A lot done, but much more on ministers’ agenda

After two years in power, the Government can be proud of some achievements. But there are fears, particularly of a summer of discontent, writes political reporter Juno McEnroe

LEARN from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” These were the optimistic words from the Coalition (borrowed from Albert Einstein) as it set out its ambitious Programme for Government just over two years ago.

Seizing the biggest majority in the history of the State, Taoiseach Enda Kenny vowed to look forward. The electorate has watched on. Since then, there has been hope but also disappointment.

Fixing a broken economy was never going to be easy. Our main banks seem stabilised. Our economic reliance on the construction industry is gone. The Government has tried, and managed in some cases, to undo disastrous deals done in the darkest days of the State, such as the Anglo promissory note.

The Coalition is learning. But a plethora of outstanding problems for ordinary people is stalling optimism. The mortgage crisis, a lack of real work for the younger generation, and continued high costs for businesses and services are heavy burdens faced by many on a day-to-day basis. Ministers have brought some promises with them, but tomorrow’s obstacles remain.

First and foremost on the Government’s agenda is the desire to exit the bailout programme this year, a move which would help Ireland regain its economic sovereignty.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter faces low levels of disruption from gardaí over proposed paycuts. One wonders if industrial unrest among other workers may escalate if unions are unable to sell the new Croke Park agreement extensions in the coming weeks.

It’s no secret that some around the corridors of Leinster House fear a ‘summer of discontent’ among workers. Any mass unrest could shatter hopes of exiting the bailout, a key promise made by the Government two years ago.

It remains to be seen as well how co-operative homeowners will be with the new property tax, to be introduced in July. It was certainly a shambles when overseen as the household tax last year by Phil Hogan, the environment minister, with still another 500,000 owners refusing to pay up.

Richard Bruton, the jobs minister, also faces one of the most difficult tasks in Government, with pledges that 100,000 jobs will be created by 2016. There’s been another action plan for jobs, but can it help stem the high levels of emigration?

A key measure the electorate has been waiting for is a solution for struggling mortgage holders, those who are debt-ridden and face the loss of their homes. It remains to be seen what debt relief can do for borrowers under the soon-to-be implemented insolvency and debt legislation.

Other ministers, though, have performed well under pressure, such as Simon Coveney, who has so far handled the horsemeat scandal calmly and well. Frances Fitzgerald also managed to get the children’s referendum across the line.

But it’s not like these results will get people back to work and keep them in their homes.

It’s often been said that voters have small memories. Indeed, Fianna Fáil’s recent rise in polls would support this.

And Labour knows this as it fights for its future. Promises, promises, promises...

As Einstein noted in the next piece of that quote not used by the Coalition in its programme launch two years ago, “the important thing is not to stop questioning”.

Cabinet report card: Could do better

*Alan Shatter

A solicitor by trade, minister for justice was the ideal job for Shatter throughout his 30 years in politics, and he hasn’t wasted a minute of it.

He faced down the judges on their pay, and got about shutting army barracks and Garda stations without concessions in a display of resilience and strength unmatched by his colleagues.

He didn’t tone down his combative style when he took on gardaí about cuts to the force at a time when they were burying a colleague, Adrian Donohoe, but he did promise they would have all the resources needed to find the killers.

He avoided any public displays of sympathy with the survivors of Magdalene Laundries, knowing this was a skill best left to his junior minister, Kathleen Lynch, and the Taoiseach.

Shatter’s showdown with the gardaí over Croke Park II and getting new insolvency laws off the ground will mean bigger tests ahead for him in 2013.

His often dismissive and arrogant style doesn’t win him much popularity. But the fact that he does not mind one bit that he comes across this way — proceeding with his own agenda regardless — might be precisely what is needed in a coalition as it tries to bring about long-lasting reforms.

— Mary Regan

Leo Varadkar

Despite his role in the failed heave against Enda Kenny, and his suggestion that his boss would serve better as foreign affairs minister than Taoiseach, he was given the transport, sport, and tourism portfolio — one that many thought would not suit him.

Nevertheless, he slowly took to the sport part of his brief while tackling the capital budget in transport and standing up to Ryanair by refusing to reduce the travel tax if it failed to deliver new routes.

Although he still keeps Labour on its toes with his questioning of the previous Croke Park deal, and more recently his insistence that alcohol advertising in sport must not be abolished — he has softened his controversial style.

He has kept quiet on the issue of abortion, despite his stated opposition to it before he was in government. Perhaps this is another of many signs that his pragmatism might be stronger than his well-known ideological positions, and he is playing the political long game for a further climb up the Fine Gael ranks.

Mary Regan

Simon Coveney

As agriculture minister, Coveney seems to have survived his greatest test yet, bar the finish line, when it is revealed how all this horsemeat made its way into Irish food.

Energetic, competent, and not afraid to tell the truth, it is probably only a matter of time before he is moved up in any cabinet reshuffle.

All eyes are on him, both here and in Europe, as he renegotiates reform of the Common Agriculture Policy payments for farmers.

Coveney has promised to stand firm in EU talks. Farming sources say this could be his “battle royale”.

He is also keen to drive ahead with Food Harvest 2020 — a plan to increase Irish food exports by 50% from €8bn to €12bn per year.

The minister is also keen to expand the meat and dairy sectors.

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

Any move to restrict third-level grants for farmers as part of new means testing in education could damage Coveney though.

His earlier appointment of a Fine Gael election strategist as chairman of Bord na gCon also did him no favours, as did spending €6,700 on photos of himself at the ploughing championships.

— Juno McEnroe

Phil Hogan

From Big Phil to Feck-It-Up Phil in the space of just two years — it has been a rollercoaster ride for Hogan.

The introduction of the property tax has not been as chaotic as the flat-rate household charge that preceded it, but handing over collection to Revenue is an admission the Government lost control of the first levy.

After the mass boycott of that tax and opposition to septic tank charges, the environment and local government minister needs the property tax introduction in July to go through much more smoothly.

However, the cack-handed way he allowed confusion to engulf plans to bring in water charges does not bode well.

On the reform agenda, Hogan set out to usher in a “political revolution” with a reduction of 20 in Dáil numbers, abolition of the Seanad, local government reform and a ban on corporate donations.

The result was patchy at best as corporate donations survived, but at much lower levels; TD numbers are to be cut by just eight, and voter distrust of the Dáil means a poll on the Sea-nad’s future is not a certain win for the Government.

Hogan’s attendance at high profile save-the-planet summits in sun-drenched locations, coupled with the revelation that he owed fees on a holiday home while forcing through the household charge, have dented his credibility further.

— Mary Regan

Richard Bruton

The jobs minister’s recent launch of the Government’s follow up action plan on jobs was a double-edged sword. Ministers have vowed to focus their efforts at getting people back to work. That’s fine. But a record last year of just 12,000 jobs created seems low. Emigration is keeping welfare numbers down too. Bruton must shoulder the Coalition pledge to create 100,000 new posts by 2016.

He had said businesses would benefit from reduced rents but the Government say their hands are tied, legally, on this. Nonetheless, some council rates were cut, as promised.

New forms of government-backed lending for businesses, particularly for small firms, are also on the horizon. Progress is awaited on the promise to increase competition in the pharmaceutical, legal, and medical professions.

The minister did overhaul joint labour committee wage-setting mechanisms, which so far seems to have smoothly been brought into work practices. However, a key issue remains. Employers say they are desperate to access funds, but banks refuse to lend.

Juno McEnroe

Jimmy Deenihan

The 1916 site on Moore St has caused controversy for the arts, heritage, and Gaeltacht minister, with pressure from Sinn Féin and relatives of those who fell in the Rising to set up a protected memorial site.

The Programme for Government had pledged to develop a plan to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016.

The Coalition also pledged to build private support for the arts, with a view to increasing philanthropic funding, but significantly enhanced funding in this area is still awaited.

Deenihan also promised to deliver the 20-year strategy to overhaul Gaeltacht areas.

His department previously identified Ireland’s audiovisual sector as a key pillar of creative industries, which could create 5,000 jobs and increase turnover to €1bn.

The minister is making good efforts with little funds, but ongoing anger from turf- cutters, some them facing court appearances for illegal cutting at EU-designated bogs, may come back to haunt him.

— Juno McEnroe

Pat Rabbitte

Promises, promises, promises...

According to recent comments by the communications and energy minister, the making of promises which are not kept are what elections are all about. Well then, what about results in general for the brash minister?

The privatisation of state assets was one of his biggest responsibilities, with sales of €2bn originally promised in the Programme for Government. Some of this will go back into creating jobs. But there’s been no sales yet.

Rabbitte opened the East-West connector with Britain but a separate deal to export renewable energy to our neighbours is still far away. The announcement of a universal broadcasting charge to replace the television licence fee has also provoked debate. It will be introduced for all homes, whether or not they have a television. There is also still no sign of the long-awaited legislation on media mergers.

While considered a strong performer in the Dáil, some argue he can be too dismissive. But he is seen as influential in the Labour hierarchy.

— Juno McEnroe

Frances Fitzgerald

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

While she has kept a lower profile than some of her ministerial colleagues, she has quietly pushed through her agenda.

She won the Cabinet’s backing for the mandatory reporting of child abuse concerns. She succeeded in ensuring the referendum on children’s rights would be a standalone campaign, so as not to be overshadowed by other issues — a campaign she won even if it was closer than expected.

Concerns about poor conditions for children in foster care following a recent Hiqa report and delays in adoption reform legislation could take the gloss off her otherwise successful ministerial career.

But otherwise she has proved her ability and could be tipped for promotion.

— Mary Regan


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