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Call that a reshuffle? It's a timid lost chance

Question: when is a reshuffle barely a reshuffle at all? Answer: when the man who makes it is called Brian Cowen.

After a month of keeping his colleagues in suspense, the Taoiseach's rejig has proved to be an even damper squib than most of them privately feared -- and with the new Cabinet line-up almost exactly the same as the old, it may well be that his Government has passed the point of no return. This drab, timid reshuffle is a failure on two basic levels.

First, Cowen has given two fingers to public opinion by refusing to sack a single minister, not even the two Marys (Harney and Coughlan) who are widely seen as the Cabinet's weakest links. In this Government, it seems, loyalty means never having to say you're sorry.

Second, the Taoiseach has deliberately chosen not to promote the young, ambitious TDs who might just have been able to freshen up Fianna Fail's jaded image in time for the next general election. Pat Carey and Tony Killeen are sound additions to the Cabinet, but at 62 and 57 they can hardly be expected to represent the future of the party.

As for the swapping around of a few portfolios, it's far from clear what Cowen's thinking. Removing Mary Coughlan from her economic ministry is long overdue, but putting her in charge of education could well be another accident. If the row with teachers over pay cuts is not to end with mass school closures, the Tanaiste will need to show a lot more sensitivity and guile than she's displayed over the last torrid couple of years. Equally, it is a mystery to most FF backbenchers why Cowen has opted to promote Eamon O Cuiv (one of the Government's worst media performers) to the key position of social welfare and demote Mary Hanafin (one of the best) to the relative backwater of tourism, culture and sport.

When the only people truly happy with a reshuffle are the Green Party, it should be obvious that something has gone wrong. Needless to say, the junior coalition partners are delighted after securing jobs for four of their six TDs.


Once again John Gormley has shown that he has Cowen over a barrel -- but since the Green leader's main interest seems to be in creating full employment for his colleagues, he needn't expect much thanks from the electorate.

It didn't have to be this way. When Bertie Ahern suffered disastrous local election losses in 2004, he responded with a radical reshuffle that banished the right-wing finance minister Charlie McCreevy and gave his Cabinet a distinctly more caring image. Although he took a lot of flak for it at the time, with hindsight it was a key turning point on the road to his re-election in 2007. Through a combination of caution, stubbornness and sheer lack of imagination, Cowen has blown a similar opportunity to give his government a new lease of life. It's hard to see him getting a better chance.