The clock is ticking to the rotation of the Taoiseach office, which is due two months from today. The exact date will be delayed, but Micheál Martin’s swap with Leo Varadkar in mid-December will be accompanied by a line-up change.
Incumbent ministers and those hoping for a promotion face a jittery nine weeks. Speaking to ministers, TDs and officials within the coalition, here is the state of the country at this point in each position.
After a sabbatical in the Tánaiste’s office, Leo Varadkar returns to the grand suite in the government building. What is not yet clear is whether he has the bottle for the fight to make significant changes to his Fine Gael ministerial line-up ahead of the next general election.
The Fine Gael grassroots would certainly like a refresher on the team. Varadkar’s previous attempts have shown a lack of ruthlessness. The clumsy handling of the situation between Paschal Donohoe and the Eurogroup does not bode well for his poker game and his public statements have unnecessarily strained relations. He also has the roles of Government Chief Whip and Attorney General to play with.
It turns out that the tug-of-war over the Eurogroup is not over yet. The turmoil in UK money markets has reignited pressure on the government to ensure Paschal Donohoe remains in one of Europe’s most influential roles.
The Treasury Secretary will have to step down from his role as head of countries using the euro when his portfolio passes to Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath in December.
But some of Donohoe’s European counterparts want him to stay as he is a steady hand and the global economy is poised for tumultuous times. If he is not available for a second term, the unpleasant search for a consensus candidate begins.
The deal Fianna Fáil would have to swallow would be for Donohoe to be handed some monetary policy responsibilities so he can attend Eurogroup meetings, and for McGrath to have his feet kicked at home.
McGrath has resisted the notion, but the crucial decision must be officially made within the next six weeks, when Donohoe’s tenure as President of the Eurogroup comes to an end.
Then the government has to officially say to Europe: “After getting rid of Phil Hogan, we don’t want to sit at the head of the EU table now.” At the end of his time in finance, Donohoe still seems to have an appetite for a role in a business portfolio.
McGrath steps forward
The spat over the Treasury letter split has resulted in Michael McGrath for once reaffirming his authority and absolutely confirming his standing as the next Treasury Secretary.
The rise may cement his place as the next leader of Fianna Fáil – all is going well for him and all is going bad for Darragh O’Brien. Despite her constituency rivalries, McGrath has proven to be a loyal and reliable lieutenant to the Taoiseach.
What happens to Donohoe and McGrath affects Micheál Martin. Like General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, Martin has a chance to return to Iveagh House.
The choice of roles for the outgoing Taoiseach is now limited to foreign affairs or corporate – both departments in which he previously worked.
By going to Foreign Affairs he keeps a hand in Northern Ireland and the EU, but it’s removed from day-to-day business and seen as a dangerous tactic by a party leader, especially one who has to keep an eye on his flank.
Micheál Martin moving to Foreign Affairs would put Simon Coveney in quite a bit of trouble. Coveney has done well during the Ukraine crisis and remains prominent on Brexit. But he has now been in Cabinet for 11 years and is therefore in the crosshairs of those in Fine Gael who are calling for new faces.
Martin retaking Iveagh House would leave Coveney stranded with no guarantee that Varadkar would be forced to take him elsewhere, such as to the Enterprise gig.
Then the leader of the Fine Gael would have to decide which of the pretenders to bring to the top. Peter Burke, Damien English and Patrick O’Donovan are the most ambitious junior ministers, while Hildegarde Naughton is already in the cabinet.
return of the mc
Helen McEntee will go on maternity leave in early December, just before the reshuffle. She is expected to stay and return as justice secretary – a job she hopes to keep doing. Similar to her previous leave of absence, a colleague will step in.
Remarks by Varadkar at a Fine Gael strategy meeting last month, however, caused a stir when the Tánaiste appeared to express the view that Fine Gael needs to articulate its justice policies better.
While not a direct criticism of his protégé, the remark was seen as a reflection of McEntee’s agenda, which focused on meaningful reform of domestic violence and violence against women laws. But that is being weighed against a growing public perception that policing and public order have been neglected since the pandemic — a charge blaming the law and order party.
Fine Gael backbencher darling Heather Humphreys is splashing the money across the country. When it came to retirement age, as Minister for Social Protection, she came up with an acceptable joke.
Now that she’s been in the Cabinet since 2014, a veteran, she should be at the doorstep of the next generation, but her combination of common sense and a lack of geographic and gender competition is tellingly keeping her in place.
Hildegarde Naughton was prepared to succeed him but was disappointing as super junior transport minister.
Energy and Climate, normally a medium-sized portfolio, is now an A-list due to the presence of the Green Party in government, Eamon Ryan’s status as coalition leader and the prevailing energy crisis. Ryan has no intention of letting some gas-guzzling Civil War faction Neanderthal take over, so he stays where he is.
The Greens follow the motto “What we have, we keep” in the reorganization. Not only will the three full cabinet ministers remain in their current positions, there is also no talk of changes on the junior ministerial front.
Eamon Ryan appears happy to have his Deputy Chairwoman Catherine Martin employed as Minister for Fun.
The tourism, culture, arts, Gaeltacht, sports and media portfolio is hardly the most sophisticated. It’s mostly about photo ops and good news announcements, although the VAT rate in the hospitality industry, which is going to increase next year, will make it a bit awkward.
Becoming Minister for Refugees wasn’t quite what Roderic O’Gorman had in mind when he started, but he’s adapted well.
His dealings with the mother and baby homes were anything but sensitive. Landed with an asylum seeker and Ukrainian refugee crisis, he has solid reasons not to make progress on ending direct care.
Throwing a first-time TD into the Cabinet – and unhinged in the process – paid off for Micheál Martin with Norma Foley. The education secretary has been dependable as schools struggled with Covid-19 and has been shrewd on budget talks.
An unassuming Fine Gael junior minister in Josepha Madigan, who shares the department, has made her look even better. Let’s see how the conservative Kerry minister gets along with a liberal young Turk from south Dublin like Jennifer Carroll-MacNeill or Neale Richmond on the spot.
Plug or turn? This is the great call for the Taoiseach. The jury is in favor of Stephen Donnelly and there is an opinion that a health secretary whose behavior offends the management of the health service will not make much progress.
Few tears are shed when Fianna Fáil is dropped – and neither is the HSE. The options available appear to be recruiting Dara Calleary or Anne Rabbitte from among the junior ministers.
Apparently, when Micheál Martin said Darragh O’Brien would remain housing secretary, he just meant that he wouldn’t be sacked because of record homeless numbers.
Still, the contender for the Fianna Fáil leadership is stuck with the case millstone around his neck. Any move here would be an open admission of failure on the party’s battlefield for the next general election.
Whatever else you say about him, Simon Harris is Fine Gael’s most experienced communicator. He can go into battle, harass opponents, or confidently rely on empathy, so Varadkar needs him whether he likes it or not.
Harris’ allies have been quite vocal in urging him to be promoted to public spending. Let’s not get too carried away. But stepping up from the cabinet would be more trouble than it’s worth.
Getting over the coalition well, Charlie McConalogue has built capital by keeping farmers happy as Agriculture Secretary. He also benefits from a combination of sympathy and respect for holding the line when pressured locally in Donegal over the Mica indemnity.
He still has to fend off a challenge from Dara Calleary to get his old job back.
A few decades ago Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell was the Senior Counsel to former Fine Gael Minister Michael Lowry at the Moriarty Tribunal for payments to politicians.
Lowry’s junior counsel was a young barrister named Rossa Fanning. Fanning, one of the brightest minds in the bar association, is appointed Attorney General. He doesn’t ooze confidence and would be well suited to take on one of the leading roles in the Irish legal system.
His combative style would certainly make cabinet meetings interesting. The Attorney General’s job will go to Fine Gael under the rotation deal, sparking chatter in the Law Library as to who will take the coveted post, particularly for those of blueshirt persuasion.
Among the other names to be floated are Fine Gael trustee Pat McCann, Brexit guru Patrick Leonard and rising star Seamus Clarke. Egos get hurt.
But there is also talk of old lawyers asserting themselves on the Tánaiste in order to persuade Paul Gallagher to remain as an AG.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/leos-loyalties-micheals-role-and-paschals-passport-take-centre-stage-42068444.html Leo’s loyalty, Micheál’s role and Paschal’s passport take center stage