Delivering on tax and jobs will determine whether reshuffle works
Opinion: Varadkar has star quality but now faces his toughest challenge
Ministers and other members of the Oireachtas outside the Department of the Taoiseach’s office yesterday after the announcement of the new Cabinet. Photograph: Dave Meehan
It was as well that there were some surprises when Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveiled the new Cabinet in the Dáil yesterday because the weeks of interminable speculation had threatened to take the gloss off the Coalition’s attempt to present a new image.
Whether the departure of five members of the old cabinet and their replacement with five new faces will have the effect desired by the Government only time will tell. Ultimately everything will hinge on whether the economic recovery gathers pace and whether its effects are felt across Irish society.
The policy priorities agreed by Kenny and new Tánaiste Joan Burton will probably prove more important in attaining that objective than the reshuffle of Cabinet posts.
Nonetheless, the change in responsibilities of some of the existing Ministers and the promotion of others to Cabinet will also play a vital part in determining whether the Government can present a better face to the public for the remainder of its term.
One of the key elements of the reshuffle is Leo Varadkar’s move to the Department of Health. Varadkar is a politician with star quality who has a way of communicating with the public that many of his colleagues envy.
Part of his appeal is that he manages to avoid the evasions that are part of the armoury of most politicians. Instead he speaks a language voters can understand, and that has earned him an important place in Irish politics at a very young age.
The downside of his style is that he frequently annoys colleagues who regard him as unreliable.
Varadkar now faces the ultimate challenge in Health. If he can succeed where so many other senior politicians have failed over the past few decades he really will be a contender to take over as Taoiseach at some stage in his career.
The promotion of Pascal Donohoe to replace Varadkar at Tourism and Sport puts another rising star of Fine Gael into an important position.
Donohoe was only elected to the Dáil in 2011, but had a term in the Seanad under his belt at that stage. He had established himself as one of the most capable of the up -and -coming generation in Irish politics by the time he was appointed as Minister of State for European Affairs to replace Lucinda Creighton.
Biggest surpriseThe biggest surprise of the day was probably the promotion of Heather Humphreys to the Cabinet straight from the backbenches.
The Fine Gael TD from Monaghan was only elected to the Dáil in 2011, but she has proved to be a hard-working TD who is popular with party colleagues. There was a broad welcome for her elevation across the board in Leinster House.
The other surprise was the move of Charlie Flanagan to Foreign Affairs after his initial promotion to the Cabinet as Minister for Children a couple of months ago. His long experience in politics gives him the credentials to take over as Minister for Foreign Affairs, while James Reilly’s move to Children gives him a continuing role in the health area but takes him out of the firing line.
ConsolationJimmy Deenihan was the victim of the need for some new faces on the Fine Gael side but he has the consolation of remaining on as a Junior Minister in the Taoisach’s Department.
Phil Hogan was the only member of the old cabinet who took pleasure in his departure as it meant that he got the position he covets as Ireland’s next EU commissioner. If he can swing the agriculture portfolio in Europe it would be the icing on the cake.
On the Labour side of the Coalition the departure of three senior Ministers had been signalled well in advance. Talk of a reprieve for Pat Rabbitte didn’t materialise in the end as Burton stuck to her instinct to bring in three new faces.
The promotion of new deputy leader Alan Kelly had been regarded as a certainty and he got the big portfolio of Environment. There was some doubt about whether the Tánaiste would also promote her defeated rival Alex White, but in the end he made it to Cabinet in Rabbitte’s old portfolio.
The final Labour slot as Minister for Education went to Jan O’Sullivan rather than Kathleen Lynch, who had featured more in the speculation, but the real and popular surprise was the promotion of Louth TD Ged Nash as a Super Junior Minister with responsibility for Labour affairs, who will have a seat at the Cabinet.
Burton’s appointments mean that the once powerful Democratic Left element in the party, which provided two leaders since the merger in the late 1990s, has now been cleared out of Cabinet. The implications of that over time could prove interesting, as will the fact that three former Labour leaders will be on the backbenches for the remainder of the 31st Dáil.
One interesting footnote to the reshuffle is that O’Sullivan is the first member of the Church of Ireland to be Minister for Education in the history of the State.
Another is that Humphreys, a member of the Border Presbyterian community, will be in charge of the events to mark the decade of commemorations.
SpeechesThe broad thrust of Coalition policy for the next 18 months was made clear by both Taoiseach and Tánaiste in their speeches to the Dáil on the nomination of the new Cabinet.
Kenny had a particular message for middle- and low-income earners, saying an effective marginal tax rate of 52 per cent was neither right nor tolerable for individuals and families or sustainable for the country. “A plan to make work pay will be a big part of our priorities for the remainder of this Government,” he said.
Burton had a similar message, stressing that a new deal for working families was a priority for the Government. She said jobs were a priority, but emphasised that they must be decent jobs, and for that reason the Government was establishing a Low Pay Commission.
Delivering on its aspirations about tax and jobs will determine whether the reshuffle does mark a turning point in the life of this Government.