Deck-chairs on the Titanic

26-County Taoiseach Brian Cowen is facing a potential rebellion among his own backbenchers after a reshuffle of his cabinet of Ministers was widely criticised as inadequate in the face of Ireland’s economic crisis.

Former Fianna Fail Junior Minister John McGuinness accused the Taoiseach of being “a weak leader” and “putting the party and tribalism ahead of the country”.

No minister lost their post in the reshuffle, which saw Mary Hanafin sidelined from the Department of Social Welfare to the low-profile Ministry of Arts, Sport and Tourism.

Hanafin, seen as a relatively competent government figure, is being suggested as a possible successor to Cowen in the event of a heave against him.

Cowen appointed five new Ministers and renamed the Departments to which they were appointed.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is to be renamed as the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, headed by Mr Batt O’Keeffe, who was previously Minister for Education and Science. He will also be responsible for the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions.

The Department of Education and Science is being renamed as Education and Skills with Tanaiste Mary Coughlan as minister.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs will become the Department of Social Protection, with Eamon O Cuiv in charge.

The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs will now become the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, with promoted backbencher Pat Carey as Minister instead of O Cuiv.

Another backbencher, Tony Killeen, was named as Minister for Defence to succeed the disgraced Willie O’Dea.

The reshuffle prompted widespread discontent among Fianna Fail TDs who complained it was a “missed opportunity”.

Many deputies expressed annoyance that more new faces were not brought into government and the reconfiguration of departments was not as extensive as they had expected. The concession of an extra (junior) Minister of State to the Green Party, a reward for the party’s loyalty to a deply unpopular government, caused irritation.

The reshuffle came as the latest figures showed the 26 County economy contracted at a record rate in 2009.

Gross domestic product (GDP) for the year was down 7.1 per cent, while gross national product (GNP) fell 11.2 per cent. December’s Budget projected a 7.5 per cent decline.

It also came as it emerged that the government’s attempts to sustain the nationalised Anglo-Irish Bank would demand a further nine billion euro from the public purse, while Irish citizens scrambled to secure British passports as a result of escalating public sector industrial action.

Donegal North East TD Jim McDaid said: “If you’re playing a football match and you’re away from home and you’re down one-nil, you’ve got to go on the attack. We should’ve brought in fresh faces.”

Tipperary North TD Maire Hoctor characterised the event as a “shuffle” rather than a reshuffle. “It was a great opportunity for the Taoiseach to revamp his team, and that he did not do. He played it safe... He dropped nobody,” she said.

Carlow-Kilkenny TD MJ Nolan said he was “very disappointed” for voters in his constituency “who consistently supported Fianna Fail candidates”.

“It was our last throw of the dice before the next general election and I think it was a missed opportunity,” said Bobby Aylward, one of Mr Nolan’s Fianna Fail colleagues in the constituency.

The Green Party’s Mary White, from Carlow-Kilkenny, was appointed Minister of State for Equality and Integration.

Opposition leader, Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny, condemned the Cabinet reshuffle as a “mishmash” and said that while 430,000 people were unemployed “not a single Minister has lost a job here despite the fact that these were the drivers of our economy on to the rocks over the last number of years”.

He told Taoiseach Brian Cowen: “We have a line-up of Ministers who have failed in their departments, some of whom have become a byword for inaction and incompetence.

“You have made some changes, with the Tanaiste shifting downwards to the Department of Education and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs moving somewhere else . . . and the former minister for education moving closer to yourself.”

He added: “Yhis is undoubtedly the worst Government in the history of the State” which the Taoiseach wanted to keep virtually intact. “Its main figures have been involved in crashing the Irish economy on to the rocks in the last number of years and the people who are confirmed in their jobs today were at the helm when they ignored all warnings given by independent commentators and by political commentators about the running of the economy and their failure to effect that.

“It is the same group of Ministers who have presided over the country’s slide into deep recession.”

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore predicted that the renaming of Government departments would cost several million euro to implement.

He said that when the Department of Social Welfare became the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs in 1997, it cost 2 million euro to change the logos on its headed paper and the nameplates outside its offices.

He said he would consider tabling a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach in light of the increasing opposition to Mr Cowen on the Fianna Fail backbenches.

Sinn Fein Dail Leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said the reshuffle would not create one job for the unemployed. Mr O Caolain said described the re-shuffle as “a sham” and said the Government should “be shuffling out of office with their heads held down in shame.”

“The focus today is on jobs for the boys and girls in Fianna Fail and the Green Party as Cabinet ministers and junior ministers. But looking on at this game of musical chairs are over 432,000 unemployed people in this State. And there are further thousands of others looking on from overseas where they have been forced to emigrate by the policies of this Government.

“One in four young people in Ireland is now unemployed. Unemployment among young people in the 26 Counties increased by 150% in a year to 85,000 at the start of 2010. Nationally the toll continues to rise towards half a million. If the figures for those who have emigrated as a result of the recession were taken into account, the half million figure would likely be exceeded.

“And what have unemployed young people got from the Government in response to their plight, from the Government that seeks our endorsement today? They have got a two-fingered Fianna Fail/Green salute from a Coalition that cut dole payments for the young in Budget 2010.”

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