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Ministerial scorecards: How the Cabinet is performing – Part II

On the Government’s one-year anniversary, we look at who is doing well, and not so well

Minister for Education Norma Foley has done well but so far she has not shown herself to be a reforming Minister in the mould of Richard Bruton or Ruairí Quinn. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Education Norma Foley

Her first few weeks in the job were nervy and uneven with long jargon-laden responses to simple questions. She quickly repaired her hand and has not looked back since.

The calculated grades system for the Leaving Cert was always going to be problematic. Foley removed the use of school-by-school historical data in the standardisation model. It led to protests from some grind schools and top fee-charging schools which said high-achieving students were disadvantaged. Generally, though, the sense was Foley had done a good job and had not repeated the fiasco that had unfolded in England and Wales with calculated grades.

Her other big task was the reopening of schools as the Covid restrictions eased. She showed some steeliness in responding to teacher unions that felt their health concerns were not being taken seriously enough. When the reopening occurred, it was a success, with low transmissions of Covid-19 recorded in schools. So far, this year’s combined Leaving Certificate arrangement also seems to be working smoothly.

Foley is not spontaneous in delivery. So far she has not shown herself to be a reforming Minister in the mould of Richard Bruton or Ruairí Quinn, although Covid would limit any immediate ambitions of that kind. Score: 6


Minister for Higher and Further Education and Research Simon Harris

This is the new department, the brainchild of Micheál Martin. The third-level sector has suffered from underinvestment for decades, and the situation has not been helped by recent slides down world rankings.

So this sector needs an activist Minister and Harris seems tailor-made for the job. He is an indefatigable worker, a slick communicator and a networker. “He has the ability to read the room and connect with the audience that is unparalleled,” says a person in the sector who has had extensive dealings with him.

The key is funding. Harris got an extra €167 million during the pandemic and wants it to be permanent. His big task is implementing the Cassells report, with probably a hybrid option of State funding plus fees. It would be hard for him to argue right now for a student fee of about €3,000. One drawback is that his commitments are not always matched by delivery.

Sometimes, too, he seems to be “Minister for Just About Everything Else Except Higher Education and Research”, as he is asked – and readily offers – his view on every imaginable issue on the agenda. Part of it is the afterglow of a successful stint as minister for health during the first four months of the Covid-19 crisis.

He was given a reminder of spreading himself too thinly last week when a former master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Peter Boylan, made public a conversation they had about the location of the hospital. Score: 7

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee

She began poorly with an unconvincing explanation of her decision to select outgoing attorney general Séamus Woulfe – who was at the controversial Golfgate dinner – to the Supreme Court.

The holder of this ministry tends to be of a law-and-order mindset. But in the early period of office, McEntee has hinted she will not be a traditional Fine Gael minister for justice. For example, there have been moves to alternative crime-prevention measures at community level, as well as to deal with new crimes, which stem from social media. Among the measures are community interventions to prevent at-risk children being recruited into criminal gangs; Coco’s law, which criminalises sharing intimate images without consent; and a scheme to regularise the status of thousands of undocumented people in Ireland.

She has also softened the approach to citizenship with draft legislation to reduce the residency requirements for naturalisation for children born in the State from 5 years to 3 years. This is a move away from tough laws introduced by predecessors to deter the so-called “pull factor”.

At the same time, she has signalled harsher penalties for gangland crime.

All said, it suggests McEntee is trying to redefine Justice – and give it more human face – which is no bad thing. It has been tentative – she is no Michael McDowell when it comes to reforming zeal. Also, it has been a very limited period on which to make a judgment. Score: 5

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth

Roderic O’Gorman

Ultracautious, he was another who struggled in the early months. He found himself at the centre of a storm over the Mother and Baby Homes Commission when it emerged that its database would have to be sealed for 30 years. Some of the audio recordings had also been deleted but they were later recovered.

When the legislation for the commission’s report was debated in the Dáil, O’Gorman insisted it go through without amendments. That caused uproar. He later apologised. “I deeply regret my failure to communicate which caused anxiety.”

O’Gorman has spent countless hours since then trying to resolve many issues and difficulties surrounding the report, not least angry criticisms by survivors of its shortcomings.

On the plus side, he has published a draft Birth and Information Tracing Bill, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that will allow people access to birth certificates, as well as birth and early-life information. It is significant, as is his White Paper on Direct Provision, which proposes a two-stage "own door" and fully independent alternative to be in place by 2024. Score: 5

Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media

Catherine Martin

Another politician with ambitions for higher office. Nominally she is in charge of six distinct policy areas but you can automatically knock out Gaeltacht and Sports, which have been almost wholly delegated to Minister of State Jack Chambers. Certainly, when it comes to the Gaeltacht and the Irish language, she has had minimal involvement.

Those who have worked with Martin say she is very strong on preparation. Cabinet colleagues from other parties say they have a good relationship with her.

But it’s clear from her first year in office that her forte – and her instincts – are in the arts, culture and media briefs. She secured €50 million in March to support live performance and had a long list of sports and cultural events to be piloted starting with James Vincent McMorrow in the Iveagh Gardens earlier this month.

Antigen testing was to be a part of the pilot but the department caved in on it, presumably on the advice of Nphet. She has, however, reinstated it for the next gig to be attended by 3,500 people.

Tourism is another matter. Some of the shut-down sectors in tourism complain of a lack of engagement. “She is making the previous guy [Shane Ross] look good,” was the very harsh assessment of one stakeholder. The reduced 9 per cent VAT rate has been extended but the Stay and Spend scheme was abandoned (with no replacement yet). There is a sense that other sectors are more favoured.

The endless internal feuding in the Greens also dented her reputation. She was identified with one faction in the parliamentary party, and the animus between both deteriorated badly. The rows – most recently over Hazel Chu's nomination for the Seanad – reflected badly on the parliamentary party. Her own relationship with Eamon Ryan is testy. It's certain that his continuing leadership of the party will be challenged at the end of 2022. Score: 5

Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Charlie McConalogue

The third choice. McConalogue was plucked from the back benches following the successive falls of Barry Cowan and Dara Calleary. He is the lowest profile of all Ministers. “There is no ball dropped,” said one senior figure in the sector, “but no shot at goal either.”

McConalogue’s media appearances have been few and can be robotic with him not veering from the party line – Pat Kenny got very frustrated with him during an interview in February. Some say he is his best when meeting groups personally but has been unable to do so during the pandemic. Fianna Fáil needs all its Ministers firing on full cylinders but you sense McConalogue has not felt comfortable leaving the silo to talk about more general Government issues.

He published the “Agclimatise” policy on farming and climate change in December, which made no commitments for methane reduction, relying instead on reductions of fertilisers, changes of fees, afforestation, as well as other measures. It does not tally at all with the Government’s climate-change targets. As such, his attitude to climate is a traditionalist Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael one.

McConalogue needs the new CAP deal to be a big win for Irish farming and the environment. He also needs a strong fishing deal out of the EU, to make up for the end of access to UK waters. That means fighting tooth-and-nail in Brussels. Has he convinced the sectors he has been doing that? The evidence so far is that he has not convinced them. He really needs to step up the plate. Score: 3

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien

This has been one of the most difficult departments because people expect quick solutions when in reality it takes many years. The housing crisis first came to attention in 2014, and seven years later, the gaps don’t seem to have narrowed that much.

It has not been plain sailing for O’Brien – he has taken flak over so-called cuckoo funds buying houses to rent out, and has also been criticised for the high price tags that have been put on “affordable” houses, especially in Dublin.

Affordable housing has been his policy plank and he is steering a Bill through the Dáíl at the moment in that area. On the back of it is the Land Development Agency, which will build housing on land banks owned by the State. Later this summer, there is the Housing for All policy, which will set out longer term targets.

O’Brien’s shared equity plan has been controversial but he has persevered with it. The row over investment funds buying up housing estates back-footed the Government. He and his Government colleagues took one on the chin for that. But he did respond very quickly – in relative terms – introducing legislation within a week to try and curb the trend. The Opposition have their smartest spokespeople marking him but he is unfazed by that.

His programme is ambitious. O'Brien is an activist Minister and you feel it is all or nothing with him: he will either soar like an eagle, or flop like a turkey. He is taking a lot of practical action but only time will tell if it is impactful. The ultimate judgment on his performance will only come at the end of his term, when promises will be measured against bricks and mortar. Score: 7

Click here for Ministerial Scorecards: Part I