Political Editorpredicts how the next government cabinet will look
It is now 58 days since the people went to the polls on February 8.
After two months of shadow boxing, posturing and the total shutdown of the country, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have finally wised up to the fact that they are going into government together, if a second general election is to be avoided.
Between them, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil hold 72 seats, eight shy of the magic 80 mark.
For the purpose of this piece, I am assuming the parties will have an equal number of seats at Cabinet and the position of Taoiseach will rotate between the two party leaders after two years.
The Green are out of consideration as are Sinn Féin. In their place have stepped the Regional Group of Independents. This group is made up of convenor Denis Naughten, junior minister Sean Canney, former Fine Gael minister and Tipperary TD Michael Lowry, Aontú leader Peadar Tobin, Wexford TD Verona Murphy, former PD TD Noel Grealish, Matt Shanahan, Cathal Berry and ex-Fine Gael TD and Louth GAA manager Peter Fitzpatrick.
Tobin, should a deal with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil materialise is likely to abandon ship, having given a promise not to enter any such government.
While the likes of Lowry and Grealish are more likely to stay out of office and support from the opposition benches, the rest of them would likely to be seeking some form of preferment.
With those eight independents, you are just at the bare 80 mark and that is why I think a Labour party now led by Alan Kelly, could be persuaded to enter the fray, in the national interest.
A government of 86 is stable enough to last up to four years. So, based on all the assumptions set out above, with a huge pinch of what-iffery about it, here is my prediction as to who will be in the new government.
Leo Varadkar - Taoiseach
Despite finishing in third position, both in terms of popular support and Dáil seats, Varadkar as the incumbent during a time of major national crisis has a strong case to make to remain on at his post for the first half of this arrangement.
The big difficulty for him is that in this scenario, he will have just four other Fine Gael positions to share out, meaning he is going to have to sack many of his friends from their cushy Cabinet positions. But, were this scenario to pan out, he would be the first Fine Gael leader to lead the party to a successive term in government. Another milestone for the history books could ease his pain.
Micheál Martin - Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs
Martin who has endured a roller coaster since the election will hate that he will be made wait to be made Taoiseach, but deep down he knows this is his only path to the top office he has coveted for so long.
Expected by some to win 60 seats, the election in February was extremely disappointing for the Cork South-Central veteran TD and there has been increasing mutterings over his leadership.
Like Varadkar, he will have just four other Cabinet seats to divvy out to his team, so a difficult road lays ahead for him.
If he fails to see this deal through, his time is up. So, if he has to stomach two years more of Varadkar as Taoiseach and worse still if he has to be his Tanaiste to achieve his goal he will do whatever it takes. As Tanaiste he would want to take over the role successfully handled by Simon Coveney so far in Foreign Affairs.
Simon Coveney - Justice
One of the prices of peace will be the loss of the Tánaiste’s title to Coveney, who has shone in the role both for the country and within his own party as deputy leader. Despite doing a very good job in Foreign Affairs, he too will be sacrificed here to keep Martin happy.
Having already occupied the Agriculture and Housing portfolios since 2011, Coveney could well see himself moved into Justice where a serious job of work still needs to be done to restore public confidence in it.
Paschal Donohoe - Finance
Despite unifying both strands of the old Department of Finance under Paschal Donohoe in 2017, it is very hard to see in a coalition how such a situation could continue.
Here, as I see it, Donohoe will remain as Varadkar’s trusted man over the nation’s finances.
While he will cede much of the spending control to his Fianna Fáil counterpart, Donohoe is too close to Varadkar not to be in his five top picks for Cabinet.
Michael McGrath - Public Expenditure
Having been 9 years a bride’s maid, McGrath’s time is certainly upon us and he will occupy the second finance ministry.
Very cautious like Donohoe, too much so some of his own would argue, but there is a strong sense the two men could work well together.
If this arrangement follows the pattern when Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin were in situ, then McGrath will control public spending.
If the Covid-19 recession is as bad as feared, as opposed to brining forward new measures, McGrath could be overseeing a new round of austerity.
Known to have a frosty enough relationship with his own party leader, the internal war with Martin will be as interesting as the battles with Fine Gael.
Dara Calleary - Education
As Martin’s deputy leader, the Mayo man’s position in Cabinet should be straightforward.
A serious networker, he is highly popular within the party but is also someone who can go and bat for the party in talks with Fine Gael.
But, such is the squeeze on numbers, the likes of Jim O’Callaghan, Darragh O’Brien and Thomas Byrne would all hold aspirations of being included.
Had Calleary’s former constituency running mate Lisa Chambers returned to the Dáil, her name would be here and not his. But his stature, previous ministerial experience under Brian Cowen and geographical position in Mayo combine to edge Calleary into the post of Minister for Education.
Heather Humphreys - Arts and Culture
Both Varadkar and Martin will struggle to meet any sort of gender quota in this arrangement and Heather Humphreys is likely to be Fine Gael’s sole female Cabinet minister.
Enormously popular within her party, after a rocky start in ministerial life she has evolved into a steady-enough pair of hands. A return to her former ministry in the Arts is on the cards, unless a re-designation of departments is considered.
Anne Rabbitte - Children’s and Youth Affairs
Following the election, Martin was left with just two female frontbench spokespersons, Anne Rabbitte and Niamh Smyth.
Like Varadkar, with just five seats each around the Cabinet table, given all the other political considerations at play, I see just one of Martin’s two female spokespersons getting elevated.
He has plumped to include Rabbitte over Smyth in his negotiating team and given her
background in children’s affairs, she is a likely candidate to replace Katherine Zappone. But there is a doubt if this department will remain as a stand alone or will be subsumed back into health. But Rabbitte makes the cut over Smyth.
Barry Cowen - Housing
One of the two most challenging ministries in Government, Cowen has been a mainstay of Martin’s team since entering the Dáil in 2011. He again is on the negotiating team.
His inclusion is purely political as he speaks to sections of the party that is less than loving of the leader. His Offaly base and political pedigree means it is virtually impossible to omit Cowen the Cabinet.
Simon Harris - Health
Despite being the only Cabinet minister to back Simon Coveney over Varadkar, given the current emergency, Harris would be saved to remain on and become the longest-serving health minister in living memory.
Indeed, it is not that long ago that Varadkar was asked by Coveney to spare Harris from the chop.
Not close politically to his party leader, the relationship between the two is warmer now than at any point in history and current circumstances would see him remain on, even in the short run, while closer Varadkar acolytes like Eoghan Murphy and Josepha Madigan lose out.
Sean Canney - Agriculture and Rural Affairs
The surprise package of the last government, Canney by name, Canney by nature. Despite leaving the Independent Alliance and losing his ministerial job over a row with Boxer Moran, Sean Canney is driving hard to see his Regional Group of Independents form part of Government.
The Galway-East TD not only managed to return when others like Boxer and Shane Ross lost out, he is well got within Fine Gael as a man who they can do business with. Of his group, he would be to the fore of the queue for ministerial office. With a likely re-jig of government departments to make way for the two finance ministries, I see the department of rural affairs being subsumed into Rural Affairs with Canney at the helm.
Denis Naughten - Business, Enterprise and Innovation
A man with unfinished business. Having being forced to resign, as he saw it unfairly, over the National Broadband Plan controversy, Naughten is another from the Regional Independents who fancies getting his feet back under the Cabinet table.
Relations with Varadkar are better than in the immediate aftermath of his departure but suspicions linger.
It is unlikely he would be allowed slot back into Communications but Naughten, a highly able and well-regarded politician, would be a good fit in the Brexit-heavy Department of Business.
Verona Murphy - Transport
Given the numbers they are bringing to the table, I see the Regional group getting three Cabinet seats, despite much protests from the bigger two parties.
A surprise package in all of this is the potential to see Verona Murphy end up as Shane Ross’ successor in the Department of Transport. Despite her controversial remarks over migrants which led to her departure from Fine Gael, she is a formidable operator, she understands the sector better than most and she is female, which this Cabinet is certainly shy of.
Alan Kelly - Communications
The Labour Party now led by Alan Kelly will abandon the party’s previous stance of staying out of government and will enter formation talks.
Kelly’s price for his six votes in the Dáil is two Cabinet positions plus other junior posts and committee chairmanships.
A former Housing minister, he will seek to avoid that calamity again. Not afraid to get his hands dirty, Kelly is a good fit for Communications where he will have to grapple with the broadband quagmire as well as finding a long-term solution to the RTÉ quandary.
Ged Nash - Employment and Social Protection
Even though he backed Kelly’s main rival in the leadership contest, Nash is by far the best performer in Labour’s ranks, having distinguished himself in terms of employment rights when he last held ministerial office.
Now restored as a TD, his stock internally has risen considerably. A thoughtful, serious politician, he would be a decent fit for one of the ministries Labour would want to control.
Especially if a period of austerity is ahead in the aftermath of the Covid-19, the party will want a heavyweight to defend basic welfare.