Ministers’ report cards: How have they fared in the past year?

Who is best in class? Who must try harder? Harry McGee gives part one of his Cabinet review

Harry McGee looks at the underperforming Ministers and the few stalwart in their first year on the job.

 

TAOISEACH ENDA KENNY

Enda Kenny’s overall legacy will be a strong one, all the more so for a politician who hardly anybody rated as a potential taoiseach before the leadership challenge of June 2010.

He brought the State from near-collapse to strong growth and low unemployment over six years.

Never an intellectual, he nevertheless assumed an authority and a confidence, underscored by a personable presence, skills as a deal-maker, and an (almost) unerring political gut instinct.

In this exercise, however, we are judging him on the year since last May.

As with everything he does, he has mixed the strong with the weak. The general election strategy was a mess, as his party lauded a recovery many didn’t experience. He scraped in for a second term, but with a much-weakened hand.

The deep minority has resulted in some choices that have been inimical to Fine Gael stances, not least on water charges.

There has been headway, albeit uneven, on other key issues such as housing, jobs, policing and abortion.

The dominant issue during this Government’s terms has been the thunderbolt of Brexit.

The 'Kenny text' is the strongest assertion of Irish nationalism since the mid-1980s

In truth, the challenge played into Kenny’s vast experience in Europe, his affinity with the EU’s most powerful figures and his strong interpersonal skills.

The language referring to Ireland has been as strong as anybody could hope for, not least the massive coup of this weekend.

The “Kenny text” will pave entry for Northern Ireland into the EU in the event of a united Ireland. In its way it is the strongest assertion of Irish nationalism since the New Ireland Forum of the mid-1980s.

The other high point has been his speech on immigration in Donald Trump’s presence, under-reported in Ireland, but with phenomenal pick-up elsewhere.

But then there was the “phantom conversation” with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone over her meeting with Sgt Maurice McCabe, which put paid to any chance of a prolonged exit.

Marks: 5/10

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald. Photograph: Conor Ó Mearáin
Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald. Photograph: Conor Ó Mearáin

FRANCES FITZGERALD

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law

You think Health is the ejector seat of Ministries? Think again. Justice might have trumped it in recent years in terms of its ending of ministerial ambition.

Alan Shatter was never afraid to walk the walk but then he had to walk the plank. His successor Frances Fitzgerald has not been a provocateur in the same mould but has weathered her fair share of storms.

As Tánaiste she has deputised ably for Kenny at Leaders’ Questions and become the figurehead for the liberal wing of the party.

In her own portfolio, she well understands the Fine Gael “law and order” disposition, and has approved tougher laws on sentencing, bail, sexual offences (child grooming among them) and domestic violence.

She has not been slow to back the deployment of the armed support unit and measures to tackle organised crime, and has acted quickly on the Console charity scandal.

On the reform agenda, she has brought forward legislation on mediation and is updating defamation law.

Following a trip to Greece with Katherine Zappone, she is adopting tolerant approaches to refugee and migration matters.

Her Achilles heel has been the Garda Síochána and the increasingly precarious position of Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.

It is hard to keep track of all the inquiries, reviews and investigations into the gardaí.

Her own political fate has increasingly become linked with that of O’Sullivan’s, whom she continues to defend.

Now she has announced a root-and-branch review. It comes at a time when the Garda seems incapable of eliciting meaningful and accurate data about its own operations. Did she sit on her hands for nine months on the penalty-points crisis?

The cutting comments of Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan do have some resonance. “It reminds me of a second World War film where people are hiding behind the floorboards, remaining quiet and hoping they won’t be spotted by the German soldiers.”

No matter how competent, she still carries the can.

Marks: 4/10

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Photograph: Eric Luke
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Photograph: Eric Luke

KATHERINE ZAPPONE

Minister for Children

Katherine Zappone had a shaky start but, as time has gone on, has gained in confidence (her competence was never in doubt).

There are few Ministers who are as deliberative or as thorough – when the European Commission ruled on the Apple tax case, Zappone demanded (and was granted) time to read through the detail.

The shaky start came with a private members’ motion from the Opposition on abortion laws – one of Zappone’s big issues.

While Shane Ross and the Independent Alliance demanded a free vote, Zappone obeyed the Government whip. She shipped a lot of criticism but was praised by Fine Gaelers for resisting taking a populist stance.

Zappone had a good budget. Her childcare package was well received for being progressive and tilted at worse-off families.

Along with Fitzgerald she has been active on the migrant issue. Both visited Greece, and along with the Minister of State David Stanton, announced the State would take greater numbers, including unaccompanied children.

The big test here will be reaching the 4,000 target. Domestically, the number of children who are homeless remains stubbornly high and reflects a failure of Government, including her department.

Some naivety emerged during the uncertainty surrounding her meeting with Sgt Maurice McCabe about unfounded allegations made against him.

Zappone acted correctly but contributed to hurrying Enda Kenny's exit

Her initial comments were vague. She then went on a short break to the US. In the interim Enda Kenny recalled a conversation with her that never happened.

When she returned she clarified the situation, and that forced the Taoiseach to admit his recollection was not accurate, triggering a crisis around his leadership. Zappone acted correctly but this will have contributed to hurrying his exit.

Marks: 6/10

Finian McGrath, Minister of State for Disabilities. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Finian McGrath, Minister of State for Disabilities. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

FINIAN McGRATH

Minister of State for Disabilities

McGrath’s own background would be republican and slightly to the left. He would not have been considered as natural a fit with Fine Gael as Shane Ross.

The difference was temperament. McGrath is a pragmatist and will seek solutions rather than stand-offs. That said, he sided with Ross in defying the Government whip on that early private members’ motion on abortion.

Since that he has been reluctant to repeat that naked defiance, unless it touched on a core issue for him. For example, he did not argue within Cabinet against Kenny’s trip to see Donald Trump.

One such core issue was the Stardust nightclub fire, which happened in his constituency. When Tommy Broughan brought a private members’ motion calling for a fresh inquiry into the fire, McGrath held firm with Government colleagues until they agreed to include a “judge-led review” in the formal response.

Being given responsibility for disabilities – an issue he has campaigned on for decades – played to his strengths.

He compiled a list of wants, making sure none was too extravagant. He succeeded in getting a lot over the line, including – vitally – real incentives to help people with disability to gain employment

However, he has not made as much progress with his crusade to get the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities ratified by the Government. Drafting legislation has taken longer than he predicted, and it could be end of the year before it happens.

Also, when responding to the “Grace” case, the Commission of Inquiry he proposed did not initially include the other children who stayed in the foster home where the abuse took place. That was hurriedly amended after severe criticism.

Marks: 4/10

Simon Harris, Minister for Health. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Simon Harris, Minister for Health. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

SIMON HARRIS

Minister for Health

Simon Harris became the youngest minister for health in the history of the State last May. Initially he could do no wrong. He secured an additional €1 million in funding and brought back the National Treatment Purchase Fund.

Asking anyone to reform the Irish healthcare system is like asking the family dog to figure out the Rubik’s Cube.

Simon Harris is a born politician: smart, articulate and media-savvy

It’s a mind-bogglingly complex system that needs to factor in an ageing population and expensive medical advances that prolong lives and increase budgets.

In fairness to Harris he has set about the task with enthusiasm and energy. Despite his youth he is a born politician: smart, articulate and media-savvy.

The deal on Orkambi for people with cystic fibrosis is a win (but the big costs might mean a swingeing cut for another group with separate needs). He has also got the green light for the children’s hospital.

There has been progress, too, on scoliosis (after a crisis erupted), on medical cards for children with disabilities, on bidding for the European Medicines Agency post-Brexit, on the GP contract on the cancer strategy and the first national obesity strategy.

He set up the committee for long-term health planning. Its report is due shortly but there will be problems if it doesn’t dovetail with his own views.

The row over Holles Street moving to St Vincent’s has led to suggestions he should have scrutinised the deal more closely.

Most of the damage he has incurred has been down to waiting lists and the trolley crisis, which reached crisis numbers over the winter.

He has ordered a review of bed capacity and is addressing recruitment issues. But so have his predecessors, with mixed results. Too many of them ended up chasing, not leading.

Marks: 4/10

Minister for Communication, Climate Change and Environment Denis Naughten. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Minister for Communication, Climate Change and Environment Denis Naughten. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

DENIS NAUGHTEN

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment

Denis Naughten is seldom bested on detail. He is bright and articulate but can be conservative in approach and overdefensive.

Naughten’s portfolio includes a huge range of important responsibilities but also severely inadequate budgets .

His best initiative has been the agreement with Eir to build high-speed broadband for premises in rural Ireland. Currently, half of rural Ireland can’t access high speeds. He might just buck a trend of ministerial failure on this issue.

Wins have included measures on air quality, wasted food and local radio . He has taken over responsibility for An Post, but not before a nasty row with Michael Ring.

His approach to wind energy has been cautious, partly driven by local community opposition to wind farms.

There have been too many reviews, task forces and consultations, and not enough tangibles. There are promised plans coming soon on electric vehicles and solar power, but they will need to be parsed to be believed.

This wooliness is most evident in climate action, where the crucial draft National Mitigation Plan read like a discussion document rather than a plan.

It was followed by stark Environmental Protection Agency figures that confirmed a big failure to meet emissions targets, and Naughten’s response was to attack the Greens. He said targets they agreed in were “reckless” .

At the moment he has no plan to deal with all that. Given his promise and ability, that has been a massive disappointment.

Marks: 2/10

Minister for Education Richard Bruton. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Minister for Education Richard Bruton. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

RICHARD BRUTON

Minister for Education and Skills

He wasn’t thrilled when moved from Jobs and Enterprise, where he had done well. That said, he has been true to form in terms of application, with a lot of policy initiatives and clever announcements (although not all will see the light of day).

And so it was not all that surprising to see him announce an action plan for education, as he had done previously with jobs. This is a kind of pale equivalent of the memorandum of understanding with the Troika.

The difference is there is no compulsion and there is plenty of box-ticking sprinkled among the real “action”. Still it does serve to give strategic direction.

Like transport, education has had its fair share of industrial difficulties, not least with the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland.

This should be the moment for a politician of Bruton’s calibre to leave his mark

However, the union is a bit of an outlier, not being party to the partnership agreements. There is not a huge well of public backing, either. He didn’t concede ground but began from a strong position.

The other two unions – both within the agreements – got significant increases for newly qualified teachers. There is an argument he should start reaching out to the ASTI, something that is not within his ideological make-up.

Other initiatives include ending waiting lists, emphasis on foreign languages and more support for Gaeltacht schools.

He has increased support for disadvantage Deis schools, secured extra teaching places for special needs and continued the slow process of divesting patronage.

But education, like health, soaks up budget, and the social inequalities (reflected in the dominance of south Dublin schools) in education remain glaring.

Education needs a Donogh O’Malley, and this should be the moment for a politician of Bruton’s calibre to leave his mark.

Marks: 5/10

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

MICHAEL NOONAN

Minister for Finance

Noonan has probably been the most successful Fine Gael finance minister in the history of the State.

However, the last months of his term have not been vintage. This is partly out of his control. The confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil means he has to obey rather than ignore what the back-seat passenger is saying.

It also means that the centrepiece of his political responsibility, the budget, has now become a piece of communal art. That said, he did manage to get plenty of pro-business measures into the document and the knowledge box.

But he has been left on the back foot by two controversies. The first was the Apple tax ruling by the European Commission.

Noonan led the Government response to it, but a politician who is usually a sure-footed debater struggled to convince against a sea of criticism of favourable treatment, including from Fine Gael supporters.

The second controversy was his row with the Public Accounts Committee over Project Eagle.

Noonan did not tell the committee in direct evidence that he had met senior representatives from the successful bidder, Cerberus, on the day before the the contract bid (it was no more than a courtesy call).

The committee split along partisan lines for the first time in its history so the majority could admonish Noonan.

He completely rejected this, pointing out that the fact of the meeting had been in the public domain more than once, including in a response to a parliamentary question to Michael McGrath. He has argued that was sufficient.

But given that he was appearing before the committee, it might reasonably have been expected he would have volunteered that information for the sake of completeness.

Marks: 4/10

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