Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Joan Burton’s reshuffle headache

Joan Burton has a lot of thinking to do in a very short period of time. Today, she will meet Enda Kenny to discuss the changes to cabinet. This will be the first real test for Burton. Judging by the early speculation there are some reasons to be concerned.

On a positive not there is much talk of a swapping of some portfolios or a restructuring of Departments. This would be a very positive move for Labour who got sidelined after the general election by being pushed out of the pro-active economic roles.

Now, let’s look at the reshuffle headache for Burton. First up who stays and who goes. A major test of her mettle will be Pat Rabbitte. He has not made it easy like Quinn did. Rabbitte is not popular or anything spectacular as a minister. There is also no future in him for the Labour party. Despite his many years in politics this is his first time to sit at the senior cabinet table so unlike Quinn he is not even bringing you years of experience. Rabbitte has to go. Burton will have to show she is not afraid of doing that. If she doesn’t then she ends up with only two new Labour faces at cabinet and that is not enough given the disastrous polls. It will also appear like she felt she wasn’t strong enough to make Rabbitte go. This is the first chance to lay down a marker to all for the future.

Brendan Howlin may survive the purge but the question is what to do with him then. The perceived wisdom is that he will be left alone and that Joan Burton will remain in the Department of Social Protection. If this happens then Burton will have made the first error of her leadership. Noonan and Howlin occupy the most important roles at cabinet. All policy and decision emanate from them. it’s going to be very difficult for the government to show a new face if both remain in place no matter how well regarded they are. No change in finance means no change in policy.

That said, Burton will be flooded by talk, mainly from FG about stability and not upsetting the work of government. This theory will be used to keep her from getting too involved and changing plans too drastically. When Gilmore appointed Howlin and sent Burton to Social Protection there was a feeling that she was exiled. She was kept away from the important financial role in which she had served Labour well because FG would find it more difficult to work with her. Now as Leader she runs the risk of putting an imprimatur on Gilmore’s decision. This is dangerous territory. A politician must believe in themselves and their own ability. They must not be afraid of taking bold decisions. Burton should have the confidence to go into the role Howlin occupies and show that she could have done better had Gilmore had the courage to appoint her.

I am not holding my breath though based on the early speculation. This means that Burton must carve out new roles. Is there hope that she will move herself to another role? Again the speculation is worrying. The perceived wisdom is that she will stay in social protection and this is a huge error. It is said that Burton knows the department she is in and doesn’t have time to get to know a new department while she has the Labour party to save. This is pure folly. It is the kind of line devised in the backrooms of her opponents. What a wonderful break that would be for FG. You can picture them now saying : ‘Yes Joan take it easy, you have a lot of work to do there with Labour, you go off and do that and leave all this government and economy business to us. The big boys will make sure that’s done.’ Today there is talk that Labour might get the Enterprise portfolio from FG. This is a huge and very important role, a highly senior ministry. The speculation is that Alan Kelly would get this role. Now here is where it gets very hypocritical. Alan Kelly only days ago suggested that he would have the responsibility of reforming the Labour party, yet he has no difficulty taking on a massive new ministry at the same time.

I have said it time and time again across all parties. This thing about reforming and reenergising your party as leader is nonsense. You can only be a figure head. The leader or indeed the parliamentary party members cannot be responsible for the act of reform in any party. They must appoint someone they trust and let them do the job away from the public eye. Internal reform is a time consuming task and one that sets TD’s, Grassroots, front bench and HQ all against each other. Therefore the person doing it cannot have a bias to one group or the other.

Anyway, back to Joan. Some of you will ask ‘What’s the problem in staying at Social Protection?’ There are several. Burton is well regarded and escaped the blame for many of the cuts in Welfare. This was because there was a perception she was hard done by. Forced into a role where she was cut off from the main decisions and only able to implement what she was given. There is a feeling that Joan wanted to do things differently but was curtailed. However, all that is going to disappear if she decides to stay put. Then the role is her choice and all polices become her total responsibility. Things aren’t getting that much easier in budget terms for a department like hers.

The next problem is seniority. There is a hierarchy of ministries whether people like it or not. They are not all equal. Traditionally Education, Social Welfare and Agriculture are ministries that are good to start or end a career in. They operate individually of most others and the minister in charge can’t really upset too much else in government. Therefore they can learn the ropes there or you can send someone there that you need to keep as a minister but want away from the control room.

Eamon Gilmore was slated for taking the Foreign Affairs portfolio, yet traditionally this is on a par with Finance. The problem for Gilmore was that in the current crisis it was not economic enough. However, given its role with Europe and the opportunities to engage to investors and senior ministers in other countries it is still a bigger role than Social Protection. When the foreign Ministers meet in Brussels it’s a gathering of all the heavy hitters and influencers. When Social Welfare ministers meet, few enough even notice. If Gilmore could not make the Tánaiste role work for him on the Economic Management Council the Burton has even less chance if she is coming from Social Protection.

Then there is the imagery. Politics is so much about imagery. Even more so than Gilmore how will Burton find her way into the big news stories? If there were to be negotiations she will appear like she is there only because she is Labour Leader. Like a special allowance. Her role as Social Protection Minister would never see her as a required figure at major negotiations. Next problem is who sets the rules? Howlin and Noonan sit down and discuss spending and limits and where the axe falls, they then go out and tell Departments what they must do. Burton will find herself effectively taking financial orders from her supposed subordinate. Meanwhile, if there are big job announcements or investment plans there is a chance Alan Kelly will be the minister who does all that? Madness. She would be locking herself in to a situation where she holds one of the more junior portfolios and then hopes to lay down policy and orders to guys in bigger Departments.

Now one argument is that she is in a big spending department with a lot of impact socially. The problem here is that spending is decreasing not increasing. Burton may indeed have an affiliation to helping those on welfare but you can be sure there is going to be little opportunity to get that across in the next two years. She will be faced with the blame game and further accusations that Labour only spend money and never know how to create or raise it. That is a PR disaster.

We can only await the reshuffle but right now Burton needs to sit down with someone who is going to look at the long game and is not going to buy into the hype and rules being set down to engineer a position where change will be minimal.

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