Nothing is ever normal in politics

Political Editor Mary Regan on the Cabinet to lead the country into "more normal times".

AFTER walking his new line up into the Dáil chamber at lunchtime yesterday, the Taoiseach made the great big promise to the people of Ireland, that this is the Cabinet which will lead the country into “more normal times”.

And so it was, a new Cabinet not exactly designed to be the fresh-faced, dynamic or revolutionary answer to pulling this Government out of a disastrous spell and setting a different agenda for the 18 months left in office.

Rather, it was a fairly safe reshuffled bench with the task (as Mr Kenny said about the Irish people) of “gritting our teeth, keeping the head down and surviving”.

A reliable Cabinet for the ushered-in age of normality.

On the face of it, the reshuffle appeared to be somewhat radical: There are five new faces at the top table, including four first-time TDs and a relatively unheard of backbencher, Heather Humphreys, who was more surprised than anyone when she got a phone call from the Taoiseach at midday yesterday — not long before her promotion was announced to the Dáil.

The number of women in cabinet has doubled, from two to four (of 15 positions) making it the greatest level of female representation in any Cabinet in the State’s history.

And, at 35 years of age, Leo Varadkar has been appointed Health Minister, bringing a level of dynamism and promise to the Department that has been ridden with controversy and has overwhelmed even the most experienced politicians.

The job will either make or break his ambitions of becoming Fine Gael leader, but he seems up for the massive challenge of a to-do list which includes abolishing the HSE, rolling out free GP care and cleaning up the medical card mess.

With a press conference on the Leinster House plinth, just hours into his new job, he acted quickly to put a new mark on the department which has suffered from very poor press. He declared he would turn the poisoned chalice into “sweet wine” and pointed out that ‘Angola’ which the department has been nicknamed because of all its land mines, is now one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.

By removing James Reilly from the position, the Taoiseach addressed one of the biggest problems for his coalition which was the lack of public confidence in the handling of the health service.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin will stay on as the two “old reliables”. They were never in contention to be removed from their jobs where they have been progressively succeeding in helping to restore the public finance. They’ve brought about recovery and stability, even if there are plenty who do not like the choices they made in doing so.

Mr Kenny had no choice but to remove James Reilly from the Health portfolio, particularly since his handling of the withdrawals of discretionary medical cards from the most vulnerable which was seen as the greatest factor in the losses suffered by both Government parties in the May local and European elections.

But his failure to bite the bullet and sack him from Cabinet and retaining him instead as Children’s Minister, has all the hallmarks of keeping a job for a loyal colleague over and above the promotion of new talent.

In his new role, Mr Reilly will get to pursue his pet projects of a war on smoking — with parts of the health portfolio moving with him in what appears to be a sop to him for his demotion. He will also have to oversee the roll out of the inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes and will have a role in the passing of the Family Relationships Bill which will include a number of socially contentious measures including adoption rights for same sex couples and changes to surrogacy laws.

A knock-on effect of Dr Reilly’s move to the Department of Children is that Simon Coveney will stay in Agriculture.

It had been anticipated that he would be moved to the prestigious role of foreign affairs, but this was given to Charlie Flanagan — who has been less than two months as children’s minister — to facilitate Dr Reilly who had few other options considering he has often stated that the only reason he is in politics is health reform.

Mr Coveney is deemed to have performed well as minister for agriculture but, as another potential leader of his party, would have benefited from a change. He will now take on the defence portfolio, leading to nicknames like Minister for Farms and Arms.

Another factor that limited the Taoiseach’s options was that the Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton — who was given what was believed to be a “poisoned chalice” three years ago — managed to stay in place having put up a fight against efforts to move him to Health and make way to give his job to Labour.

Mr Bruton can claim one of the greatest successes of yesterday’s announcement, as he is understood to have made it very difficult for the Taoiseach who was believed, at one point, to have been prepared to give in to Labour’s demands to hand over the portfolio.

In this, and all the bartering over which party should get which posts, it seems Labour was the loser of the two coalition teams. The pitch to get the EU Commissioner job for its former leader, Eamon Gilmore, was pursued by his own camp, and not Joan Burton. But she still publicly backed him for the position.

More significant in terms of her first negotiations with Mr Kenny was that she lost the battle for Jobs, despite managing to get a “super junior” position relating to employment, to be filled by Gerald Nash.

It was widely reported that Labour was seeking the Jobs portfolio and its deputy leader, Alan Kelly, went as far as to publicly say he would like it. From last weekend, Mr Bruton put up a strong fight to hold onto the role, making a number of public appearances to state his achievements.

The only portfolio gained by Labour is Environment which will go to Mr Kelly, in a swap for Foreign Affairs. The party is putting a positive spin on this, saying it will give it the power to control one of its key policy priorities — housing. But in reality, it already held the housing brief so all it is gaining is ownership of the property tax and water charges — issues which have already lost the party a significant amount of support.

The upshot of the negotiations which have been ongoing for days is that Mr Kelly, instead of being pictured at every jobs announcement over the next year, may find himself firefighting controversies surrounding the roll-out of water charges, even though Irish Water is expected to be moved to Finance.

It was also surprising that she promoted Alex White to replace Pat Rabbitte as Communications Minister given that he made some personal attacks on her and often showed poor political judgment during the Labour leadership campaign.

Mr Rabbitte didn’t take his seat in the Dáil chamber during the announcement yesterday, choosing to show his discontent by slumping on a chair up the bank.

In contrast, outgoing Minister for the Arts Jimmy Deenihan nobly offered his hearty congratulations to his replacement, Minister Humphreys, despite obvious disappointment with his demotion.

In reshuffles, like politics in general, nothing is normal.

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