By Mick Mullholland

Has the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, given a significant hostage to fortune in his pre-Christmas pledge to promote backbenchers in his

Has the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, given a significant hostage to fortune in his pre-Christmas pledge to promote backbenchers in his

Cabinet reshuffle later this year? That is one of the questions hovering over the political scene as a new year beckons with the return of the Dail this week.

Mr Kenny, in Opposition, said on the The Late Late Show that he would keep score cards on his Ministers if he was elected Taoiseach. It was a good political quote at the time.

It was never going to happen, of course. It was simply no more than one of those throwaway lines which politicians use when trying to impress voters.

Imagine the following scenario. Mr Kenny walks down the corridor of Government Buildings and knocks on the door of a Minister. “Two out of 10, I’m afraid, Minister, so you had better up your game.’’

He knocks on another door. “Eight out of 10, Minister, and I can say you are doing superbly well.” The whole idea is daft.

Anyway, Ministerial appointments are seldom made on the basis of ability alone. Loyalty to the party leader is always a significant factor. There are always geographical and other considerations.

To suggest that a Taoiseach of any political colour sits down to pick the best and the brightest is nonsense. Perhaps there was one exception.

When Fianna Fáil’s Sean Lemass took over in 1959, he was a man in a hurry to rescue the country from social and economic oblivion. And he wanted to introduce new blood. That was why he eased out some of the old guard and made way for young, bright Ministers who would get the country moving.

Otherwise, however, Taoisigh have, by and large, put loyalty and other factors before ability.

Mr Kenny’s reshuffle is likely to follow the anticipated departure of Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan to Europe as Commissioner, replacing Maire Geoghegan-Quinn.

This will give him one vacancy. So will he just move Ministers about, or will he, as he has promised, drop a number of Ministers and promote backbenchers ?

Promising that he will has justifiably raised the expectations of backbenchers in this Government with a huge majority. If Mr Kenny fails to do so, he will have alienated backbenchers and significantly damaged his own credibility.

There is no doubt that there is plenty of talent on the backbenches. Making way for them could mean Mr Kenny dropping Ministers who were loyal to him when his leadership was challenged in Opposition.

Is he prepared to do that ?

Inevitably, there will be a considerable focus on Laois-Offaly Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan, who is party chairman. Mr Flanagan’s absence from the Cabinet remains inexplicable.

He was an excellent performer on the party’s front bench, before he was dropped after supporting Richard Bruton in the heave against Mr Kenny. Others who opposed Mr Kenny at the time were later given ministerial preferment.

In any meaningful reshuffle, and that would mean a change in personnel as well as portfolio, Mr Flanagan should be first to be given the nod by the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach’s planned reshuffle will come at a crucial stage in the lifetime of this Government.

If it is going to be re-elected, it will have to show that it has achievements to its credit and that it is competent. A botched reshuffle could seriously damage its image.

Mr Kenny will be aware of an unhappy precedent for a Fine Gael Taoiseach. Back in the 1980s, the then FG-Labour Government, under Dr Garret FitzGerald, put a further nail in its electoral coffin when a planned reshuffle became a farce.

The idea was that the reshuffle would give the Government a new face in the run-up to a general election. It was chaotic, with one Minister, Labour’s Barry Desmond in the Department of Health, refusing to move.

And he won the day, because his party did not want a ministerial resignation.

Mr Desmond was right, by the way. He was a competent Minister in a difficult Department.

Was Mr Kenny’s promise to promote backbenchers made in the governmental euphoria, which appears to have followed the bailout exit, and not well thought out ?

If that’s the case, he may have seriously misread the public mood. The most recent opinion poll has shown that the bounce the exits gave to the Government parties has been eroded.

The bottom line remains: Ireland is a broken Republic, on its knees economically and socially. True, some progress has been made, but there is a long road to travel.

Yet again, the Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan, has called it as it is.

He has said the economic crisis will have a lasting unfavourable legacy. “The accumulation of debt, public and private, will continue to weigh on growth prospects in a variety of ways,’’ he said. “And many households are being affected by long-term unemployment.’’

It was a timely reality check from Mr Honohan.