By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
Have you been following the saga of the longest cabinet reshuffle in history? It’s been going on now since June and is set to continue until some time in September. It’s a make-or-break reshuffle for Fianna Fail.
Bertie has to get it right because the outcome will field the team for the next general election.
So far he has held the reshuffle over the party as a weapon.
After the disastrous results in June’s local government elections and Sinn Féin’s break through to Europe, Bertie announced there would be a reshuffle but not until the autumn. That stopped an outbreak of recriminations about the bad results. No-one could criticise the Taoiseach and hope to be given a place in the cabinet. Also criticising the party’s results could be taken as a criticism of Bertie. So stumm.
In the meantime Bertie got to work. He managed to shoe-horn a reluctant Charlie McCreevy out of finance and into a big, overpaid job in Brussels. Another minister, Joe Walsh at agriculture, agreed to fall on his sword.
Some appropriate reward will surely await him before he reaches heaven. The funniest case is that of Michael Smith at defence who has dug his heels in.
He has friends telling the media in the Republic that the Taoiseach will “have to take him out”, whatever that means.
He has also told everyone that at 63 he’s not old and what about Mitterand and Ronald Reagan?
Like Michael Smith sees himself in the same bracket or what?
The reason for this mess lies in a soggy bundle at the feet of Bertie Ahern himself. He made a hames of selecting his second cabinet in June 2002. Most people were convinced that Smith’s number was up then. Contrary to his own opinion of his qualities Smith had not exactly demonstrated anything Mitterandesque during his time in office. Nevertheless Bertie kept him and did not promote new men or women. He gave into strenuous lobbying from cliques in Fianna Fail and has paid for it.
Coming up to the elections last June his cabinet looked accident-prone, lacklustre, grey and tired.
Why does all this manoeuvring matter? Several reasons.
First, most people are betting that Brian Cowen will go to finance to replace McCreevy. If so, who will replace him at foreign affairs?
And isn’t it just a most unfortunate time to be replacing him as talks get under way at Leeds Castle in September?
The favourite to take up the cudgels at Iveagh House is Dermot Ahern, no relation to Bertie, presently minister for communications.
Cowen has been a disappointment for northern nationalists, never developing any political agenda to drive the Good Friday Agreement, simply following the line of his very able officials.
Perhaps Dermot, from Louth, and therefore of necessity interested in northern affairs for decades, will bring a more focused approach to matters northern. Time will tell.
The second reason why the reshuffle is important is because Fianna Fail is now getting down to facing the challenge from Sinn Féin at the next general election. On Friday in the Merrion Hotel, Dublin, Bertie will attend the first meeting of a 20-strong committee to reorganise and modernise Fianna Fail. New structures are certainly on the agenda but the party’s republican credentials are an issue. Fianna Fail is anxious to find a way to take the ownership of modern republicanism from Sinn Féin which seems to have cornered the market and can hold Fianna Fail’s claims up to ridicule as the continuing sleaze tribunals which have made Fianna Fail synonymous with brown envelopes dominate headlines.
Anyone who thinks all these developments in the Republic can be taken in isolation from political developments here is living in cloud-cuckoo land. It is entirely in the interest of republicans to surrender weapons and stand down the IRA in order to compete with Fianna Fail in the Republic’s next election. After all, Sinn Féin may well end up with more TDs than the PDs whose current eight give them four ministers, ministers whom many Fianna Fail TDs now regard as political liabilities.
The continuing existence of the IRA as an organised force may well provide unionists with an excuse to avoid negotiating as Gerry Adams said but Sinn Féin organises in all of Ireland and the IRA provides Fianna Fail also with an excuse to keep Sinn Féin out of government.
Of course, officially Sinn Féin does not contemplate a coalition but two years down the road, who knows? If the IRA has to stand down the DUP may provide a useful excuse but the real reason is to be found in Dublin.