Ahern likely to make major Cabinet changes

 

Significant Cabinet changes are expected to be made by the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, when the new government is formed tomorrow.

In a determined mood yesterday, Mr Ahern told the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party that he would dismiss ministers from his new team after two years if they did not "work as hard as I do".

Meanwhile, he hinted strongly that the incoming Dáil might not last its full five-year term. The pledge given in 1997 to stay in office for the full term had caused problems, particularly in the last year, he acknowledged.

Saying that he believed he had "a clean sheet", Mr Ahern said he would pick his new Cabinet on the basis of age, experience, past performance, and the need to offer people a career path. Ministers would not be chosen for geographical reasons.

He said ministers would have to perform in office.

"He said that anyone who regarded a ministerial car as just a mode of transport from the constituency to the Dáil would not last long," said one TD. "This wasn't the usual Bertie. He was very blunt, and hard."

Following the defeat of the Minister for Public Enterprise, Ms O'Rourke, and her departure from the Cabinet, there is now speculation about the future of six of her colleagues in the outgoing administration.

They are the Minister for Education, Dr Woods; the Minister for Defence, Mr Smith; the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Walsh; the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Dr McDaid; the Minister for Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Ms de Valera; and the Minister for Marine and Natural Resources, Mr Fahey.

Voters had given Fianna Fáil a new mandate, said Mr Ahern. He appeared to damn some of his existing team with faint praise by saying that he believed none of them was incompetent, a number of sources told The Irish Times.

The Taoiseach could nominate Mr Smith as Ceann Comhairle to replace Labour TD Mr Seamus Pattison, and thus protect Fianna Fáil's hold on two seats in Mr Smith's Tipperary North constituency.

However, few Fianna Fáil TDs spoken to yesterday could believe Mr Ahern would remove all the TDs whose names have figured in speculation in recent days. "He has set the bar high. He has plenty of room to move back, particularly because of the two-year threat," said one TD.

TDs hopeful of promotion to the Cabinet include Donegal South West's Mr Pat "The Cope" Gallagher, Dún Laoghaire's Ms Mary Hanafin, Waterford's Mr Martin Cullen, and perhaps Dublin West's Mr Brian Lenihan.

However, Mr Ahern has the opportunity to make major changes among his Ministers of State. Two of them were defeated in the general election - Wexford's Mr Hugh Byrne and Mayo's Dr Tom Moffat.

Those regarded as nearly certain to be dropped include the Minister of State for Public Enterprise, Mr Joe Jacob, and the Minister of State for the Environment, Mr Dan Wallace.

The expected promotion of the Government Chief Whip, Mr Seamus Brennan, and the Minister of State for Health, Ms Hanafin, to the Cabinet will free further spaces at the Minister of State level.

Mr Pat "The Cope" Gallagher's appointment to the Cabinet, or to Minister of State rank, would help create another vacancy, since the outgoing administration's Minister of State for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mr Noel Treacy, would fill Mr Gallagher's Connacht/Ulster MEP seat.

Mr Ahern said Fianna Fáil must use the 2004 local elections to build on gains made in the 1999 local elections and the general election.