DANIEL MCCONNELL: Leo Varadkar misses opportunity to show leadership

By failing to sack anyone in his first reshuffle, Leo Varadkar has opened himself up to accusations that he is not willing to make the tough calls and be ruthless when required, writes Daniel McConnell.

“Where is she?” That was the question asked by several tired and agitated members of the Cabinet in Áras an Uachtaráin shortly before midnight of Mary Mitchell O’Connor.

Moments after receiving their seals of office from President Michael D Higgins, the rest of them gathered in the State Dining Room to hold their customary first Cabinet meeting.

In addition to the newly appointed ministers, the new Attorney General Seamus Wolfe, and top civil servants, an official photographer and RTÉ cameraman were also present to record the moment for posterity.

Ministers took their seats amid some initial confusion as to how many seats were required, given the unfortunate absence of Katherine Zappone.

“We’re missing one, Mary is not here,” said one.

The minutes dragged on uncomfortably while officials were dispatched to find the absent minister, but given the late hour and long day, ministers were not amused.

O’Connor’s displeasure at demotion earlier in the day had been evident and it is now established that accommodating her as a super junior minister led to over an hour’s delay in proceedings in the Dáil.

While initially a spin job was launched to play down her fury, the truth was quickly established.

“Yeah, raised hell, and was telling anyone and everyone of her unhappiness,” said one minister to me.

Back in the Áras later that night, Ms Mitchell O’Connor eventually made it into the room for the pictures and for the footage which will be rolled out for Reeling in the Years.

She was in the loo, was the story but other ministers weren’t buying it.

“She pulled another strop,” the minister said.

Mr Varadkar is only three days in the job, but already questions are being asked about his capacity to lead.

People are asking where is the stamp of authority on his Cabinet?

Why did he not just do the difficult thing and make the changes to the Cabinet that many of his own supporters were demanding?

Instead, by refusing to be ruthless, he was left in the position of having to create an additional super-junior position to accommodate Ms Mitchell O’Connor, a move which has ignited controversy.

Yesterday, Fianna Fáil said it will not support legislation to create a third super junior role for Mary Mitchell O’Connor. It was confirmed by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe that legislation will be required if she is to take the increased salary for the super junior role.

Both Fianna Fáil and Labour said they would not support such a move. A Fianna Fáil source said this was not a personal attack on Ms O’Connor but they could not support the appointment of a third super junior minister.

The legislation provides for an extra €16,288-a-year allowance in addition to the minister of state salary of €124,439.

Ministers Paul Kehoe and Finian McGrath are currently super juniors and Joe McHugh sits at Cabinet as chief whip.

To facilitate Ms Mitchell O’Connor, the Dáil would have to pass legislation to create the position for a third super junior because existing legislation says the Taoiseach can appoint a maximum of two super junior ministers who can sit at the Cabinet table.

Piling pressure on the Government, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said on Twitter that the “Government should not even be considering legislation. No support for such a move, and it won’t pass Dáil Éireann.”

In a follow-up statement, he added: “Is he suggesting that one super junior minister will be paid less than the others, creating a second tier of such positions? Or does he really propose to prioritise legislation to give extra pay increases to ministers at a time when there are plenty of other issues that should be prioritised?”

None of this is personal to Ms Mitchell O’Connor, but it is personal about Mr Varadkar’s intentions as leader.

For weeks, we had heard that under his leadership things would change.

Three days into his tenure, Varadkar is now fighting two major crises.

One was only partly of his making, that of the ex-attorney general’s plum role. That was more a matter for yesterday’s man Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, who pulled the stroke, yet Mr Varadkar will be the one to answer the questions on it.

But this controversy over Mary Mitchell O’Connor was entirely his making.

He did not need to keep her at Cabinet and, given how much fuss she created on Wednesday, many within her own party said she proved the point as to why she was not fit to remain as a senior minister.

By failing to sack anyone in his first reshuffle, Mr Varadkar has opened himself up to accusations that he is not willing to make the tough calls and be ruthless when required.

Such anger among TDs was evident within minutes of the Cabinet being announced in the Dáil.

Varadkar’s “underwhelming” Cabinet reshuffle drew the ire of TDs within his own party, particularly the decision to keep Fitzgerald as Tánaiste.

“It is a shocking decision. All the signs were that she was on the way out, now she is being promoted. It is a bad start,” said one prominent Varadkar supporter.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin claimed the incoming taoiseach had “abused” the use of super junior ministers by now appointing four to sit at Cabinet.

The positions were being used by the new taoiseach to help “resolve” internal party matters, it was claimed.

For all his failings, Enda Kenny proved on countless occasions that he could be ruthless in dispatching with the services of people, even key allies, if it was politically expedient. Just ask Lucinda Creighton, Alan Shatter, and Martin Callinan.

Bertie Ahern, the man who wanted to be loved by everyone, showed he could be decisive when he got rid of Michael Smith from his Cabinet in 2004.

Albert Reynolds’ clear-out in 1992, when he axed no fewer than eight ministers, has lingered long in the memory as the feeling is that he exposed himself to too much internal rancour from disgruntled exiles. He was gone from the taoiseach’s office two years later.

We have been told more radical changes at junior ministerial level are likely from Mr Varadkar come Tuesday, but already questions are being asked about his strength as leader.

It is early days and Mr Varadkar does deserve the benefit of the doubt and we will allow him to get through Tuesday before full judgement can be reached on his ministerial selection.

But if what we have seen so far is a sign of anything, then with some legitimacy we can ask, what was the rush to dump Mr Kenny then?

If the main reason to put us through a leadership race at a cost of €400,000 was to see very limited change at ministerial level, then it is a disappointing outcome from a man who has promised so much for so long.

It is a question of leadership.

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