Three current controversies have presented the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee with the most significant political challenge of her ministerial career. How she deals with them will be watched closely by her party colleagues and will have a strong bearing on her future career ambitions.
First: Barristers and solicitors who practise in criminal law have withdrawn their labour on Tuesday in protest against the level of fees they receive from the State. And, while lawyers are never likely to win public favour, they have a strong case – their fees, slashed during the financial crisis, are currently no bigger than what they were paid 20 years ago. The reality is the levels are pricing young barristers out of a career in criminal practice. That is a problem for the administration of justice and, therefore, it is a problem for the Minister for Justice.
Second: Another industrial action – though it is not legally, technically, that – has also begun on Tuesday and is threatened to escalate by members of An Garda Síochána. It is not directly aimed at McEntee but, rather, the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, whose relations with his force appear to have totally broken down.
The dispute is not over pay. Gardaí are, on average, the best paid public servants – the most recent CSO figures show that the force had the highest average weekly earnings in the public sector at €1,732.43 – but the dispute over when and how they work is now bitter, personalised and entrenched. The threat by the members of the Garda Representative Association (GRA) to withdraw their labour on November 10th represents not just a threat to the authority of the commissioner but a huge political problem for the Minister.
McEntee has, understandably, sought to avoid interposing herself between the force and its leadership. The political fallout if the stoppage goes ahead, however, will certainly land at her door.
Third: A series of assaults and public order offences in Dublin have focused attention on the problem of violent street crime – one which has a high public profile and is of acute concern to McEntee’s Fine Gael colleagues, who view themselves still as the “party of law and order”. She has been under pressure about falling Garda numbers and though the numbers have once again begun to climb, they will climb only slowly.
McEntee will be, like all ministers for justice, at the mercy of individual incidents on the street. Many observers have detected an air of menace around the city centre in recent months and there have been a number of well-documented assaults. And not just in Dublin either – violent incidents in Galway and elsewhere have prompted calls for action from TDs.
McEntee can never put enough gardaí on the streets to stop antisocial behaviour. But she can put more gardaí on the street to reassure a public that seems increasingly nervous. That is, above all, what TDs say they want. Many of them also say they want McEntee to concentrate on this aspect of her brief and less on the controversial hate speech/hate crime legislation, which has been subject of much criticism and will return to the Oireachtas before Christmas.
Whatever about that, it is certain that McEntee is facing the most testing period of her political career.
It comes amid something of slow-motion, subterranean leadership contest ongoing in Fine Gael. Party members, prompted by anaemic poll ratings, wonder who will come after Leo Varadkar and what will it mean for the their numbers.
McEntee has made no secret of her ambitions. But ministers for justice have a poor record on acceding to the top job – only Charles Haughey has gone on to become taoiseach. The challenges of the justice job have a habit of taking a toll on the careers of the people who hold it. McEntee is finding that out right now.