as too urbanite and elite.
The political lessons learned from previous disasters like water charges and homelessness were supposed to have been learned and wouldn't happen again.
And then the new Taoiseach immediately scores a misstep with some of his Cabinet selections.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has an obligation to ensure the entire country feels it is represented. Fine Gael and the Greens seemed to have left it to Martin to make sure the west and rural Ireland was adequately covered. When Martin opted out of giving full Cabinet portfolios to Dara Calleary, rather inexplicably, and Anne Rabbitte, less surprisingly, there was nobody left north or west of Tullamore.
Did nobody take out a map showing no minister from Letterkenny to Limerick?
It's not about geography. It's about politics. Politics, personalities and pressure, not policies, are the barrier to this coalition lasting its full five years. The long-drawn out coalition talks process between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party means the three parties know where everyone stands on policies. Negotiators involved in the talks say there are no surprises left. Given the circumstances, it's in all their interests they last five years.
The coalition deserves to be given a fair wind, especially as the Covid-19 crisis has left the public finances and health services in a precarious position. A harsh recession is a definite and a second wave of coronavirus a possibility.
Winter is coming.
It is the personalities around the Cabinet table and how they handle pressure that will determine if the coalition lasts. There are major question marks over some crucial ministers. Stephen Donnelly is going to get a land when he settles into the Department of Health. The criticism of Donnelly is he talks a good talk, but management consultant speak won't solve problems.
Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien is viewed as too closely aligned to a private market solution on supply.
The perception might not match reality, but this is politics. You have to work hard to win hearts and minds.