Ministers’ report cards (part 2): who gets 2 out of 10, who gets 8?

In the scoring Varadkar probably falls short of a 6 - and Coveney is worth more than a 5

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

 

LEO VARADKAR (Social Protection)

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Any consideration of the performance of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney since last May will inevitably be viewed through the prism of their forthcoming leadership battle.

“Forthcoming” may not be strictly accurate because just about every utterance from both is seen as a proxy for campaigns already taking place in the background.

When Varadkar, taking Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil last month, invoked Seán Lemass when lacerating Fianna Fáil for its stance on water charges, it gave us a little tincture of what a Varadkar leadership might be.

The comments were carefully scripted by him and carried a lot of political ballast. The optics were also interesting. Coveney sat beside him. It might have been presented as a show of solidarity between the two pretenders. Yet everyone was conscious Varadkar had already been critical of the deal on water masterminded by Coveney.

Social Protection has been, at best, a sideways move for him after an 18-month stint in Health that was mixed, certainly not as stellar as his time in Transport, Sport and Tourism.

It is hard to generate huge levels of interest in Social Protection, especially when the economy is on an upward curve. He has introduced some good initiatives such as (very modest) paternity benefit and enlarged the Intreo office programme and Pathways to Work. He also got some decent increases in the budget for carers and people with disabilities, lone parents, widows and jobseekers. There was also a €5 increase in the State pension.

For the first time he began grappling with social insurance for self-employed people who have had little protection until now.

He also intends to tackle another long-term challenge – that of getting jobless households into work. For at least a decade the problems facing that cohort have seemed intractable. A succession of ministers have tried and failed to deal with it.

Varadkar is conscious of the lack-of-delivery narrative, and has tried to make sure his policy measures have had tangible outcomes. But then it will take some time before their success can be gauged.

Varadkar has not had any major setbacks in the department, but that is not a major surprise given there is more money around. It could be said he is too cautious, and it could be argued he has not been brave enough – Joan Burton certainly had more new ideas.

But then he is also eyeing the captain’s armband, and seems to be a little ahead of Coveney in that regard. He probably falls short of a 6 and Coveney is worth more than a 5. But right now Varadkar is infinitesimally ahead.

MARKS: 6 out of 10

SIMON COVENEY (Housing)

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister for Housing Simon Coveney. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Coveney has to be commended for taking on a big and unwieldy department caught in two of the biggest political headwinds: housing and homelessness, and water charges.

Indeed, within weeks of becoming Minister he was also embroiled in another “legacy” controversy. That was the impending introduction of a “pay-by-weight” scheme for waste amid claims charges were being hiked up. He put a temporary stay on that for a year. Happily for him, when the issue returns in July, it will be Denis Naughten’s problem.

When you examine his departmental record there is no doubt he has been big on ambition. The problem with that strategy is it’s harder to get all the products on to the shelves. If it doesn’t happen trouble starts brewing.

Some parts of Coveney’s record have been good but others so-so. Everyone knows housing and homelessness can’t be solved with a click of the fingers or a wallet being prised open. It will take years involving time-sapping and complicated processes. Coveney got a €5.5 billion budget for Rebuilding Ireland. He has cajoled local authorities into action, put money into new social schemes, brought forward legislation to fast-track estates, pushed for more homeless beds and new hostels. Has it made a difference?

The plan is solid and probably will work in the future. But politics is an impatient and impetuous business, and the demands are always immediate. Delivery has been a little thin on the ground. The latest homelessness figures made for stark reading, especially for children. New social housing provisions have been scant. House-building activity is still struggling outside the capital.

Coveney has certainly tried many avenues. As part of the budget he introduced a new tax rebate of 5 per cent for first-time buyers. Its aim was to stimulate new-home building which had bottomed out. The upper threshold of €600,000 ran into opposition from Fianna Fáil, and there was criticism that it might drive up house prices.

Just before Christmas, Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen also opposed a rent cap and “rent pressure zones” introduced to cool soaring rents. Coveney faced the challenge down, threatening to collapse the deal. Fianna Fáil retreated. He won kudos among party colleagues for that.

More recently he was also seen by colleagues to have edged Cowen in the protracted wrangling over water charges. It was a “win”, no doubt about that. But Varadkar reminded him (helpfully of course) that getting 8 per cent of households to pay was a far cry from the 100 per cent in Coveney’s initial plans, and it could not be viewed as a success. The mark is over five but not quite six.

MARKS: 5 out of 10.

SHANE ROSS (Transport)

Minister for Transport Shane Ross. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Minister for Transport Shane Ross. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Ross is the most improved Minister but that wasn’t hard given that he got zero in the last assessment. A year into the job, the dynamism and energy he showed for so many years on the opposition benches has been almost wholly absent in Government.

For some politicians, being appointed as Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport is like getting a golden ticket to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. His predecessors, Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe, used the department as a springboard for more senior appointments. Varadkar introduced The Gathering, linked the Luas lines, brought in a lower VAT rate for tourist services, and established the Wild Atlantic Way. Donohoe resuscitated Metro North, backed the bid for the Rugby World Cup, and also backed the Ireland’s Ancient East idea.

Ross has been very short on ideas in his three areas of responsibility. Indeed, in the first few months he took more interest in judicial appointments.

He is too preoccupied with sidebar issues such as the composition of State boards. He wrote a strident and offensive letter to Liz O’Donnell of the Road Safety Authority about its board, nitpicking about grammatical “howlers” in its report. He told her he was dropping two board members and told her to pick the remaining two. She had to remind him of his own “howler”, that that was his legal obligation not her’s.

He also offended big players in the multibillion euro aviation sector by “legging it” from a forum (set up by Donohoe) after 10 minutes without listening to any of their ideas.

Faced with an increase in transport emissions in the coming years, he has largely ignored alternatives such as cycling and public transport. To be fair, he has pressed for more automatic bans for drunken driving and is introducing drug testing for drivers.

Ironically, his consistent record of staying aloof from every issue was probably the right strategy for the Bus Éireann strike. That issue has not gone away yet.

MARKS: 2 out of 10.

CHARLIE FLANAGAN (Foreign Affairs)

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Flanagan is tireless, intense, involved. Since the Brexit referendum last summer he has been the Government’s point man on it. He had visited his counterparts in all 27 member states within two months. He formed part of a troika with Enda Kenny and Dara Murphy that brought the key Irish messages on Brexit to Brussels and the capitals.

Getting the “Kenny Text” on a possible future united Ireland to form part of a formal EU declaration was a win, there is no doubt about it. While Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin might have grumbled that it already formed part of the Good Friday agreement, getting affirmation for an unashamedly nationalist assertion was a coup.

Generally, Flanagan has done as well as he might be expected on the issue. The Government has succeeded in getting Irish priorities into the negotiating text, and these issues will be dealt with early in the negotiating process.

It’s the same in the North. He is always there and certainly puts in the hours. He is generally good on the diplomacy front, though he can quickly get hot under the collar in debates and exchanges. Sometimes that is not very good politics.

There is a stumbling block and it is a big one. The continued incarceration of young Irishman Ibrahim Halawa in a Cairo jail has been an embarrassment. The Government’s initial response and that of Flanagan’s was softly-softly, but, in retrospect, it has had little apparent impact.

Others such as Lynn Boylan of Sinn Féin and an Oireachtas delegation to Cairo led by Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl were far more strident in letting their views be known. The Halawa case has been embarrassing for the Government and affects his score.

MARKS: 4 out of 10

MICHAEL CREED (Agriculture)

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

In terms of profile Creed is the “where’s Wally” of the Cabinet. His profile is low, especially in urban areas where people struggle to identify him.

But then the situation is different among the constituencies that most matters, namely farmers and fishermen.

Creed has been a very active Minister, albeit a low-profile one. He has managed to make changes on trade, with access to markets in Turkey, the US, China, Iran and Egypt.

He has been particularly active on Brexit, which is not surprising given that agriculture and fisheries will most cruelly feel the brunt of tariffs if they are introduced. He has secured extra funding in the budget to deal with the impending changes, which has been funnelled into agri-loans, direct support and marketing.

He summarised the difficulties faced by the farming community well in comparison to other sectors: “You can’t make a banker out of a west of Ireland suckler farmer.”

His main initiative so far on the conservation side was the launch of the Hen Harrier Scheme, although he supported Heather Humphreys’ plan to extend the hedge-cutting season, which exercised bird conservation groups.

Agriculture remains the biggest emitting sector of greenhouse gases. The strategy to increase agricultural output – FoodWise 2025 – runs counter to emission reduction. He needs to do more to promote sustainable farming, and schemes like Glas need to be greatly expanded.

There is a public component to the work, and Creed has not achieved the kind of profile that will allow him argue to a wider public on the merits of his political decisions on behalf of the farming community and the agrifood business. Politics is a public profession, and for once a politician is being criticised for not burnishing his profile enough.

MARKS: 5 out of 10

HEATHER HUMPHREYS (Arts, Heritage and Rural Affairs)

Minister for Arts, Heritage and Rural Affairs Heather Humphreys. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Minister for Arts, Heritage and Rural Affairs Heather Humphreys. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

The first few months of Humphreys’s ministerial career were a car crash as she defended an inappropriate board appointment to IMMA that was more or less foisted on her.

At this stage, that is very much behind her, and she has built up a reputation as a solid, reliable Minister, albeit a bit old school.

One thing that emerged during that time was that she is not comfortable doing spontaneous media interviews. She still tends to be wooden in live situations.

That said, she performed really well during last year’s 1916 commemorations, seamlessly accommodating her own Protestant background with what became a unabashed celebration of Irish nationalism and identity.

She has followed on from that into 2017 with the Creative Ireland programme, which aims to bring arts, culture, music and drama (and software coding!) to every community.

She also launched the Action Plan for Rural Development with 275 measures to address the neglect and decline of rural Ireland. Action plans are the default response of government to issues. This one has 275 actions. Some are inevitably a box-ticking exercise but some are real. It’s too early to make any assessment on its impact even though the Town and Village Renewal Scheme (which has funding attached) is a good idea.

Her record on heritage is not so strong. She dedesignated some protected bogs last year as a nod to bog-cutters and rural Independent TDs supporting the Government. The Heritage Bill extending the hedge-cutting season has also alarmed bird conservation groups.

In the budget she gained increases for the Arts Council, the National Library and the film industry.

Her involvement with the Gaeltacht side of her ministry is minimal. In fairness, she attended an Irish-speaking course in the Gaeltacht, but those responsibilities have been wholly designated to the able Minister of State Sean Kyne.

MARKS: 5 out of 10

MARY MITCHELL O’CONNOR (Jobs)

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Mary Mitchell O’Connor. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Mary Mitchell O’Connor. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

If this assessment had been carried out a few months ago, Mitchell O’Connor would have been in danger of hovering around zero. She found the readjustment from backbencher to Minister difficult, had an unsettled team (two key members of her staff, Alan Cantwell and Jim McGrath, departed) and was not getting the pitch of her approach correct.

In recent months, though, she has steadied the ship, and there is evidence she is settling in.

The Dún Laoghaire TD succeeded Richard Bruton, one of the most active Ministers in terms of policy generation and ideas. Thrown into one of the key economic ministries, her problem was that, at senior government level, there is no such thing as a shallow end. She struggled, there is no question.

Her main blunder in the early months revolved around a proposal to give a lower tax rate to highly-skilled returning emigrants. The proposal was pilloried by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Embarrassingly for Mitchell O’Connor, it was also put down by Kenny, and she got short shrift from colleagues in Fine Gael. What people forget is that her predecessor Bruton came up with exactly the same suggestion 12 months beforehand, and nobody brutalised him.

She kept her head down after that. The jobs portfolio is great during a rising economic tide. Bruton already has a strategy in place – the Action Plan for Jobs – and O’Connor has kept that oiled. On the most important criterion for any jobs Minister, she does well with over 66,000 jobs created in 2016.

She could be criticised for not coming up with any major initiative of her own so far, though in fairness she has put huge emphasis on rural jobs and employment.

She has done well on Brexit. She set up a Brexit unit in her department and boosted staffing in the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. She has played hardball with her British counterpart.

MARKS: 4 out of 10

PAUL KEHOE (Minister of State at Departments of An Taoiseach and Defence; Special Responsibility for Defence)

Minister of State at the Departments of An Taoiseach and Defence, with Special Responsibility for Defence. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Minister of State at the Departments of An Taoiseach and Defence, with Special Responsibility for Defence. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The second super-junior in Cabinet, Kehoe was promoted on the basis of his loyalty to Kenny over the preceding decade. His profile has been low since becoming Minister, and the evidence to date is that he has been largely reactive rather than pro-active.

That’s not to say he has not got things done. He has addressed 36 of 88 recommendations made by the ambitious White Paper on Defence. It was drawn up by his predecessor Simon Coveney to modernise the Army, Navy and Air Corps (it takes in such responses as new threats like cyber terrorism).

The Army is also in a position to recruit an additional 850 personnel. Kehoe had rightly put the emphasis on increasing the percentage of women and of ethnic minorities in the new intake. He wants to double the proportion of women to 12 per cent.

In terms of pay and conditions, he got a win with the agreement of PDFORRA to sign up to the Lansdowne Road Agreement. Approval was also given for Navy personnel on operational duties in the Mediterranean to be paid an extra €15 each day.

His difficulty is he is playing catch-up. The Defence budgets took a big hit during the recession. While the recruitment ban did not affect the Defence Forces in the same way (the forces require active young recruits) there were big reductions in capital spending, which has led to gaps.

That was borne home in the aftermath of the recent tragedy with the Coast Guard rescue helicopter in north Mayo. The late Captain Dara Fitzpatrick and her team were providing “top cover” to another rescue helicopter. In reality that operation should have been done by the Air Corps, but the serious reductions in qualified personnel has meant it cannot undertake such missions outside office hours.

Sure, there are 28 young officers being trained at present, but it is going to take several years before that deficit is resolved.

MARKS: 4 out of 10

PASCHAL DONOHOE (Public Expenditure and Reform)

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Pascal Donohoe. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Pascal Donohoe. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Donohoe is often portrayed as an uber-polite altar boy, spraying around more “thank yous” than boxer Barry McGuigan gave to his promoter Barney Eastwood a long time ago.

But as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Donohoe is essentially the Minister who says No.

“Don’t be fooled by that softly-softly personality,” says a Fianna Fáil front-bencher who was involved in negotiations with him. “Behind it he’s a bitter Blueshirt!”

Donohoe is an ideologue. He places himself as a centrist and a liberal one, but he’s a bit more to the right than that. So far Donohoe has had a good first year in Public Expenditure, steering through a first budget without hitches or hassle.

The Garda pay award of €50 million a year annually was a setback but it has not set a precedent. He is lucky that the economy is performing well, otherwise he would have to make far more refusals.

The Public Pay Commission is due to report shortly. Already Donohoe has laid heavy hints the gold-plated public service pension is up for discussion, and he is also reluctant to ditch the 15 million extra hours of work ceded by the unions during the recession.

He has been big on capital spending since his time in Transport. He agreed to release an extra €2.2 billion for Coveney’s housing plan. There’s a mid-term review of the capital plan, and you can bet that public transport will feature heavily. He has argued for more high-capacity public transport if a city the size of Dublin is to work. Poor infrastructure will be a drag on a growing economy. Plus without it there is not a hope of the low-carbon goals of the Paris Agreement being reached.

On the reform side he has not been as active as Brendan Howlin was, but has a plan for open government, has addressed gender balance, and is reviewing the Lobbying Act.

MARKS: 8 out of 10