Which Government party won the reshuffle?
Retention of jobs portfolio may benefit FG but Labour’s tax reform proposals strong
The new line-up: Cabinet members at a ceremony in Aras an Uachtarain after Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton reshuffled the Government team. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times.
You wonder though if both sides actually saw the same destination at the end of the fifth day - the political version of a relatively safe harbour such as South Georgia.
On the day of the announcement - before the full details of the new mini Programme for Government are announced or parsed - it is difficult to give anything other than a Pavlovian reaction.
In reality, there is no discernible winner or loser but on the face of it at least Fine Gael has had a good day, with a lot of focus honing in on its success in retaining the jobs portfolio.
There were two elements to the reconfiguration that came with the elevation of Joan Burton to the leadership of the Labour Party.
The first was to identify what the Government’s main priorities should be between now and the Spring of 2016, when the Coalition’s term comes to an end.
The second was the reshuffle. It involved more than a change of personnel but also a fair deal of bartering on which party should control key departments.
It was let known during the week that a few departments might be in play. The principal one was the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, which Labour made a bid for.
Both parties view this department as key and, like it did before when Labour tried to introduce a new rate of Universal Social Charge for those earning over €100,000, Fine Gael held firm. And, on top of that, when the incumbent Minister Richard Bruton got wind of an attempt to shift him to health, a very effective rearguard action was mounted by him and his advisers.
The net effect was the department stayed in Fine Gael’s hands with Bruton staying put as minister. Labour will not see it that way but it will be perceived as a battle won for Fine Gael.
The big exchange happened in another of the big departments, environment and local government where new Labour Party deputy leader Alan Kelly replaces the new European Commissioner Phil Hogan. Labour ceded foreign affairs, as expected, with Charlie Flanagan something of a surprise choice for that role.
Environment will be a big challenge for Kelly. It’s a huge department that deals with everything from climate change to political reform to housing to rural development. But it could be a double-edged sword as Hogan found to his cost on more than one occasions - two of the nettles Kelly will need to grasp include property charges and water charges.
Equally challenging will be the health portfolio for Leo Varadkar. Indeed that was a brave decision by Kenny, who upset the prediction that he would be cautious in his changes. It was thought that after the turbulence of the James Reilly era, the ministry might go to a safe pair of hands such as Simon Coveney or Bruton.
Instead, it was given to Varadkar, the most intellectually able of the Cabinet. He will have lots of ideas and an abundance of energy and focus. But he is not exactly an understated politician and is sure to generate headlines with the directness of his views and some bold initiatives.
She has been very low profile and was seen as a solid constituency TD, strongest on agriculture and finance (she’s a former credit union manager).
It was surmised that Kenny might promote a woman but other names - namely Regina Doherty and Mary Mitchell O’Connor - were being mentioned. You would not think of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as a natural fit for Humphreys (who has little, if any, Irish) and it will be interesting to see how she grows into the role.
The Labour side of Government was not without its surprises. Jan O’Sullivan was not seen as the frontrunner for education but in the event she was chosen ahead of Kathleen Lynch. The super junior position went to Louth TD Gerald Nash, a very solid performer since his election in 2011. Alex White replaced Pat Rabbitte, who some colleagues felt should have remained. However, Burton and her advisers believed their mandate was to give new blood a chance and that left little room for Rabbitte, who was not particularly close to Burton.
Did Labour get enough to justify its big play?
Well there will be a lot of pressure on Kelly to deliver on another key party objective, to increase the supply of new housing stock to 25,000 per annum, in both social and private. Nash will be in Cabinet as the super junior with responsibility for business and employment. He will need to push the Low Pay Commission as well as commitments for collective bargaining.
The biggest block during negotiations was over the tax issue. There was general agreement was the collective tax rate of 52 per cent was too high. Both sides will argue that the remedies are a good compromise: with Labour in particular saying the widening of tax bands will favour lower and middle income earners.
Ultimately, what each party got out of it might be less important in the long run than whether or not this programme is strong enough to lift the Coalition parties out of the electoral morass it found itself in last May.