Noel Whelan: Varadkar reshuffle is one of the most startling ever

Contrary to media commentary, the Taoiseach may have overdone it in terms of changes

Leo Varadkar has been elected as the new Taoiseach by the Dáil and has received his Seals of Office from President Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin. Video: Kathleen Harris / Bryan O'Brien

 

Contrary to much of the disappointed media commentary, Leo Varadkar managed to pull off a fairly dramatic Cabinet reshuffle. If anything, he may have overdone it.

While much of the focus has been on the fact that there are only three new people in Cabinet, Varadkar’s reallocation of so many departments, and restructuring of some, actually makes this one of the most dramatic mid-term reshuffles ever.

The ministerial desks in all of the key departments at the centre of Government have new occupants.

That change starts at the office of Taoiseach with Varadkar himself.

Next door in the Department of Finance there is also a new young Minister in Paschal Donohoe. Notwithstanding a last-ditch campaign from officials and former minister Brendan Howlin to protect their temporary fiefdom at the Department of Public Expenditure, Varadkar has wisely decided to reintegrate that department back into Finance by leaving Donohoe in charge of both.

The other change on Merrion Street was at the Office of Attorney General, where Varadkar also went for a more dramatic choice than originally speculated by appointing Seamus Woulfe SC.

There were also changes at the next two most significant departments of State in Justice and Foreign Affairs.

If Frances Fitzgerald was to move from Justice then Charlie Flanagan was always an obvious choice for that portfolio. Even in quiet times the Department of Justice requires a safe pair of hands. It needs an experienced Minister who is not a hot head. Flanagan meets both criteria, and has the added advantage of a legal background.

Sir Humphrey Appleby would have described Coveney's appointment as 'courageous'

Simon Coveney’s decision to opt for Foreign Affairs and Trade is an interesting one. This department had slipped down the Cabinet pecking order until very recently.

When things were politically quiet in Northern Ireland and the Taoiseach’s department was gobbling up more of European and international affairs, occupancy at Iveagh House was less important.

Significance

Now, however, with Brexit set to dominate politics, together with Northern Ireland policy, including the implications of the DUP shoring up Theresa May’s government, this ministry is restored to its previous significance and profile.

The addition of responsibility for Brexit into the title also makes sense. It is generous of Varadkar to let the man who outpolled him in the party membership vote into such a prominent position. Sir Humphrey Appleby would have described it as “courageous”.

Fitzgerald gets to move from the drama of policing and justice to the quieter and good news department of Jobs and Innovation. Many political correspondents who have a fixed view of the justice controversies assumed she would not be Tánaiste.

They allowed that view to shape their political analysis. They missed entirely Fitzgerald’s part in the careful choreography of Varadkar’s leadership campaign. She was strategically held back to be the last person to endorse him before he formally launched his leadership campaign.

Having given Coveney the ministry of his choosing and the sinecure of the Fine Gael’s deputy leadership, Varadkar could keep a promise to Fitzgerald to keep her as Tánaiste.

On one view keeping Simon Harris at the Department of Health can be viewed as an effort by Varadkar to avoid being characterised as vindictive. On another level it could be seen as meeting a need for some continuity in this department which has had three Ministers in the last six years.

The same argument for continuity could also be made about the housing department. This is another realm where the Government will be closely monitored for output. Changing Ministers just a year after a designated department was established is curious.

That said, the new Minister, Eoghan Murphy, will be energetic, and will enjoy the advantage of significant political clout where it matters, that is, with Varadkar and Donohoe.

New department

Richard Bruton, Michael Creed and Heather Humphreys are the only Fine Gaelers who got to stay in their previous portfolio, although Rural and Community Affairs was hived off from Humphreys to become a new department led by Michael Ring. The choice of Ring as Minister will certain improve the entertainment quotient at Cabinet.

The revamped Cabinet may have only months to make an impact

Regina Doherty should have been made a full Minister a year ago, and now gets the role in an expanded Social Protection now including the traditional Department of Labour remit.

This reflects the recent reorientation of that department towards workplace reactivation.

Varadkar had to operate within real world constraints. The portfolios of the three Independent Ministers were off limits, and the early pledges of support for him in the Fine Gael leadership election meant he had to tread carefully in terms of demotions.

He managed only one in moving Mary Mitchell O’Connor, although he created a consolation prize by yet again extending the number of Super-Junior Ministers at Cabinet.

While many of the same Ministers are still in Cabinet, most are this weekend reading their way into new briefs.

They may have only months to make an impact.

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