The political experiment of rotating the Taoiseach’s office will take place in a few weeks and, contrary to the widespread scepticism about the arrangement when the coalition deal was agreed back in 2020, it seems the handover from Micheál Martin to Leo Varadkar will be reasonably smooth.
Potential difficulties about the specified date of the handover and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe’s desire to seek another term as head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers were easily smoothed out and didn’t do any damage to relations between the coalition partners.
Varadkar took the sensible step of not insisting on the agreed changeover date of December 15th, to allow Martin attend his final EU summit, while Donohoe is making a serious bid to retain his prestige Eurogroup role on the basis that incoming minister for finance Michael McGrath will also have the right to attend the meetings.
The signs are that the changes in personnel will be minimal despite the strong argument for bringing new faces to the Cabinet table
Continuing good relations between the coalition partners are essential if they are to have a realistic chance of defying the consensus that Sinn Féin is on course to lead the next government. The recent Irish Times poll gives the coalition a realistic chance of retaining power as long as the three parties hold together and transfer to each other at the next election.
The rotation of the Taoiseach’s office and the resulting Cabinet reshuffle will be an important test of cohesion as well as signposting the line-up for the second half of the political battle ahead. The signs are that the changes in personnel will be minimal despite the strong argument for bringing new faces to the Cabinet table.
Martin and Varadkdar have very little room manoeuvre, as apart from their own jobs they have only five places each to play with. The key to what will happen will be whether Martin opts to swap Departments with Varadkar and goes to Enterprise and Trade or decides to take Foreign Affairs.
Given his experience as Taoiseach in dealing with the ongoing row over the protocol, and the continuing stalemate in Northern Ireland, there is a lot to be said for a move to Iveagh House, where he served before from 2008 to 2011. If he does opt for Foreign Affairs, it means Simon Coveney will have to move from the department where he has served for five years. In that case, his most likely destination is Enterprise and Trade.
As for the other four Fine Gael Cabinet positions, there is general acceptance that Helen McEntee will stay on in Justice. She is due to go on maternity leave just before the handover and her duties will be entrusted to another Fine Gael Minister while she is on leave. The most likely candidate is Heather Humphreys, who took over the position during McEntee’s previous maternity leave and is expected to remain in her post at Social Protection and Rural Affairs.
With Donohoe set to take over at Public Expenditure, the only question remaining is what role Simon Harris will have. At present he is at Higher Education but a more frontline role is warranted for the young minister who is one of the party’s best media performers and has shown a willingness to take on Sinn Féin in media exchanges.
If Varadkar opts to keep the same ministers, he will need to make extensive changes in the junior ranks not simply to give his team a fresh look but to promote people who can carry the fight to the opposition in the Dáil and the media. TDs such as Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Neale Richmond have proved to be very effective on this front and are due for promotion.
If any Minister is dropped from the Cabinet it is likely to be Stephen Donnelly. It is not so much that he has been underwhelming as Minister for Health but that he has no support base within Fianna Fáil
On the Fianna Fáil side, Darragh O’Brien looks set to remain in Housing, where he has shown a grasp of the portfolio and a willingness to take on Sinn Féin Housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin. Charlie McConalogue and Norma Foley are expected to remain in Cabinet but may be moved from their respective Agriculture and Education roles.
If any Minister is dropped from the Cabinet it is likely to be Stephen Donnelly. It is not so much that he has been underwhelming as Minister for Health but that he has no support base within Fianna Fáil. The promotion of the capable Jack Chambers from chief whip to the Cabinet would send a message that the party is serious about trying to attract young voters in Dublin.
Fine Gael will get to appoint the chief whip in the reshuffle and current junior Minister at the Department Agriculture Martin Heydon is tipped for the post. In the coalition deal of 2020 it was also agreed that the post of Attorney General, currently held by Paul Gallagher, would rotate at the halfway mark.
The one set of Ministers not affected by the reshuffle are the Greens. As part of the initial deal, they were not obliged to change departments, so Catherine Martin will stay at Arts and Culture and Roderic O’Gorman will retain responsibility for Children and Equality.
While failure to make extensive changes will make the reshuffle something of a damp squib, Irish political history is littered with ones that resulted in political strife for no obvious gain, so safety first looks to be the best option.