When Leo Varadkar was appointing his Ministers at the start of this Government's term, he had a simple message for them: everyone knows there's going to be a reshuffle in December 2022, and they could be confident in their positions until then – but no promises were made or implied about re-appointment beyond that point. "He said it straight when people were being appointed," one Fine Gael Minister said.
It is eight months until the Coalition has to negotiate the virgin territory of the Taoiseach’s chair being handed over: just one aspect of this is the prospect of a ministerial reshuffle.
What will determine the extent of any reshuffle, who is vulnerable, and who is in line for promotion or demotion?
Micheál Martin’s destination
This will have the most meaningful impact on Cabinet-level musical chairs. Six months ago, the question was whether the Taoiseach would face a heave and be ousted, or step down and allow a new leader to become Tánaiste. Things couldn't be more different now. "There's no doubt Micheál Martin is flying at the moment," said one senior Fianna Fáil TD. Senior sources in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil said the sitting Taoiseach will get his choice of Cabinet posts and be facilitated in going where he wants. However, Martin's move can still potentially make waves.
The path of least resistance is a straight swap into Varadkar's Department of Enterprise – one of Martin's many former haunts as a cabinet minister, which would necessitate no further moves. The conventional wisdom in Leinster House for some time has been a move to Simon Harris' Department of Further and Higher Education, with Harris moving to enterprise. Martin campaigned for the establishment of the department during the Government formation talks.
"He pushed for that. Nobody else was bothered," said one participant. Martin is not shy about his commitment to education, and some in Fianna Fáil think a move here, or to enterprise, may be a tangible signal of his intention to lead Fianna Fáil into the next election, keeping him in Ireland. Others scoff at this suggestion, believing Martin has no intention of doing so.
However, it would also leave Fianna Fáil with a diminished influence on Northern Ireland policy, and there is a growing school of thought that a move to the Department of Foreign Affairs is the best fit. A move to Iveagh House would give Martin profile, and potentially set him up for a European job, perhaps as Commissioner. Some in the party believe it would send a clear signal that with his attention outside Ireland, he doesn't intend to lead his party into the next election.
Others have mused the Department of Finance or Department of Housing are possibilities, but they seem less likely postings.
The great unknown is the garda inquiry into Leo Varadkar leaking a confidential GP pay deal to a friend. Martin gave his backing to the Taoiseach's position rotating, even if the issue isn't resolved. This bought some time, but the closer the date comes without a clear resolution, the more destabilising this will be for the Tánaiste. As December looms closer, it is unlikely all Government TDs will stay onside – and the potential for the Opposition to make political hay out of it is huge. One well-placed source said on Friday that a file is "close" to going to the Director of Public Prosecutions – and it is likely in the coming weeks. This particularly thorny issue may not wait for December – although there have been false dawns before.
Will heads roll?
It’s hard to find anyone in Leinster House who believes there will be widespread bloodletting, but equally, will all 15 members return?
On the Fianna Fáil side, the recently botched appointment of Dr Tony Holohan has provided fresh ammo for critics of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly. "It's not necessarily he did anything wrong, he just didn't know what was going on," said one Fianna Fáil backbencher. "I think he's shown himself to be very weak in the last few weeks," said one senior party deputy, adding: "He's a complete mess – but his flank was being protected from Government Buildings, and I'm pretty sure it's not now."
Dara Calleary is the obvious candidate to replace him if he went, and there is a growing momentum for the Mayo TD's return to cabinet. If more than one seat opens up, there are whispers about junior minister for Law Reform James Browne, or a promotion for the upwardly mobile Chief Whip Jack Chambers.
The low profile of Charlie McConalogue has set some tongues wagging, but the Minister for Agriculture has made few mistakes, and with battles over the carbon budgets and climate change in the offing, the wisdom of changing the occupant in Ag House (yet again) is questionable. Miles on the clock in a department matters, with civil servants always eager to get a “newbie minister they can drown in paperwork and guide to their preferred outcome”, one insider said.
For Fine Gael, Simon Coveney's difficulties earlier this year made him a candidate, but his reputation has been restored by the abundance of statesmanlike settings afforded by the invasion of Ukraine (nonetheless, it "took a war" to rehabilitate Coveney, one party colleague icily remarked last week). A positional alteration may still be on the cards, if Martin wants his job.
There's no indication of a change within the Green Party ranks. In fact, party leader Eamon Ryan went as far as to give a statement to The Irish Times saying he does not anticipate any. "They are all working hard and have clear objectives as set out in the Programme for Government. They have ambitious and complex portfolios and that's where their key focus is now and where it will remain."
Changes are likely within the junior ministerial ranks, especially in Fine Gael, where Jennifer Carroll MacNeill is hotly tipped for promotion, most likely into a seat which may be vacated by junior minister in the Department of Health Frankie Feighan. The promotion of a Dublin TD will likely curtail the ambitions of Neale Richmond and Emer Higgins – Mayo's Alan Dillon may benefit if more promotions are on the cards – some believe Colm Brophy, junior minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs, may have to fight to escape the chop.
For Fianna Fáil, there are several who would expect to be in the running for promotion if a slot arises – James Lawless and Niamh Smyth among them, with Robert Troy perhaps the most vulnerable. But party sources believe Martin is largely happy with his junior team, hand picked, one said, because they "never set the world on fire but neither will they burn the house down". Some believe the outspoken Anne Rabbitte at the Department of Children could be sacrificed, but it would seem gratuitous given her previous snubs for cabinet – and her licence to criticise Government policy, including moves by Fine Gael, can be an asset.
In addition to any shifts dictated by where Martin goes, the most obvious is the anticipated swap between Michael McGrath and Paschal Donohoe in the finance briefs. Donohoe's presidency of the Eurogroup – until January, unless he seeks re-election – is a potential stumbling block, but those on the Fianna Fáil side insist he can retain the role if he is in a treasury brief. If he sought and secured re-election, just who would go to the Eurogroup for Ireland if McGrath became minister for finance?
There have been long-standing whispers over Donohoe’s intentions – it has been suggested he won’t fancy another run in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and may prefer foreign affairs. His popularity in the parliamentary party has been dented, especially on carbon tax and what some see as foot-dragging on ultimately inevitable cost of living interventions, reanimating old frustrations about his parsimony in the run-in to the last election.
The position of chief whip is likely to change, with Chambers to be retained as super junior. The Dublin West TD has acquitted himself well, party colleagues said, showing mettle ("your leg has to be hanging off to get a pair [a paired vote for the Dáil if absent]", one Minister said). The current deputy Government whip, Brendan Griffin, may be elevated at the expense of Hildegarde Naughton, a Fine Gael super junior minister, with some questioning whether she would adapt well to the whip role. However, gender will play a role here.
The Attorney General, senior sources said, will step aside unless he is asked to stay on, and the position will be in Fine Gael's gift. Some mischievously suggested Jim O'Callaghan could be a runner, but one insider said while that kite may be flown, it would find itself "in the sea somewhere off Sandymount Beach" with a "gaggle of blue senior counsels" chomping at the bit for the AG's role.
Delicate at the best of times, managing the political balancing act that beckons at the end of this year will be a particularly tricky task.