One quiet Monday afternoon, when I thought I had Leinster House almost entirely to myself, I crossed a government minister on the stairway as he was coming from Government Buildings.
The normally affable politician had a face like thunder and barely managed a grunted salute. I did not need to be a political Einstein to deduce he would soon be a “former minister”.
That’s another bugbear which politicians face: the hiring and firing is often very public. Think of yourself doing the big job application on live television. It is a challenge to maintain dignity.
It all comes back to mind as we reflect upon government changes due in under four weeks’ time.
We could just wait until after lunch on Saturday, December 17, but where’s the fun in that?
The old political adage applies as the trio of coalition party leaders who know what will happen are not talking much beyond broad brushstroke hints. But the ones who don’t know, and may harbour high-office ambitions, will often talk quite a lot – more usually in private.
Yep, we are in the guessing territory of who’s in, who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, in a game called fantasy cabinet re-shuffle. The purists will argue that whether or not Mickey Houlihan is Minister for Widgets does not matter an awful lot.
Yes, “fantasy cabinet re-shuffle” is a silly but fun parlour game primarily played by political anoraks. But beyond the fatuous speculation, this popular practice can actually teach us a lot about how we order our affairs.
Remember that a cabinet re-shuffle is ideally designed to freshen up the look of the government team and inject some fresh energy and enthusiasm into the project.
Remember also that when a cabinet re-jig goes wrong, it can have very bad longer-term consequences.
Back in February 1986, Garret FitzGerald’s efforts to freshen and soften the image of his wildly unpopular Fine Gael-Labour coalition turned into a publicity disaster, compounding problems with a broken economy, high unemployment and emigration.
FitzGerald’s well-publicised row with Health Minister, Barry Desmond of Labour, who refused to change jobs, was a major problem.
But in the end there were loud jeers from Fianna Fáil benches as FitzGerald dropped none of the senior team but moved everybody – bar Barry Desmond – to another department. An election barely 12 months later put paid to that coalition.
In February 1992, the new Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds caused consternation by firing eight of the 14 senior ministers and nine of the 12 juniors in an exercise that took little more than an hour. Many opponents linked this to many problems which led to his own bizarre exit from office in November 1994.
Bertie Ahern, who succeeded Reynolds as party leader and eventually as Taoiseach, watched that one from within and opted for a cautious and gradualist approach to such personnel changes during his 11 years at Government Buildings.
Cabinet changes were small and thought out at some length, and his one big gamble – which saw finance minister Charlie McCreevy depart to the EU Commission in late 2004 – did pay off in softening the party’s image and helped the party win a third successive general election in May 2007.
Returning to now, the share-out across three Government parties – with six each going to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and three to the Green Party – does seriously constrain what changes are likely to happen on December 17.
We know that for the first time in the nation’s history we have a pre-planned election of Taoiseach via a ready-made switch with the Tánaiste, while it will be the first time that Ireland has changed Taoiseach from one coalition partner to another.
We know that Fine Gael’s Paschal Donohoe will move from Finance to Public Expenditure, switching with Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath. That should renew an effective and grown-up partnership which has been the fulcrum of this Government.
The sad part is that the switch jeopardises Ireland’s occupation of the Eurozone chairmanship in which Donohoe has done well. We will learn next Monday week, December 5, whether his rearguard action to keep the Euro job works out.
The problem for Fine Gael is that some of the people involved are a long time in government giving it a samey, if not decidedly stale, appearance.
Varadkar, who has been at the cabinet table continuously since March 2011, argues that this brings experience which is useful in crises.
But it does not help the pent-up ambitions of some party members in the junior ranks or even on the backbenches.
Martin Heydon, Peter Burke and Damien English have good track records to merit promotion but there will not be room without some sackings from the senior ranks.