TO be elevated to high office during one’s first term in the Dáil is a great achievement. It indicates that this politician is somebody of serious potential, a person of major substance, who is en route to making a big splash in public life.
Yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle saw four first-termers make it into the Cabinet. Labour’s Alan Kelly and Alex White, and Fine Gael’s Pascal Donohue were promoted from their respective junior portfolios. Heather Humphreys, who is a Fine Gael TD, was a backbencher about whom not much was known prior to her elevation yesterday.
While all four are undoubtedly competent people, their respective appointments says much about the direction and priorities of this new, gee-whizz cabinet.
Kelly has served as a junior transport minister, since his election in February 2011. Prior to that he had been elected MEP in 2009 in an extremely well financed campaign.
Since taking up the transport role, he showed himself adept at getting his picture in the paper, and possessing a particular facility for rubbing people up the wrong way. Apart from that, his performance in office was not really noteworthy.
His timing, however, has been excellent. A vacancy arose for deputy leader of the party, and he ran away with the contest. Now, on foot of that endorsement, he finds himself with the plum role of Minister for the Environment. He could have sunk without trace. Instead, he has risen.
Alex White has also benefited from putting himself forward for election. He got less than 25% of the vote for the leadership of the party, but Labour needed a Dublin head to fill the gap left by Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore, and Alex fitted the bill.
Pascal Donohoe wouldn’t rub anybody up the wrong way. He slogged away in Bertie Ahern’s backyard until finally getting past the post at the last election. When Lucinda Creighton went overboard last year, Pascal was promoted to the junior ranks.
He’s done alright. He is always willing to enter the media bearpit to defend the Government, including the often indefensible. And despite all that, his seat is in peril, due to a redrawing of constituencies. Getting his feet under the Cabinet table may well give him a leg up at the next election and, even if it isn’t enough, well, at least he will have had the chance to serve.
Heather Humphreys has come from nowhere. One reporter in Leinster House suggested she looked a little shell-shocked at her elevation. OK, it’s only the arts portfolio — along with a few other bits and bobs — and nobody on the government benches really gives a fig about the arts since Michael D sat there. But still, the money’s good, the profile won’t do her any harm, and she will get free tickets to all sorts of shows.
She may turn out to be a good media performer, but unlike a few other backbenchers, she hasn’t had much of a profile in that regard. It could be that Enda Kenny looked into his heart and came back with the response that Heather Humphreys was just the woman to make this the best small country in which to be an artist.
Poor Jimmy Deenihan didn’t do anything wrong, and he does possess five All Ireland medals, but at least his air miles will increase with his new role as junior Minister for the so-called Diaspora.
Whether the newbies will turn out to be capable of injecting new life into the Cabinet remains to be seen, but little of what they have achieved in their respective brief tenures in parliament points to any major hidden talents.
One minister who, by common consent, has bags of talent, is Leo Varadkar. Along with Humphreys, he was probably the politician most taken aback by appointment to a fresh portfolio.
The health brief has done serious damage to his immediate predecessor, James Reilly. Prior to that, Mary Harney, who knew her way about, couldn’t really get to grips with it. During his time there, Micheál Martin showed himself to be adapt at fancy footwork, dodging most mines in a department labelled Angola by Brian Cowen.
Cowen himself used his influence in the party to ensure that his own stay there would be brief. Now Varadkar has been given 18 months to save the world.
His task is enormous. If he manages to give controversies a wide berth, and marshal one of two obvious achievements, his star will rise. But don’t rush down to Paddy Power to back him on that.
It would be slightly reassuring to believe that Varadkar was moved to Health because Kenny recognised him as somebody who could actually succeed where others have failed. However, the factors that appear to have informed much of the Taoiseach’s reshuffling suggests that he sees the appointment as softening Leo’s cough, and perhaps tipping the balance in the succession stakes towards Simon Coveney.
If you’re expecting a brave new dawn with this reshuffle, good luck to you.