Minister for Foreign Affairs Coveney is key Varadkar appointment

Cabinet appointments include Finance for Paschal Donohoe, Tánaiste post for Frances Fitzgerald

As is ever the case, the new Cabinet appointments tipped their hats to gender, geography, ability and, in the case of the main mover around the table, a demand that just had to be met.

Arguably, the key appointment of Leo Varadkar's first Cabinet was Simon Coveney, the defeated candidate in the Fine Gael leadership contest. Once Coveney wanted Foreign Affairs, it was impossible for Varadkar to refuse.

It may not be the most powerful position – that goes to Paschal Donohoe – but the move had knock-on effects across Cabinet.

Coveney’s big ask was to be given, after the Taoiseach, the next most important position when it comes to Brexit negotiations, and he can be counted as one of yesterday’s big winners since he got exactly what he wanted.

And to underline that he will indeed be the point man for Brexit, Varadkar confirmed in the Dáil that the new Fine Gael deputy leader will co-ordinate the Government’s response on the issue that will likely define the next few years.

Yet there was a sting in the tail for Coveney, as Varadkar ordered his successor in the Department of Housing, Eoghan Murphy, to review Coveney's keynote Rebuilding Ireland strategy, which likely spells the end of his controversial first-time buyer's grant, which Varadkar already cast doubt on during the leadership contest.

Coveney’s request for Foreign Affairs meant that Charlie Flanagan’s days in Iveagh House were numbered, but the Laois TD fell somewhat on his feet in the Department of Justice. Although a politically toxic brief in recent times, it is still one of the State’s big departments.

Coveney’s move also meant that Murphy, who ran Varadkar’s leadership campaign, was rewarded with a senior Cabinet position in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

Poor signal

It had been speculated in recent days that Murphy may have had to make do with a superjunior post, but that would have sent a poor signal to those who went to bat for Varadkar.

Had Murphy not been promoted, and Coveney supporters such as Simon Harris kept on, other Varadkar backers could have been forgiven for asking what loyalty to the new Taoiseach is worth.

Nevertheless, Murphy’s promotion is a well-earned reward for running the leadership campaign with ruthless efficiency.

Harris, staying on the Department of Health, is probably still breathing a sigh of relief. The 30-year-old Minister was in the crosshairs, but the new Taoiseach has pardoned him, albeit by keeping him in a busy post that most past ministers tried to escape from.

Varadkar has said he will take an active role in the department, so Harris could find his work closely supervised.

One of the biggest winners was Frances Fitzgerald, whose sunny demeanour and upbeat humour in recent days perhaps betrayed some knowledge that she was to be awarded with a significant post.

And so it came to pass, with the Dublin Mid West TD reappointed as Tánaiste and moved from troublesome Justice to the much more attractive Enterprise and Innovation brief.

Whatever passed between the Fitzgerald and Varadkar when she pledged her support to him, she has shown herself to be a canny political operator who is well positioned if she wants a run for the presidency, as is rumoured.

As Tánaiste, she will also have Varadkar’s back and is not a threat to his leadership.

Yet even with the big names of Coveney and Fitzgerald at the apex of the new Government, Paschal Donohoe has emerged as the second most powerful person around the Cabinet table.

Donohoe has assumed the role of Minister for Finance in addition to his previous job as Minister for Public Expenditure, again concentrating tax and spending responsibilities in one individual. Donohoe, who has risen quickly, has thus far earned a reputation as tough negotiator, skills that will be needed even more.


The biggest loser is Mary Mitchell O’Connor, who has been demoted from the Department of Jobs to a new superjunior position in the Department of Education with responsibility for higher education.

The eventual elevation to Cabinet of Michael Ring, the Mayo TD who has long soldiered in the shadow of Enda Kenny, ensures there is a voice for the west of Ireland at the top of Government – and a loud one, at that. Ring and Varadkar have a strong personal relationship, too.

Regina Doherty's promotion from chief whip to Minister for Employment and Social Protection was also a reward for a Varadkar ally, and Joe McHugh's step up to Doherty's old position was a long time coming for the Donegal TD. His constituency is also one where Fine Gael knows it needs to improve.

But there were many TDs watching last night who vocally supported Varadkar and felt they should have been rewarded, but will not yet speak out.

They will await the junior ministerial appointments next week, when the real trouble could begin for Varadkar.