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Ministerial scorecard: How the Cabinet is performing so far

The verdict on a Government that has to date faced unparalleled challenges


Micheál Martin

Up to February, Martin's score would have been not too far north of zero. A poor election last year dented his confidence. His decision to go with Fine Gael seemed misconceived. He lost two Ministers for Agriculture in quick succession. Against experienced Fine Gael Ministers his team of newbies seemed out of their depth. At times, he did not seem to know what to do with the position he had strived for all his professional life. Internal critics said he could not square one of his big ideas, the shared island unit, with the party's core aim of a united Ireland.

Leo Varadkar wasn't a traditional Tánaiste and felt he could speak on behalf of the Coalition, which he did often, and before Martin. The Taoiseach's parliamentary party swooped at him more ferociously each week than the Grafton Street seagulls. The second surge of Covid-19 after Christmas was the low-point for the government.

In the past few months, Martin has turned it around. The success of the vaccination programme has been a huge boon. He has focused on the simple message that vaccination is the key to overcoming Covid-19. It has worked. He has simplified the message and moved away from more formal press speeches to more informal doorsteps which suit him. He has partly neutralised the criticism at party meetings by a simple countering measure - chief whip Jack Chambers briefs on the Taoiseach's contributions. Martin, in style, is more chief than chairman, deeply enmeshed in detail and policy decisions in different departments, sometimes to the detriment of the big picture. Of late he has been up to 8 but given the poor start, the overall score is lower.

Score: 5


Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise

Leo Varadkar

Officially Tánaiste but at times he acts like a continuity taoiseach. The Department for Enterprise has suited him and tallies with his own outlook on work, entrepreneurship, and FDI.

His difficulties lie elsewhere. His leak of the IMO GP contract when taoiseach has damaged his standing, first with a fractious Dáil debate last November and lately by a Garda investigation.

More detached in style than Martin, he is better at rounding his thoughts and speaking out regularly. It works both ways. His criticism of Tony Holohan’s advice last autumn sounded hubristic when the Covid situation deteriorated.

He was criticised recently for the timing and insensitivity of his remarks at his party's Ard Fheis saying a united Ireland could happen within his life time. Too much was made of it: he was speaking to his own. There is a chance Varadkar could face a leadership challenge in 2022. A poor result in the byelection could dent his authority.

Score: 6

Minister for Environment, Climate, Communications and Transport

Eamon Ryan

Like Micheál Martin, it’s been a year of two halves for Ryan. However, his difficulties do not stem from his departmental role, they relate to his leadership.

It was a shaky start for him. Shortly after the Programme for Government was passed, he survived a leadership contest with Catherine Martin by the skin of his teeth. Then two Green TDs (one of them a junior minister) went overboard on a Government Bill. Over the next few months there were a number of high-profile departures from the party amid accusations of bullying and sell-out. Ryan fell asleep during a debate and got monstered on social media for it. Then the party became embroiled in a row over the Canadian trade deal.

The final row was over Hazel Chu’s decision to seek a Seanad nomination. It again highlighted tensions within the parliamentary party, and tensions between Ryan and Martin. More recently the rows have subsided.

It's a pity because all the major policies of the government have deep green hues. The Programme for Government accepted 7 per cent reductions in emissions per year, agreed €360 million per annum for active travel, plus huge commitments to sustainable travel, to rewetting bogs, and to wind energy. Ryan's major climate legislation - the culmination of a lifetime's work - has almost finished its passage through the Oireachtas. The byelection in his own constituency will also be a test of his standing. Like Martin, an 8 of late but lowered by the poor start.

Score 5

Minister for Finance

Paschal Donohoe

Experienced, self-assured and with a cool head, Donohoe along with Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath loosened the purse strings to deal with the fall-out of the pandemic. During 2020, both Ministers green-lighted almost €25 billion in measures, including the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP), the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) and the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS). It is likely to be even more in 2021 given the prolonged lockdown.

Donohoe’s authority is reflected by his election as president of the Eurogroup of finance ministers. He can be a little preachy in manner but he always gives the impression he knows exactly what he is doing.

Of course, the big tests are yet to come as society reopens. Already he has signalled incremental decreases in PUP between now and February. He has finally announced revision of property values for local property tax, bringing an extra 100,000 homes into the net. His biggest test will come later this year, with the possible ending of Ireland's cherished 12.5 per cent rate of corporation tax. Score: 7

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform

Michael McGrath

Much of what McGrath does is the flip side of the coin to Donohoe's. With long experience as his party's finance spokesman, he eased into Merrion Street as if he had been a minister forever. Like Donohoe, he has been a calm presence even at a time of national crisis.

The figures for public expenditure are awesome - last year gross current expenditure was just over €85.3 billion and there was capital expenditure of €9.6 billion.

By month four of this year, Government expenditure had reached nearly €27 billion, €2 billion higher than for the same period last year.

The spending choices will be made more difficult if the recovery is not as strong as forecast and the unemployment figures don’t fall below 10 per cent. Then McGrath will have some tough choices to make.

He has not focused to the same extent on the reform side of the portfolio but that can be excused by necessity.

Score: 7

Minister for Social Protection, Rural Affairs, and Justice

Heather Humphreys

Heather Humphreys has become a permanent fixture on the Fine Gael front benches since Enda Kenny plucked her from the back-benches in 2014. She has forged a reputation as a solid, unspectacular, no-surprise Minister.

As Minister for Social Protection, Humphreys oversaw a situation where as many as 400,000 people were receiving the PUP in February although the numbers now are below 300,000. Her biggest hurdle will be to devise back-to-work and retraining the estimated 100,000 plus on PUP whose jobs no longer exist.

Humphreys is not known for floating new ideas. However, her rural plan (a legacy from Michael Ring) has huge potential and she has championed 400 regional hubs - which will be key to drawing working from home people out of Dublin to foster more balanced regional development.

She has also assumed the Minister for Justice duties in Helen McEntee’s absence without any fuss.

Score: 6

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence

Simon Coveney

He always does his homework. Sometimes he will talk about it at very considerable length but he is seldom found wanting on the detail. He’s also not afraid to share his opinion.

He had been the State's main political point person on Brexit and on the Northern Protocol since 2017 and his experience and competence have been telling - notably in the past week when he and senior Government colleagues privately told the EU to grant an extension of the grace period before inspections commence on sausages and chilled meats being transferred from Britain to Northern Ireland. They were concerned that the EU pressing the matter might exacerbate an already tense situation, just as marching season begins.

He drove a Government step-change by accepting a Sinn Féin motion condemning illegal occupations. He did not mince his words when describing it as a "de facto annexation". Pointedly, Coveney insisted on language in the motion that also condemned Hamas' indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel.

Score: 7

Minister for Health

Stephen Donnelly

He has had a hard time as Minister and it has included personal threats against him and his family, which necessitated the construction of a security wall at his home. Health is an enormous portfolio and a multi-headed hydra for any incoming Minister. Sometimes during Covid there was a sense of an unfair division of labour. For example, it seemed bizarre that the Minister for Health was responsible for introducing mandatory hotel quarantine.

That said, that was the job he had chosen. What acted as a drag were a series of gaffes and of mis-steps. None of them were huge but cumulatively they served to undermine his authority and the sense he was in control.

He was criticised for comparing the risk of getting Covid to kids jumping on a trampoline and for comments that suggested under 30s might be prioritised for vaccines. His Department was asked to analyse his Twitter mentions compared to other Ministers - that looked bad when it was disclosed. One of the criticisms was ridiculous - the ludicrous suggestion that his use of a ‘thumbs-up’ emoji was in some way passive aggressive.

As the situation has improved, the criticism has become more muted, though one might have expected more of a bounce for him from the vaccine rollout programme which has been a game-changer.

Score: 4

Click here for Ministerial Scorecards: Part II

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times