On last Sunday’s edition of The Week in Politics on RTÉ, former Tanaiste Joan Burton declared that Shane Ross- Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport- is “the second most powerful politician in Ireland”. This statement caught us by surprise, and got us thinking: who is (Taoiseach Enda Kenny indisputably being the first) the second most powerful politician in Ireland?
Here are the contenders:
Michael D. Higgins (President)
President Higgins, unlike the Taoiseach, was elected to his role (and with a massive mandate to lead) and is generally well-respected by a majority of the population without dispute. He commands more admiration than anyone in government, largely because he never has to make difficult decisions nor sign a Budget. He is, according to the constitution, the First Citizen of the nation, and his wife Sabina is a far more high-profile figure than the spouse of the Taoiseach. However, it’s debatable as to whether Higgins is even a politician any more, given his largely neutral role in Aras an Uachtarain. That said, he is THE PRESIDENT and his power in the media and the public eye cannot be underestimated.
Frances Fitzgerald (Tánaiste)
The Tánaiste is, in officialdom, the No. 2 figure in government, and it’s hence peculiar (and perhaps telling) than Joan Burton- just out of the job- named a different Minister as “the second most powerful…”. Fitzgerald, the current Minister for Justice, would become caretaker Taoiseach in the case of Kenny’s unfortunate death or a leave of absence. Kenny’s previous two Tánaistí, Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton, were consecutive leaders of coalition partners Labour, but Fine Gael colleague Fitzgerald was appointed by Kenny directly of his own free will. She is, essentially, the correct answer to our question. But silly Joan Burton has cast doubt in our minds.
Michael Noonan (Minister for Finance)
When I was a younger man, I always perceived the Minister for Finance as the secondary figure in the Dáil. Brian Cowen was Bertie Ahern’s MOF, and became Taoiseach after Ahern’s resignation, and the late Brian Lenihan seemed to me a natural successor to Cowen had Fianna Fáil remained in government. Noonan, now in his sixth year of the job, is far too old and unwell-looking to be considered any sort of possible Taoiseach, hence Kenny’s appointment of someone else as Tánaiste (note that he’s also a man). In the UK parliament, the Chancellor is very much the second most powerful MP in Westminster (George Osbourne was significantly more visible in the first Cameron administration than Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg), and Noonan does control a fundamental (arguably the most) aspect of government. If we asked Enda who he considered his “partn’r”, he’d probably consider Limerick Mick to be it.
Micheál Martin (Fianna Fáil Leader)
Fianna Fáil co-operation is keeping our government afloat at the minute, since neither they nor Fine Gael received a majority in the February election. Hence, Enda has to keep in mind every minute of every day that one of his main jobs is keeping Micheál happy. Seemingly, keeping Micheál happy isn’t actually that difficult, but we could be proven wrong as of yet. Micheál can more-or-less pull the plug on this government any time he wishes– that’s a lot of power.
Shane Ross (Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport)
Ross is the kinda-sorta designated leader of the Independents Alliance, the grouping of Independent TDs whose votes Enda needed to remain in government. Ross and a handful of his colleagues were awarded Ministerial and Junior Ministerial positions in exchange for their support. Their continued involvement in government is necessary for stability to remain, which is why Burton declared Ross “the second most powerful politician in Ireland”. However, he really isn’t as important as the Leader of Fianna Fáil. Firstly: the IA don’t have a whip system, so Ross has extremely limited power over his colleagues. Secondly: FF’s abstaining from the Taoiseach election was the key to Enda’s retention of the job, whereas Fine Gael could technically find some people to support a minority government in the IA’s place were Ross and Co. to pull out (a mix of Katherine Zappone, Stephen Donnelly and others, perhaps). Ross is in no way the second most powerful politician in Ireland. Joan is just being silly.
Leo Varadkar (Minister for Social Protection) & Simon Coveney (Minister for Housing, Planning & Local Government)
These two Fine Gael Ministers are presently the presumed successors to Enda Kenny’s job and will likely be the finalists in a near-future leadership contest, unless a massive shift of support towards Frances Fitzgerald arises. Varadkar is well-liked by young voters and would be Ireland’s first openly gay and second-generation immigrant Taoiseach. Coveney, on the other hand, played a vital role in arranging the minority government deal with Fianna Fáil, and his appointment as Taoiseach would appease Micheál Martin more than Leo’s would. Since one of them will likely be our government’s leader 18 months from now, they both hold a great deal of power.