Speculation time. Next Saturday morning the Taoiseach will be driven to Áras an Uachtaráin where he will tender his resignation to the President. From that moment, all ministers in the Government are also deemed to have resigned, though like the Taoiseach, they will continue to carry on their duties until replaced. So Micheál Martin will remain in the office of Taoiseach until his successor is elected later that day.
To say that the speculatin’ about the new Cabinet is intense around Leinster House would be an understatement. Some of the most fervent speculators for months have been the ministers themselves.
Leo Varadkar told his TDs at this week’s parliamentary party meeting that the three leaders had not yet discussed the matter of the make-up of the next Cabinet. This cannot be true, I asked someone in a position to know. “Well,” this person said, “they haven’t discussed it formally.” What does that mean? “They’ve discussed it informally.” Right so.
Final decisions, I understand, have not yet been made, and may not be for a few days yet. In general, though, I get a strong sense that the changes on all sides will be minimal – “as few as possible,” says one person in a position to supply informed speculation. I hear this view from several normally well-informed people. “The people that have to move will move,” says one. “I don’t think anyone else will.”
But we know some things. The finance and public expenditure jobs are a done deal, Michael McGrath swapping with Paschal Donohoe. I would be amazed if Micheál Martin does not become minister for foreign affairs. A move by Simon Coveney to the Department of Enterprise seems likely.
Anywhere else for Coveney would require further changes, and – depending on where he ended up – could be seen as a demotion. Varadkar is no longer in a strong enough position within his own party to publicly disrespect Coveney.
The other Fine Gael ministers will probably stay where they are, which means that Heather Humphreys continues to occupy rural development and social protection – platforms she is using to great effect to shower money around the country – as well as caretaking in the Department of Justice. The fact that Helen McEntee is having her second child (due any day now) means that it may be actually illegal to dump her. So no change there either.
Some limited shuffling of juniors is likely; the chief whip’s position moves to Fine Gael, so the logical move is to appoint Hildegarde Naughton, the Fine Gael super-junior, to the post, though insiders wonder if she is a fit for the role. She is hardly a bare-knuckle fighter or practised purveyor of the dark arts of politics. This may be to her credit, but it might make her less likely to be made chief whip.
For months, the predictions of imminent demise on the Fianna Fáil side have centred on the future of Stephen Donnelly in the Department of Health. If the reshuffle was held two months ago, my guess is that Donnelly would have been shot at dawn. Relations between Health HQ and Government Buildings were putrid. Now I am not so sure. He has conducted a spirited rearguard action, both in the media and – more importantly – with parliamentary party colleagues, to whom he has been conspicuously solicitous.
There is another more compelling reason, too. The overarching narrative of Fianna Fáil in Government is something like this: we have taken on difficult jobs in order to make a difference; we understand progress is slow; we are frustrated too; we know it’s too slow, and we are working to make it quicker; but stick with us and things will get better.
Sacking one of the big two problem departments (housing is the other, and we know Darragh O’Brien is staying there, because the Taoiseach said so at the Fianna Fáil ardfheis) sort of contradicts that message. It says: things are not getting better. We’re going to try something else.
The third reason to keep Donnelly is that it would take any newcomer six months at least to become familiar with the highroads and byroads of the health system. After that he or she has not much more than a year to make a difference. Jack Chambers (the obvious candidate) has impressed his boss as whip, but health is an undertaking of a different magnitude. The question being asked around the Taoiseach’s Department: is it really worth it? Donnelly has undoubtedly annoyed a lot of people; but that is not the same thing as saying he will be moved. On balance, my guess is he stays.
So welcome to the new Government – pretty much the same as the old Government. The change at the top matters, of course; the Government will sound a lot different with Varadkar as its chief spokesman. He gets what very few people ever do: a second chance at being taoiseach. If his second stint in the job produces an electoral outcome similar to the first one, he certainly won’t get a third one. He knows it, his party knows it. The questions about his judgment you hear from Fine Gael TDs will be shelved, for now. But there will be no safety net this time.
For the outgoing Taoiseach, my guess is that he will devote – as he promised in his speech at the Cairde Fáil dinner – more time to his party. Given the views of some of his backbenchers, that would be wise.
He will also, I think, seek to revive the Anglo-Irish relationship, which cratered under May, Johnson and Truss but has showed strong signs of thawing since Rishi Sunak entered Number Ten. The Irish Times/ARINS polls show two things – that a united Ireland is not a short- or even medium-term reality, but also that conversations about the island’s future can and should happen. They stand a better chance of being fruitful if the political atmosphere between Dublin, London and Belfast improves.