Ministers’ Report Cards

Eamon Gilmore – Tanaiste

WHAT HE PROMISED

As Tánaiste his objective was to put Labour’s economic and social justice agenda at the heart of the Coalition’s policy; as foreign minister he wanted to make the role more about trade and export-led job creation than Ferrero Rocher-style receptions for visiting dignitaries.

WHAT HE DELIVERED AND FAILED TO DELIVER

Critics argue that Labour’s identity has become subsumed in a Fine Gael-dominated, economically right-wing austerity administration. Supporters say the direction is dictated by the troika and there is little anyone in Government Buildings can do about that. Whoever is correct, Labour has slipped in the polls.

The once ubiquitous opposition leader rarely made the national consciousness once he became Tánaiste as his decision to duck taking a key economic portfolio sidelined him in the public’s eye. Has quietly expanded the trade role of his department, but made little visible impact elsewhere.

CONTROVERSIES

Will be forever haunted by his vote-grabbing boast that the country had to choose between “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”. Surprise, surprise, it turned out, like so many luxury cars, that the Government’s economic policy is now made in Germany — though it provides for a much less smooth ride than an Audi.

Began his cabinet career badly by becoming involved in a sexism row which saw him appoint only one woman to the top table — and managed to compound the impression of indifference to gender balance by demoting Joan Burton from her pivotal opposition finance role in the process. Has found it hard to regain his footing since. His profile suffered further during the visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping when he didn’t question him on China’s human rights record.

VERDICTS OF COLLEAGUES AND OPPONENTS

Visitors to the newly ensconced foreign minister at Iveagh House reported that he seemed overwhelmed by the surroundings and day-to-day demands of running a major department.

He shape-shifted from Mr Soundbite to Mr Invisible almost overnight. Has only recently begun to emerge from that bunker after a surge of backbench discontent over what was widely seen as a botched budget from Labour’s self-styled social justice point of view.

Failure to take that front-and-centre Labour economic portfolio of public sector reform has given him the image of a ditherer who prefers to remain in the shadows of Cabinet rather than its engine room.

Supporters paint him as a skilled fixer who has developed an excellent relationship with the Taoiseach in trying circumstances — and someone who does wield influence on the four-person inner cabinet of the economic management committee.

Opponents say he is too timid and cautious, and relies on a handful of backroom advisers — particularly right-hand-man Mark Garrett, dubbed “the real leader of the Labour Party” — for direction.

Gilmore moved to try and placate simmering backbench suspicions of him by setting up a “Bat Phone” mechanism, where the flow of communications between the parliamentary party and the party in Government was made easier to try to avoid any blow-ups. Though working better now, it failed to stop deeply counter-productive kite-flying in the run-up to the budget and subsequent spats over attempts to snatch benefits from disabled teenagers and rob disadvantaged schools of hundreds of teachers.

Meanwhile, Ms Burton — like all people positioning themselves to mount leadership challenges — strongly denies she is positioning herself to mount a leadership challenge.

— Shaun Connolly

Score: 5/10

Frances Fitzgearld – Children’s Minister

WHAT SHE PROMISED

The first children’s minister to be given Cabinet rank was an attempt to focus more attention and government resources on an often-overlooked area. Ms Fitzgerald pledged to bring energy and direction to the role and make sure that the protection of youngsters was a key plank of Government delivery.

WHAT SHE DELIVERED AND FAILED TO DELIVER

The long-delayed referendum on children’s rights still lingers on the backburner with October now the expected date for the national constitutional poll.

Fitzgerald succeeded in ensuring it will be a standalone campaign, so it does not risk being overshadowed by other issues as special interest groups are bound to try and hijack the attempted modernising reform for their own ends.

Has won the Cabinet’s backing for the mandatory reporting of child abuse concerns after about 15 years of foot-dragging on the issue by Fianna Fáil.

Got Irish retailers to draw up a code of conduct guidance on the selling of inappropriate clothes to children, as well as making strides on Vietnamese adoptions and allowing all adoptive children to trace their birth parents irrespective of when they were separated from them.

However, she only handled the fallout from the Cloyne clerical abuse report in an adequate manner as the thunder on the issue was stolen by Enda Kenny’s landmark Dáil speech denouncing the culture of narcissism at the Vatican.

CONTROVERSIES

The number of deaths of children in, or having passed through, HSE care, remains worryingly high.

Delays in finalising the wording of the looming referendum on children’s rights has caused concern among some pressure groups about how committed to the reform the Government is.

VERDICT OF OPPONENTS AND COLLEAGUES

Frances who?

Despite the ingrained sexism of Irish politics coupled with Enda Kenny’s indifference to doing anything about it conspiring to make her one of only two women in the Cabinet, Fitzgerald’s profile has been so low it is almost subterranean.

However, there is a strong argument for dubbing her the stealth bomber of Irish politics as no one knows she is there until she delivers her policy payload.

Has quietly, but consistently, pushed her agenda through Cabinet, and should reap the rewards with a victory in the children’s rights campaign in the autumn.

Colleagues do feel she has missed a trick by not promoting a more women-friendly image for a male-dominated party by being so subdued and sparing in her media appearance.

Needs to get front and centre more to sell the need for a Cabinet rank for a post that has always only enjoyed junior status in the past — and to push the case for its relevance in the future.

Tipped for promotion — on ability, not the fact she is just about the only front-rank woman Fine Gael has to offer.

— Shaun Connolly

Score: 7/10

Pat Rabbitte – Communications Minister

WHAT HE PROMISED

The privatisation of State assets is one of the Labour minister’s biggest responsibilities, with sales of €2bn mooted in the Prog-ramme for Government. The Coalition initially decided it would begin the process with the sale of a minority stake in the ESB.

The Government committed to changing insulation schemes and doubling funding for home energy efficiencies and renewable energy use. It pledged to provide next generation broadband to every home and business and to create a ‘Smart Grid’ company.

Rabbitte personally committed to tariff supports for offshore wind energy.

WHAT HE DELIVERED AND FAILED TO DELIVER

Rabbitte backtracked on selling a minority stake in ESB. But the Coalition decided to increase the semi-state sales target to €3bn, with the troika agreeing to allow €1bn of the proceeds go back into job creation. The Coalition argues this is a victory.

Cuts in the budget to home insulation schemes were criticised by TDs. Others say there has been no great progress on the rollout of broadband, particularly in rural areas.

His department did announce a further €30m in funding for commercial and domestic energy efficiency programmes.

CONTROVERSIES

Rabbitte faces pressure to open up the fracking industry. A review is under way.

Admitted a tougher tax regime may be on the cards for onshore oil or gas exploration. Has come under fire for maintaining tax exemptions for big companies involved in offshore gas and oil exploration.

Announcement of a universal broadcasting charge to replace the television licence fee provoked debate. Also breached the pay cap for ministerial advisers, hiring an adviser on a salary close to €100,000.

VERDICT OF COLLEAGUES AND OPPONENTS

Opposition members are highly critical and claim he has done little, if nothing. While vocal against the sale of oil and gas reserves to private companies in opposition, Rabbitte has done a U-turn as minister and is giving away an excess of licences, say some of his opponents.

“He’s confident, cocky and putting forward the official view, but what has he done?” asked another TD.

While considered a strong performer in the Dáil, some argue he can be too dismissive. Is influential in the Labour hierarchy and is a key adviser to party leader Eamon Gilmore.

— Juno McEnroe

Score: 6/10

Alan Shatter – Justice/Equity Minister

WHAT HE PROMISED

The Programme for Government pledged to introduce legislation to tackle white collar crime, establish a DNA database to assist the Garda, strengthen the rights of victims of crime and more. It also pledged to ensure independent regulation of the legal profession and hold a referendum to cut judges’ pay. In the area of defence, by contrast, the programme was relatively light on commitments.

WHAT HE DELIVERED AND FAILED TO DELIVER

Shatter has introduced a formidable volume of legislation and shirked few clashes. New laws were speedily introduced to help in the investigation of white-collar crime and to encourage the use of community service orders instead of prison sentences for minor offences.

Also passed was the Criminal Law Defence Act, which clarified the law on the use of reasonable force by a homeowner protecting his or her property against an intruder. The referendum on judges’ pay was approved and the salary cuts implemented, the archaic bankruptcy laws were overhauled, and the minister has published the Personal Insolvency Bill which, once passed later this year, will offer a number of ways to help those drowning in debt.

CONTROVERSIES

Labour didn’t cry when its super-junior minister, Willie Penrose, resigned over the closure of an army barracks in his constituency, but they did feel that Shatter could have been more accommodating on the issue. Shatter succeeded in pushing through the judicial pay referendum, but there was a blame game within Government after the referendum to give Oireachtas committees greater powers of inquiry crashed to defeat. Shatter’s brusque dismissal of criticism of the referendums by eight former attorneys general didn’t help, although the suggestion that it was the key factor in losing the inquiries referendum seems ludicrous.

The budget saw closures to Garda stations and a reduction in the number of Army brigades from three to two, which caused consternation in the Defence Forces.

VERDICT OF COLLEAGUES AND OPPONENTS

Admiration for his intellect and output is combined with uneasiness about his seeming relish for confrontation. Has picked more battles than most ministers, and some observers wonder for how long that is sustainable. But for now, Shatter appears utterly in command of his responsibilities.

— Paul O’Brien

Score: 7/10

Phil Hogan – Environment Minister

WHAT HE PROMISED

The most radical political reform since the 1930s, outlined in a “New Policy” document. It included banning corporate donations, reducing the number of TDs to 146, cutting junior ministers to 12, holding a referendum to abolish the Seanad and publishing Fine Gael’s accounts. He also pledged to reverse a ban on stag hunting imposed by the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition.

WHAT HE DELIVERED AND FAILED TO DELIVER

He reneged on the promise to ban corporate donations. Instead, he significantly reduced the amount of money allowed to be donated to parties or individual politicians.

A referendum is due on the Seanad but other reforms, including publishing the party’s accounts, have not been progressed.

Mr Hogan is, however, reforming female representation in politics by introducing gender quota legislation. He also still intends to reform how local authorities operate. But there has so far been no action on reducing commercial rates.

He has been handed the poisoned chalice of the €100 household charge, and to meet European court requirements, he is also rolling out an inspection regime for septic tanks. He has so far failed to lift the ban on stag hunting.

CONTROVERSIES

He was criticised for refusing to meet Priory Hall residents who were forced out of their apartment complex in North Dublin due to fire safety concerns. He argued this would not be appropriate, because his job was to introduce laws, not to enforce them.

Last month he U-turned on the registration charge for septic tanks, reducing it from €50 to €5. But this has not been enough to allay the fears of rural homeowners who are worried the costs of repairing septic tanks to meet new standards will run into thousands.

VERDICT OF CRITICS AND OPPONENTS

His political reform measures would have been considered a success only for the fact they fall far short of what he promised.

Selling the household charge was never going to be easy, but there’s a feeling that it was badly communicated, with just 78,000 out of 1.8m households so far registering for the charge.

The poor handling of the septic tank issue has also damaged his reputation.

His tough-guy approach does little to win over the hearts of the public when burdening them with new costs.

— Mary Regan

Score: 5/10

Simon Coveney – Agriculture Minister

WHAT HE PROMISED

Continuing the implementation of Food Harvest 2020 — a plan from the last administration which is central to increasing Irish food exports by 50% from €8bn to €12bn per year.

The Government also pledged to secure the future of EU grants for Irish farming and oversee a renaissance in the agri-food sector.

Negotiating the new Common Agriculture Policy agreement next year will be a huge task. Farmers are concerned about reductions and changes to their EU grants, but Coveney has promised to stand firm in EU talks. “This will be his battle royal, his defining issue,” said one leading farming source.

Coveney is also committed to renewing the sugar beet growing industry and eliminating “hello payments” demanded of suppliers from large supermarkets.

An expansion of the meat and dairy sectors are also pledged.

He also promised to protect the fishing industry amid threats by the EU to restrict catch quotas.

WHAT HE DELIVERED AND FAILED TO DELIVER

Opposition members and industry sources say the food harvest plan is on target but warn the sector is being “talked up” without due regard to prices for milk and grain which collapsed in previous years, and the funds needed by farmers to invest in the industry in general.

All await the CAP talks.

The budget was not too painful for the sector. However, a cut to REPS and reduction to the disadvantaged area scheme income supports could affect young farmers and small holdings.

A code of practice for multiples and large supermarkets sourcing food is still awaited.

Coveney secured a good deal for fishermen last year in EU talks by keeping quotas for catches at the same level and increasing them in some cases. The successful outcome included the re-opening of prawn fisheries here.

His department points to huge savings made in its administration costs and to related agencies.

A new stock relief incentive will encourage farm partnerships and there was a reduction of stamp duty rates on agricultural land from 6% to 2% in the budget.

CONTROVERSIES

His office has been virtually scandal-free. Some TDs rate him as “the star” of the Cabinet.

His appointment of a Fine Gael election strategist as chairman of Bord na gCon did him no favours, but Coveney pointed to the appointee’s substantial track record in business. He also came under fire for spending €6,700 on photos of himself at the ploughing championships. He also argued for the salary of a special adviser to breach the Government’s pay cap.

VERDICT OF COLLEAGUES AND OPPONENTS

Brimming with energy, knowledgeable, committed and maybe even over-enthusiastic — these are some of Coveney’s colleagues’ descriptions of him. Many warn, however, his biggest tests are yet to come in the shape of the CAP negotiations.

— Juno McEnroe

Score: 7/10

Brendan Howlin – Public Expenditure Minister

WHAT HE PROMISED

Howlin’s department was created from scratch when Fine Gael and Labour decided to split the finance portfolio in two. Fine Gael took the slimmed-down Department of Finance, which had responsibility for finance and taxation matters. Labour took the new department, which had control for public expenditure and reform.

Its mission statement? “To achieve the Government’s social and economic goals by ensuring the effective management of taxpayers’ money and the delivery of quality public services that meet the needs of citizens.”

WHAT HE DELIVERED AND FAILED TO DELIVER

Howlin made clear his agenda pretty much from day one: Cut expenditure and public service numbers but do so while working within the terms and conditions of the Croke Park Agreement. The agreement pledged no further pay cuts and no compulsory redundancies up to 2014 in return for public servants co-operating with reforms to produce savings.

While there were no compulsory redundancies, there was a voluntary retirement scheme on offer, by which public servants got more generous pensions if they departed before the end of last month. About 7,500 chose to do so, which was positive from the Government’s perspective in terms of slimming down the overall size of the public sector.

Less positive, however, was the seemingly haphazard way in which the departures appeared to be managed.

Better for Howlin was the comprehensive spending review overseen by his department, which scrutinised spending across the Government and identified where savings could and would be made. He took ownership of this process in the budget, which was also split in two, with Howlin announcing the spending cuts and Noonan the revenue-raising measures. However, it backfired, with Labour getting the blame for cutbacks while the crafty Noonan had a few crowd-pleasing measures up his sleeve — such as extra tax relief for first-time buyers who bought homes during the boom.

CONTROVERSIES

For a start, Howlin got the job ahead of Joan Burton, Labour’s long-time finance spokeswoman in opposition. However, that caused more grief for Eamon Gilmore than it did for Howlin. Labour backbenchers felt the budget was badly handled, with cutbacks to disadvantaged schools and disability welfare payments that later had to be fully or partially reversed. Elsewhere, Howlin cleared a salary for an adviser that comfortably exceeded the pay cap. And, of course, it was on his watch that the Oireachtas inquiries referendum crashed to defeat.

VERDICT OF CRITICS AND OPPONENTS

To critics, Howlin is a Labour minister cynically protecting the Labour support base by ensuring the pay of public servants is protected. To supporters, slimming down public service numbers through voluntary departures and natural wastage, while reforming the entire sector and maintaining industrial peace at the same time, is a significant political achievement.

— Paul O’Brien

Score: 6/10

Richard Bruton – Enterprise/Jobs Minister

WHAT HE PROMISED

Jobs, jobs, and more jobs — he has pledged 100,000 new positions by 2016.

He also promised an overhaul of wage setting mechanisms for employers and terms that would protect workers. He said businesses would benefit from reduced rents and local authority rates.

New forms of government-backed lending for businesses were also on the agenda.

He also wanted to increase competition in the pharmaceutical, legal, and medical professions — as per the troika requirements.

WHAT HE DELIVERED AND FAILED TO DELIVER

The recently announced jobs action plan has specific sectoral targets. However, some argue it largely contains recycled measures touted by the Cabinet, state agencies, and even the previous government.

The minister proceeded with an overhaul of joint labour committee wage-setting mechanisms. But despite a year in government and numerous promises, he has yet to deliver the €100m microfinance loan scheme and the separate partial credit scheme for businesses. Employers are desperate to access funds as banks refuse to lend.

The minister has also failed to tackle upward-only rent reviews. Only a portion of local authorities have reduced rates.

Measures to reduce costs for consumers in services are under way but are facing strong opposition, particularly from lawyers.

His department points to some measures introduced to help businesses, including the reduction of PRSI costs for employers and the special assignee relief programme which will attract overseas talent. His promise to introduce measures to support the financial services industry and to merge agencies to save funds have received praise.

However, again, these results are still awaited.

CONTROVERSIES

There have been a few. Most notable was his office’s successful attempt to bump up the salary of a special adviser to €127,000, breaching the Government’s own pay cap.

Unions fought hard to keep wages protected under JLC mechanisms and his legislation on the issue divided coalition backbenchers, with Labour TDs opposing his initial plans.

Some also suggest Bruton has not been allowed push his agenda to the forefront of government after his failed attempt to oust Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader in 2010.

VERDICT OF COLLEAGUES AND OPPONENTS

Opposition members praise Bruton’s ambitions and constructive legislation. However, their main beef lies with “false hopes” he has given businesses with failed promises to cut costs and extend lending.

Employers are naturally also disappointed with his JLC wage changes, claiming they lack true reform. There is also a concern that his jobs plan is not more central to government, in that Bruton is not a member of the four-man inner forum that makes up the coalition’s economic management council. “He’s still outside the inner circle after his failed coup,” said one source.

— Juno McEnroe

Score: 6/10

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