herald

Monday 23 October 2017

A male, pale and stale reshuffle? Only time will tell

ENDA and Joan have laid all their cards on the table. With the unveiling of a new junior ministerial team, the Taoiseach and Tanaiste's reshuffle is finally complete.

This revamped substitutes bench might not excite many people outside the Leinster House bubble, but it does prove one thing - both leaders see halting Sinn Fein's rise in Dublin as crucial to their chances of getting re-elected in 2016.

Looking through Fine Gael and Labour's team sheets, the overall strategy is easy to work out.

Four of the five junior ministers who received their marching orders come from rural constituencies. At the same time, four TDs from the capital or the greater Dublin area have all been given plum promotions.

Rumour has it that the geography would be even more lop-sided if some backbenchers outside the Pale had not kicked up a fuss at the last minute.

In other words, Kenny and Burton have learned one painful lesson from their hammering in the recent local and European elections.

Sinn Fein made a crucial breakthrough on May 23, winning more Dublin council seats than any other party. Meanwhile, their unknown Euro candidate Lynn Boylan topped the poll while Labour MEP Emer Costello lost her seat and Fine Gael's Brian Hayes only scraped over the line.

Of course, handing out junior ministries to Dubs or honorary Dubs will not do much in itself to soften Sinn Fein's cough. However, it should give the TDs in question a slightly higher profile that might just help to save their seats.

This is particularly true of ambitious young Labour deputies such as Aodhan O Riordain, whose new job could take him off the endangered species list in Dublin Bay North.

FIGHT

Leo Varadkar has claimed that the next general election will be a straight fight between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. The overall reshuffle suggests that Enda Kenny agrees with him, since he has also promoted TDs in areas such as Donegal and Monaghan where the Shinners are particularly strong.

Unfortunately, the Taoiseach took his eye off an even more important constituency. There are no female Fine Gael junior ministers at all and only two in the Labour ranks.

Over in Britain, David Cameron has reshuffled a cabinet that was dubbed "male, pale and stale" - and, sadly, most of our leaders fit at least two of those descriptions.

A lot will depend on how all these junior ministers actually perform over the next 18 months. They may receive a pay rise of €34,380 over their basic salary of €87,258, but few of them have any control over their budgets or real decision-making abilities.

Often their biggest responsibility is to stand up in the Dail and read out a script on the senior minister's behalf.

A former vice president of the United States once described his office as "not worth a pitcher of warm spit" (in some versions it was a different liquid). If he had ever met an Irish junior minister, he might have felt a bit better about himself.

Many are so obscure that you have to Google their names to make sure they still exist.

In fairness, there are a handful of exceptions. This week's most significant move by far is the appointment of Simon Harris as Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

Essentially, the Wicklow TD will become a crucial public spokesman for the Government's economic policy - especially since Finance Minister Michael Noonan rarely dirties his hands with media interviews any more.

Brian Hayes turned this into a real job, probably more powerful than some cabinet positions. Harris should be able to do the same.

Standing on the first rung of the ministerial ladder, he also looks a good bet for the Taoiseach's office some time around 2025 - and, scarily, the baby of the Dail is still only 27.

Minister of State for European Affairs is another genuinely important position. Lucinda Creighton shone in this role before the abortion controversy forced her out, while Paschal Donohoe used it as a springboard to the cabinet.

Now it has gone to Dara Murphy, a Corkman who is particularly good at hammering Sinn Fein in public debates.

Tomorrow the Dail will break up for its summer holiday. For the last two months, too many people in Fine Gael and Labour have been obsessed with saving their jobs or finding new ones.

They had better come back in September with a very different attitude - because the best way to defeat Sinn Fein is to start providing much better government.

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