Yes, Minister . . . How the Cabinet performed
For some Ministers, it has been a busy time of steering controversial reforms in the face of public anger, but for others, the main task has been political survival
Wily, foxy, cute, canny. He has hardly put a foot wrong as Minister for Finance, combining a deep knowledge of his Finance portfolio with unerring political instinct garnered over 40 years. High point without a doubt has been the ECB’s agreement to stand down the promissory note. Whatever the merits of the alternative, it was a neat political stroke.
While Noonan hasn’t promised too much, he hasn’t been always as clever as he thinks.
He and Kenny overplayed the impact of the June 2012 summit outcome and the attendant benefit for Ireland.
When it did not happen by the promised date in October, Noonan deployed some verbal gymnastics in deflecting it to being an “Olli Rehn deadline”, which it wasn’t really.
The ruse of delaying the property tax by six months to soften its impact may not be as effective as he thought – that too may come back to haunt him.
Agriculture, Food & the Marine
Opposition suits some politicians and government suits others. The latter is certainly true for Coveney. He is a poor debater but a good technocrat. He has been a competent Minister with knowledge of his areas and some fresh ideas. He was very effective as Fine Gael director of elections in the fiscal treaty last year and has responded strongly too to the horse meat controversy. However, he looked a bit foolish when a special adviser hired at well above the recommended limit walked off the pitch after only a few months.
Transport, Tourism and Sport
Varadkar has been competent, efficient and decisive. Transport is a problematic area he has yet to sort out but he has done well on the tourism side, and the Gathering, as his responsibility, is a plus despite Gabriel Byrne’s outburst. He has also developed an interest in the previously unexplored area for him of sport. He is at his best when defending the Government in general terms.
Communications, Energy & Natural Resources
Like Varadkar, the person to put out to defend the Government against every real and imaginable charge. However, while he can be brilliant in that role, he can also be gratingly superior and arrogant. The communications part of his portfolio is his strongest suit. He is competent on energy and natural resources, showing himself to be a realist who sees no pot of gold or its viscous equivalent at the bottom of an oil well in Irish waters. However, he is not hugely dynamic or innovative. It will be interesting to see his plans for a broadcasting charge.
Education & Skills
Quinn hasn’t a very high profile. His big project has been changing the patronage of schools from Catholic to other forms, non-denominational and multidenominational. This has continued apace although questions have been raised about the surveys conducted in local communities, especially around the lowish volume of response.
He took a bit of a hit early in Government when he U-turned on a Labour vow not to increase third-level student fees. He also took a lot of flak for cuts to disadvantaged schools as well as funding decisions that impacted on small rural schools. He has devoted a lot of effort to literacy and curriculum reform, as well as school building programmes.
A big test for him as a Labour Minister will be the shape of his proposals to widen the means test to include assets, including farm assets, in the face of strong opposition from Fine Gael.
Public Expenditure & Reform
Public Expenditure is a difficult and often thankless department. Howlin’s worst moments were the loss of the Abbeylara referendum (which proposed to give Oireachtas committees strong powers of inquiry) and the ridiculous outcome of the review of public service allowances. His comprehensive spending review (with its three-year spending ceilings for each department) has been a success, despite the ceilings being non-binding.
The new Croke Park deal may not pass muster with union members but it is to Howlin’s credit that he has managed to get it this far. The next big test will be what he does in the event that unions reject it.
On the Reform side, he will soon publish a whistleblower’s Bill plus a revamped Freedom of Information Bill.
Two years in, the centrepiece of his reform agenda, universal health insurance, looks as distant as ever. Meanwhile, Reilly has been mired in all kinds of controversy, political and personal. However, Enda Kenny is very loyal to his deputy leader in Fine Gael. The White Paper on universal health insurance has been subject to a lot of delay and it is only when it is published that an assessment can be made of the feasibility of the project.
The past year has been dominated by his unseemly rows with Róisín Shortall, the inclusion of Swords and Balbriggan in the list of priority primary care centres, and seemingly spontaneous shock announcements of cutbacks in the health service, most recently in relation to the mobility allowance.
The special delivery unit has been a success but there has been controversy over the pay levels of senior people he has drafted in. His department’s overall handling of the health budget, with its massive overruns, has been poor. It is such that his department will be subject to much more rigid financial supervision this year, to ensure no repeat. His legislation to give effect to the X-case judgment will be a huge test not for him but for Fine Gael.
Arts, Heritage & Gaeltacht
Deenihan’s ministry is one of the smaller ones and he has had a low profile. Has completely divvied off the Irish language and Gaeltacht responsibilities to Dinny McGinley.
He has had responsibility for enforcing an EU directive on the preservation of 53 raised bogs but this protracted and bitter row has rumbled on.
He tried, without success, to acquire the Bank of Ireland headquarters on College Green but has had some success in getting tax relief for films made in Ireland extended.
Children & Youth Affairs
Her authority has increased as her department has taken shape. Fitzgerald’s difficulties were that her department was new and needed a referendum and other major legislative change to occur before it could have teeth. She successfully steered through the children’s rights referendum but turnout was shockingly low and victory was less easy than had been thought. Two key pieces of legislation, the Child and Family Support Agency Bill, and the Children First Bill, are down to be published this term. Both are critical for her to function properly as a Minister. The second year of Government has been better for her than her wholly nondescript first year in office.
She has a very high profile and is seen as the only Labour Minister prepared to forge an independent (ie non-collegiate) path. Burton has had to preside over some very unpalatable cuts (including two rounds of across-the-board reductions in child benefit) but she does not seem to have been damaged by it politically. She has managed to protect basic social welfare rates so far, despite having to impose swingeing cuts in her department. Burton divides opinion among colleagues. Some are frustrated that she has dragged her heels and not taken the necessary tough decisions, others admire her for taking a strong stand against the troika.
Justice, Equality and Defence
Shatter’s confrontational and arrogant style does not endear him to everybody but he has extraordinary energy and a reformist’s zeal. A very active legislator, he gets personally involved in drafting. Shatter is bright, industrious, sure-footed and committed. His steering of the Personal Insolvency Bill through the Oireachtas was a success, though we will find out this year if it really works in practice quite so well as he has claimed. He introduced a Bill to regulate the legal profession last year which was virulently opposed by lawyers and solicitors. They objected among other things, to the Minister’s powers to appoint members of the independent regulator. The Bill was brought as far as committee stage in March last year but has gone no further.
Environment, Community Local Government
He has experienced more political turbulence than most of his Cabinet colleagues in the past two years. He has regained some ground on household charges late in the day but it was not enough to remedy what was a bit of a fiasco. He is possessed of genuine reforming instincts and moved decisively to lower the number of Dáil deputies, to merge and reform local authorities and to introduce quotas to encourage female candidates. He has published a draft Bill on climate change without targets for 2030 or 2050.
Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation
Competent if unspectacular. For two years “Minister for Jobs” seemed an oxymoron at a time when unemployment was rising. He seems to have sorted out the joint labour committee issue, with reforming legislation. Along with Minister of State Seán Sherlock, he has brought more focus to applied research. He has steered through the 2012 action plan for jobs and the new one for 2013. They include a mind-boggling list of “to dos”, some of which seem little more than box-ticking exercises. Still, it is his task to help create 100,000 “new” jobs by 2016. That will be his major test.