The not-so grand total of women at decision-making level in government amounts to 7 out of 34 ministers

The new junior ministerial team at Government Buildings in Dublin. Picture: Stephen Collins / Collins Photos

What jobs there were were mostly for the boys, writes Lise Hand

Oh dear. At the start of Leo Varadkar’s first official Leaders’ Questions, there were more long faces among the government backbenchers than one would see at the starting-line of the Aintree Grand National.

The Taoiseach had warned them all, well in advance, that when it came to selecting the subs’ bench for his dream team (a.k.a. the junior ministers), there would be “more disappointments than appointments”.

There would be no class of a loaves and fishes miracle whereby every hungry TD would get a slice of political pie.

Leo’s ‘shock and awe’ campaign may have played a huge role in propelling him into the top job, but yesterday was when the downside to this tactic materialised in earnest.

For there was no way for the new general to reward all of the doughty ground-troops who sped him to victory by openly declaring for him or by firing early pot-shots at Enda Kenny.

The selection of the junior ministers is one set-piece beloved by the Leinster House bubbliophiles — political insiders are agog at the possibilities and permutations — who’s getting a leg-up and who’s getting the boot. In the meantime, the public is blithely going about the sensible business of pulling sickies from work in order to head to the nearest beach or park with a bag of cans and lashings of sunscreen.

But it is a very big deal for the few lucky souls who get the call from Government Buildings informing them of their promotion, not least as it’s a considerable bump in salary, in profile and your enemies have to address you as ‘Minister’.

As usual, in advance of Leo making the fateful calls before the morning cabinet meeting, names were being tossed about like snuff at a wake. Some of Simon Coveney’s supporters were feeling very nervous indeed, and many of Leo’s soldiers were feeling chipper. A few new suits and exotic ties were spotted hovering in the corridors. Phones were checked constantly. Journalists were avoided like carriers of a particularly deadly plague, for fear of either leaking good news or hearing bad tidings.

But by around 2.30pm when the Taoiseach rose to announce his new line-up, it was clear that there were more losers than winners, as he had predicted. There was no room in the mini-ministerial inn for Waterford’s John Deasy, who had been short odds to finally get promotion after year’s in Enda’s wilderness. Nor was there any joy for Kildare South’s Martin Heydon who, in his role as party chairman, had won much admiration for keeping last month’s leadership contest from descending into a free-for-all.

Those who did get the nod were sitting in the chamber trying to look nonchalant. But neither Wexford’s Michael D’Arcy (junior finance and public reform) nor John Paul Phelan (junior housing and planning) could hide smiles as Leo read out their names.

And the clear winner of the longest job description in Government went to Clare TD Pat Breen. Giggles rose when he was announced as (deep breath) junior for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market, and Data Protection serving across the Departments of Enterprise and Innovation, Employment and Social Protection, and Justice and Equality.

Golly. Sam Beckett wrote shorter plays than that title.

The announcements were greeting with no applause at all from the opposition, who were too busy grilling Leo about the process surrounding the appointment of attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal, and also warning him there was no way that Mary Mitchell O’Connor, who last week was demoted from senior minister to super junior, be getting an extra brass farthing for her troubles.

But the biggest losers of the day were (sigh) women. One single, solitary female was promoted, with Meath East’s Helen McEntee taking up the prestigious European Affairs post, replacing Cork North Central’s Dara Murphy. But sin é. Offaly’s Marcella Corcoran Kennedy was shuffled out. Dublin South Central’s Catherine Byrne was left heading up the national drugs strategy.

That was it. No curly finger from Leo to any of the newer female deputies, such as glum-looking Josepha Madigan and Hildegarde Naughton. Máire Whelan has been replaced as attorney general by Seamus Woulfe.

Added to three senior ministers, Frances Fitzgerald, Heather Humphreys, and Katherine Zappone, the not-so grand total of women at decision-making level in government amounts to seven out of 34 ministers. If there’s a whirring sound emanating from Glasnevin Cemetery tonight, chances are it’ll be Constance Markievicz spinning in her grave.

However if Leo’s worried about incurring the wrath of Mná na hÉireann, he wasn’t showing it at the photo opportunity with his happy junior ministers on the sunny steps of Government Buildings.

Kerry’s Brendan Griffin, the junior fun minister (Sports and Tourism) explained he had got the call that morning.

“I had just finished my 10k run and was swimming between Inch and Rossbeigh. The phone was tied to the back of my head to keep it out of the water, but I recognised Leo’s call-tone, because he has the theme music from Jaws,” he said with a perfectly straight visage.

Hmm. We’ll have to keep a close eye on this one.

But Leo was having a grand day. Standing with his new crew, he flung his arms wide for the snappers. “It’s a scene from…?” he asked with a cheeky grin.

Politics, actually.


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