IVAN YATES: Cowen must throw caution to the wind and shake out his cabinet

THE Taoiseach returns today from Washington. At the top of his in-tray is next Tuesday’s ministerial reshuffle. This represents his last chance to refresh his Government.

The revised team will be his first fifteen to defend the next general election.

Unlike Declan Kidney, he is not spoiled for choice or on a winning sequence. Many ministers are not just in their jobs since the last election in 2007, but in cabinet since 1997. Thirteen years of attrition in a frontline ministry would leave anyone looking tired and jaded.

The Government completed 2009 on a relatively upbeat note. Enactment of the NAMA legislation, approval of the Lisbon Treaty, negotiation of a renewed programme for government with the Greens and passing the budget were all solid, workmanlike achievements.

Since the turn of the year, political capital has been seriously devalued. The litany of bad news just keeps coming: Brian Lenihan’s serious illness; the Government paralysis during the big freeze; the resignations of Willie O’Dea and Trevor Sargent; Martin Cullen stepping down, and the unravelling of the Greens through Senator Déirdre de Burca’s resignation and the revelation of their ministerial musical chairs plan.

What are the imminent prospects? More dog days ahead. The exchequer returns for tax revenue show no turnaround, despite favourable economic forecasts. Notified redundancies and company insolvencies are not abating.

The NAMA transfers at the end of this month will precipitate dramatic state investment in bank recapitalisation. The forthcoming annual accounts of Anglo Irish Bank will reveal the largest loss in Irish corporate history. Taxpayers will be asked for a further bailout cheque of €5bn. The ratcheting up of industrial unrest in the public sector has led to enforced talks with the social partners. All of the Government’s international kudos of brave fiscal rectitude could lie in tatters if they cave in.

Meanwhile, the Dáil arithmetic tightens, with news of the ill health of Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick (FF, Kildare North). The Government’s majority of 13 has been whittled down to three. Including all maverick Fianna Fáil TDs and available independents, they are assured of 84 Dáil votes. The Government cannot indefinitely postpone three pending by-elections in Donegal South-West, Dublin South and Waterford. Cowen has to assert his authority within FF and over his Green partners. His trademark caution and indecision will only result in a further slide in the Government’s approval. There is an unanswerable case for a major overhaul of departments of state. An Bord Snip advocated the abolition of both the Departments for Arts, Sports and Tourism, and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Even superficial analysis of our tourism industry shows it is fundamentally linked to access transport onto our island. Tourism belongs with Transport. The Department of Sport has been a mismatch due to the lopsided funding for the horse racing and greyhound industries.

These responsibilities and their respective state agencies (Horse Racing Ireland and Bord na gCon) should return to the Department of Agriculture. Their natural home is in the context of animal breeding and sectoral support for an industry that employs 20,000 people. Sport should return to the Department of Education with an earmarked junior minister.

Speculation abounds about the creation of a new Department of Economic Planning. This proposal is not new. Jack Lynch appointed Martin O’Donoghue to this portfolio from 1977-’79. It was a monumental disaster. Leaving aside a policy of reckless, unsustainable borrowing, it created huge tension with the Department of Finance. To add a further new department would be a recipe for serious Yes Minister-style trench warfare.

The constitutional requirement is for 15 members of Government. Several permutations are possible. A new Department of Work and Pensions could deal with employment and training-related issues. The residual Department of Enterprise and Trade could include Innovation and Science.

A new full Minister for Children could be upgraded from junior level. Various new roles can be created to give a specific political emphasis to topical problems such as drug abuse, the smart economy and banking. To rebrand his cabinet, Cowen must be radical and inventive.

It’s time to grasp the nettles. What’s to be done with the two Marys? Coughlan seems continually to be a verbal faux pas waiting to happen? Her gaffes: the Lisbon 1 referendum campaign; Albert Einstein’s theory of evolution; her dismissal of the Snip report; ‘na glasraí’ (referring to the Greens – the term actually means “vegetables”), emigrating for enjoyment – and regular Dáil blunders.

Her loss of confidence is self-evident as she is restricted to auto scripts and cameo roles. The prevailing joke in government circles is that she will be left in situ – with just a phone and a desk. Having promoted her to the number two job, Cowen should set aside his pride, swallow hard, demote her and promote Mary Hanafin.

Mary Harney has passed her “use by” date. Her achievements in Health include new hospital consultants’ contract; fair deal for nursing home costs; revised payments system for pharmacists; cheaper drugs from manufacturers; HIQA and the implementation of the national cancer strategy.

She is the first Minister for Health who has point blank refused to take responsibility for the delivery of healthcare. The €15bn the taxpayer spends on health is voted through the Dáil on her recommendation. It shows a profound lack of accountability to refuse to take any culpability for five years of radiology problems and misdiagnoses.

YET when it comes to appointing people to the board of the HSE, hospitals and other health quangos, the minister has full powers. Similarly, she is to the forefront in announcing a new children’s hospital or other capital projects. She can’t have it both ways. Harney should retire. Cowen cannot ignore the dissolution of the PDs and must face down threats of a further by-election.

The Green party rotation ruse is now being used to leverage a fourth ministerial position. It is absurd cronyism to seek five out of the six green TDs should hold ministerial office within a three-year period. The creation of a new super junior ministry for the Greens would be a new low in FF’s craven determination to avoid a general election. For Gormley to concede his ministry to a backbencher like Ciarán Cuffe can only invite ridicule and scorn. It is farcical to suggest a party leader can run a coalition and not be a senior cabinet minister.

Cowen can reinvigorate his administration. He should contemplate ministerial promotion from the junior ranks for Pat Carey, Peter Power, Dara Calleary and Billy Kelleher. Elevation from the backbenches for John McGuinness, Seán Fleming, Tom Kitt, Michael McGrath and Thomas Byrne would provide possibilities for further rejuvenation.

The buzz word in the next election will be ‘change’. If Cowen doesn’t administer the changes now, the change will be the composition of the government parties, rather than internal personnel. His choice is to be radical or redundant.


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