Junior ministers: Fine Gael TDs Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Kieran O’Donnell promoted

Limited changes in ranks of Ministers of State as Cabinet signs off on reshuffle of jobs

Two new Fine Gael junior ministers have been appointed but there were no changes in personnel for the Fianna Fáil and Green Party Minister of State as the Cabinet signed off on the reshuffle.

The changes follow Saturday’s historic Government changeover in which Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach with Fianna Fáil counterpart Micheál Martin assuming the role of Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Fine Gael backbenchers Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Kieran O’Donnell were promoted to become junior ministers for finance and housing respectively while their party colleague Peter Burke took over the role of Minister of State for European Affairs.

Perhaps the most high-profile role on offer in Wednesday’s reshuffle, Mr Burke’s new job involves preparing for European Council meetings and accompanying the Taoiseach to the summits.

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His predecessor in the role, Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne, is now the Minister of State for Sport and Physical Education, a coveted position due to the responsibility for sports funding around the country.

Meanwhile, Green Party junior minister Joe O’Brien has been given a role in assisting the integration of refugees to add to his existing responsibility for community development and charities.

The move comes amid pressure on the Department of Children and Integration due to the large numbers of refugees arriving in Ireland from Ukraine and other countries.

Two Fine Gael junior ministers were dropped – Frank Feighan, who had been a junior health minister, and Colm Brophy, the outgoing Minister of State for Overseas Development.

The new Government Chief Whip Hildegarde Naughton takes over Mr Feighan’s former role which included responsibility for drugs strategy. Fianna Fáil’s Sean Fleming – who had been a junior minister for finance – is now Minister of State for International Development and Diaspora.

Dún Laoghaire TD Ms Carroll MacNeill replaces him as junior minister for Financial Services, Credit Unions and Insurance.

Limerick City TD Mr O’Donnell was appointed as Minister of State with responsibility for Local Government and Planning and will have responsibility for driving house building at a local authority level amid some concerns around delivery in that area.

Dublin-Rathdown TD Neale Richmond had been widely tipped for promotion but lost out on Wednesday.

His Fine Gael constituency colleague, Josepha Madigan – who had been deemed at risk by some – retained her role as Minister of State for Special Education.

Fine Gael sources suggested on Wednesday that Mr Richmond would be made chairman of the EU Affairs Committee, a position is currently held by Donegal TD Joe McHugh who is currently without the Fine Gael whip and has said he will not be contesting the next general election.

A Fine Gael source said Mr Varadkar considered qualifications, gender, geography and experience in his decisions on who to appoint as a junior minister.

On the Fianna Fáil side Kildare North TD James Lawless was among those tipped for promotion but he lost out on this occasion as Micheál Martin added no new faces to his team of ministers.

The Fianna Fáil junior ministers that kept their existing roles are Anne Rabbitte (Disability); Mary Butler (Mental Health and Older People); Niall Collins (Skills and Further Education); James Browne (Law Reform and Youth Justice) and Dara Calleary (Trade Promotion and Digital Transformation).

Other Fine Gael ministers that are staying in place are Patrick O’Donovan (Office of Public Works) who now also has responsibility for the Gaeltacht; Martin Heydon (Agriculture Research and Development and Farm Safety) and Damien English (Employment Affairs and Retail Business).

There were no changes to the Green Party line-up with Ossian Smyth (Communications and Circular Economy) and Malcolm Noonan (Heritage and Electoral Reform) both being retained in their roles.

On Saturday the Government previously appointed Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambers and Green Party Senator Pippa Hackett ‘super-junior’ ministers for transport and agriculture respectively. They, along with Ms Naughton, have seats at the Cabinet table.

There were differing reactions within Fianna Fáil to the lack of new faces from their party in the ministerial ranks.

A source said “the surprise would have been if there were any surprises” and they said there had been no backlash.

They added: “There was an understanding that much as people like James Lawless should be promoted, having to demote someone would cause more problems.”

The source said the party’s junior ministers are seen as doing a good job and people are pleased the party retained the sport portfolio.

One source who has been sceptical of Mr Martin’s leadership said “there isn’t one challenging voice in that line-up” and suggested the “conservative” appointments could “come back to haunt him”.

However, another TD said the appointments were “going down very well” and there is “round support” for them among colleagues adding that everyone knew Mr Martin had limited scope to appoint new people with existing junior ministers doing well.

A different TD said there will be disappointment among some that they had not been appointed and said there is also a view among people with no expectations of promotion that the Fianna Fáil side of the reshuffle is “devoid of any fresh faces” and there is “no growing for the future”.

The Kerry Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae, who was criticised by constituency colleague and Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin for allegedly turning down a rural ministry during the formation of the 2016 Government, questioned why Brendan Griffin had reportedly turned down a junior ministry himself.

Mr Griffin had accused Healy-Rae in 2018 of “letting down” the people of Kerry when he “ran for the hills” after being offered a role in Government. On Wednesday Healy-Rae said he was never offered a rural ministry role and criticised Mr Griffin for reportedly turning down a junior ministry himself.

“Is this the same Brendan Griffin that said I was offered a ministry and that it was a disgrace that I had not taken it up and I had let the people of Kerry down?” the Kilgarvan-based independent asked. Mr Griffin has confirmed he turned down an offer of a junior ministry for “family reasons”.

“If there were personal reasons to stop him now, were those personal reasons non-existent when he was canvassing for the position of chief whip last week?” Healy-Rae said. Everyone knew Mr Griffin was looking for the chief whip role, Mr Healy-Rae said, adding he had wished him well last week.

“It seems now he was able to take one, but not the other,” the independent said, amid speculation Griffin may have been refused the notoriously difficult health portfolio or responsibility for the diaspora.

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Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Kieran O’Donnell: a closer look at the junior ministers

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Minister of State with responsibility for Financial Services, Credit Unions and Insurance

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill – the new Minister of State at the Department of Finance – is seen as a rising star in Fine Gael. She is a first-time TD after the 2020 election having served as a Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown councillor since 2019. However, she was no stranger to Government Buildings before that, previously working as an adviser to former taoiseach Enda Kenny as well other former Cabinet members including ex-minister for housing Eoghan Murphy.

A barrister by profession, Carroll MacNeill (42) is a mother of one. She is married to former Irish rugby star Hugo MacNeill. During the 2020 election campaign, Carroll MacNeill was harassed by a man who sent her sexually explicit videos. Gerard Culhane (43) of Marian Place, Glin, Co Limerick, pleaded guilty to the offence and was given a one-year suspended jail sentence with strict conditions that he has no contact with Carroll MacNeill.

During the court proceedings Carroll MacNeill said she had been left with a “cold sense of dread” during the election campaign but also that she didn’t wish to be “a victim”. As a TD, Carroll MacNeill has been vocal on areas such as the need to reduce the cost of childcare for families and justice issues. She is seen as a strong media performer and is frequently deployed by Fine Gael, most recently in attacks on Sinn Féin in recent weeks.

Kieran O’Donnell

Minister of State with responsibility for Local Government and Planning

Kieran O’Donnell (59) has been on the political scene for almost two decades but has only recently begun gaining much prominence outside of his Limerick City constituency. Originally from Castletroy, O’Donnell established a chartered accountancy practice in the city.

He is a nephew of the late Fine Gael TD Tom O’Donnell. The new junior minister was elected as a Fine Gael councillor in 2004 and won a Dáil seat three years later. He was re-elected in 2011 but lost out in 2016. He spent four years as a senator before returning to the Dáil after the 2020 general election. O’Donnell was appointed chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications in the current Dáil.

Its involvement in the debates over Covid-19 restrictions on travel and post-pandemic delays for passengers at Dublin Airport saw his profile get something of a boost over the last two years. O’Donnell had not been widely tipped for promotion in the reshuffle but the appointment is said by one source to be in recognition of “many years of hard work”.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times