Coalition leaders go for safe option
The joke around Leinster House was that it was the ‘wee-shuffle’. It was easy to shrug off the new Cabinet line-up as a non-event. But the widely predicted Government rotation had two underlying messages.
It was about stability and illustrating that the three-party Coalition comprising Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and Fine Gael is working like a well-oiled machine.
There is a long history of botched reshuffles which have diverted ministers’ attention away from their jobs and instead sparked a flurry of in-fighting and bitter recrimination.
Being a minister is like many other jobs in the sense that officeholders take some time to get to grips with the role.
Only when they understand the job, can capable politicians show leadership, implement policy and navigate obstacles to change.
If Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin had engaged in a massive overhaul of the Cabinet, it would have resulted in many ministers spending months getting up to speed in their new roles.
This would particularly present a problem when the Coalition has about two years left to run. A substantial reshuffle could also have acted as a handbrake on progress.
By leaving the faces at Cabinet unchanged, the party leaders have gone for the safe option. But it does leave the Government open to criticism from the Opposition that it is the same faces around the table.
Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou McDonald argued the Coalition had failed on housing which has led to huge social problems and forced many to live elsewhere; homelessness is at record levels; and many are struggling with elevated rents.
She said that “the changeover won’t change anything” and repeated her mantra that there needed to be a change of government not a change of ministers.
Here is what the reshuffle means for the individual ministers:
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
It is his second time as Taoiseach. He will be mindful of the fact that he has never won a general election and he will lead his party into the next contest in two years. As Fine Gael trails far behind Sinn Féin in the polls, he will be eager to prove he can turn around his party’s fortunes.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Micheál Martin
He can look back on his time as Taoiseach and take comfort from navigating the pandemic relatively successfully. He now has Brexit, Northern Ireland and reform of the Defence Forces on his agenda.
Supporters in his own party argue he must also devote more time to Fianna Fáil. His critics believe there will be a change in leadership at the helm of Fianna Fáil before the next election.
Minister for Finance Michael McGrath
He is clearly elated to run one of the most important departments in Government. He will need to watch out for a few major risks. The threat of a global downturn, galloping inflation and rising interest rates could make the economic environment far more challenging.
Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe
In his speech on Cabinet appointments, Leo Varadkar highlighted the fact that he wishes to expand this portfolio to include National Development Plan delivery.
Mr Varadkar said that too many capital project are taking far too long. Among them, he mentioned schools, hospitals, garda stations and public transport projects.
This will be a tricky role. But Minister Donohoe also retains the plumb role of Chairman of Eurogroup – an influential club of ministers from countries which use the euro.
Enterprise, Trade and Employment – Simon Coveney
While he will be disappointed to leave Foreign Affairs, generally Enterprise is a great job particularly when the economy is buoyant and there are lots of job projects to be announced.
But the international picture is a lot less rosy than it has been in recent years and it is not clear yet how the tech downturn will affect employment in Ireland.
Minister for Education Norma Foley
Schools are facing a huge teacher recruitment crisis partly related to elevated rents and inflation. In many ways, education is being impacted by the housing crisis.
Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien
The reshuffle places a huge responsibility on Darragh O’Brien. As he remains in this role he will have to prove the Housing for All plan can make progress. This is by far the biggest challenge facing the country.
Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin
Many hotels are housing large numbers of refugees from Ukraine and other countries. If they remain there, that will have huge implications for the tourism industry next year. Minister Martin also has landmark legislation on regulating social media in her portfolio.
Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman
Perhaps the most difficult post in the Cabinet. Minister O’Gorman has been responsible for finding accommodation for refugees from Ukraine during the housing crisis. As the war in Ukraine continues, his job will get harder.
Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys
The Government dropped plans to increase the age at which people retire. But that will leave a hole in the Social Insurance Fund. Sooner or later PRSI will have to go up to fill that gap and that won’t be a popular decision.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly
He will be relieved to have kept his job. There were rumours he could lose out. Minister Donnelly did manage to navigate the Covid pandemic. But the job of reform in the health sector is enormous.
Further Education and Justice – Simon Harris
He will take the Justice role for the next six months as Helen McEntee, who is a minister without a portfolio, is on maternity leave.
Being given responsibility for both portfolios is a significant additional responsibility but it is one which politically ambitious Simon Harris will relish.
However, when Justice goes wrong it can go badly wrong. Controversies in Justice have ended ministerial careers of two Fine Gael figures in the past: Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald.
Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue
He has had some tough conversations with the Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan as they have had to agree a carbon budget for the agriculture sector. There will be more of that to come next week when the latest sectoral emissions come before Cabinet.