THE country, we are told daily, is in middle of the worst recession in a century. This perilous state of affairs has prompted calls in some quarters for a national government. But for the worst recession in a century what would really be required is a cabinet of the century. Imagine if it could be done: all the best political minds since the foundation of the state brought together in one fantasy cabinet to help guide the country through the crisis.

Of course, it can't be done – politicians are human and mortal too – but that doesn't stop us dreaming. We have gone back through the past 87 years to draw up a cabinet of all the talents, regardless of political party or age. Eligibility was simple: a record of brilliance and/or innovation and a CV that included a spell at the cabinet table.

As with any team, we've haven't picked the 15 best individuals because of the need for balance. We stuck pretty closely to the current government departments – dispensing only with the Department of Community and Rural Affairs (with Gaeltacht shifting to Arts, Sports and Tourism) and replacing it with a Department of Economic Planning and Development for reasons that are explained below. Aside from Economic Planning and Development – which previously only existed for a three-year period – all the ministers chosen have actually served in the departments for which they are selected.

Our fantasy cabinet is made up of most of the leading lights in politics over the past nine decades and includes seven former heads of government, three former tánaistes and 12 former party leaders. No TD from the current Dáil makes the cut – although it is possible that in future years their achievements will be deemed worthy of inclusion in such a list. The party break-down of the cabinet is seven from Fianna Fáil, six from Fine Gael (including the attorney-general), two Labour and one Clann na Poblachta. Of the 15 ministers, five are still alive, as is our choice for secretary-general to the cabinet, the legendary TK Whitaker. The choices won't please everyone. It includes a fair share of controversial characters but each and every one of them has to quote Shakespeare and Charlie Haughey "done the state some service". If only they were all doing that service today.

Taoiseach - Seán Lemass (Fianna Fáil)

Commonly acclaimed as 'The Maker of Modern Ireland', when Seán Lemass became Taoiseach in June 1959, the state saw its greatest ever leader take office. He is an automatic choice as the man to lead any Irish political dream team.

In a recently biography of Lemass, respected former UCD historian Professor Tom Garvin wrote: "The promotion of a politics of the practical and a rhetoric of reality may have been the most lasting and the most important of his many legacies to the people of Ireland." Practical politics are paramount at the moment.

Lemass dragged an insular country, bereft of self-confidence, and crippled by economic protectionism, soaring emigration and unemployment, towards modernity. Ireland may be on its economic knees once again but Lemass must be given credit for laying the foundations of the country's modern economic successes.

When he took office, Ireland was an economic wasteland ravaged by emigration. But TK Whitaker's brainchild, the 'First Programme for Economic Expansion' plan, paved the way for the abolition of the protectionist policies that were in existence from the 1930s, and allowed emigration and unemployment to fall.

Despite his unsuccessful 1961 attempt for Ireland to gain EEC membership, he set the drive towards membership in motion, and he became the first taoiseach to make the progressive move of visiting Stormont to meet with Northern prime minister Terence O'Neill in 1965. The meeting with O'Neill was constructive in building North-South relations.

In 1971, The Irish Times said of Lemass, "He came to power too late, he left power too early."

Honourable mention: WT Cosgrave

Tánaiste/Minister for Environment and Local Government
WT Cosgrave (Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael)

As president of the executive council of the Irish Free State, WT Cosgrave left a lasting shadow on the Irish state and the effects of his tenure in that role from 1922 to 1932 cannot be underestimated.

Ahead of this, he played a key political role in ensuring that grassroots political links with British rule were broken when he oversaw the local elections of 1920 as Minister for Local Government. These elections saw Sinn Féin gain control of 28 of the 33 local councils and Cosgrave persuaded these local authorities to switch their allegiance from the British to the Sinn Féin-dominated Dáil.

As president of the executive council during the early years of the state, Cosgrave was crucial to the establishment of the institutions of the state and the survival of the fledging political entity that had a most difficult birth.

Ireland has its economic woes at the moment but without strong political characters like Cosgrave, the democratic state we have today may not have survived its turbulent early years.

Honourable mention: Timothy (TJ) Murphy (Labour minister for local government responsible for the major post World War II house-building scheme)

Minister for Finance - Ray MacSharry (Fianna Fáil)

THE Minister for Finance, after the position of Taoiseach, is the most important job in a cabinet. Yet this appointment provoked little debate in our considerations. There have been other fine finance ministers. Gerard Sweetman's conservatism in the job in the 1950s has been criticised but he was hugely responsible for TK Whitaker's elevation in the Department of Finance. Seán MacEntee is also regarded as highly conservative – and clashed with Lemass on economic policy – but he showed the requisite toughness in the job at a time of huge peril for the Irish economy. But the obvious choice for our cabinet is Ray MacSharry. When 'Mac the Knife' took over, the country had endured a miserable previous decade. But with a single-mindedness and toughness that had been so lacking in successive governments, he proceeded to bring order to the mess that was the public finances, steadfastly refusing to be deflected from the job in hand by any interest group. With the help of An Bord Snip, MacSharry slashed government spending. The impact on public confidence (which had been at rock bottom) was almost immediate and the economy, though tentatively, began to grow again. By the time he left for the EU Commissioner job two years later, the public finances were looking much healthier and the seeds of the Celtic Tiger had been sown.

Honourable mention: Gerard Sweetman (Fine Gael) Seán MacEntee (Fianna Fáil)

Minister for Justice - Charles Haughey (Fianna Fáil)

A hugely divisive character who undoubtedly has done serious damage to the standing of politics in this country, Haughey's inclusion in our cabinet of all the talents will be bitterly disputed by some. But in any list of the best 15 ministers this state has produced, Haughey, a politician of enormous intelligence, imagination and vision, demands inclusion. In his role as Taoiseach between 1987 and 1989 he was hugely influential in bringing the country back from the brink, but of course he had helped cause some of the problems during his previous spells in the top job. As a minister, he probably impressed most during his spell as justice minister in the early 1960s, introducing legislation such as the Succession Act, which protected the inheritance rights of wives, and the Extradition Act. He also drew up a 10-point programme in his first month of office, highlighting the crushing of the IRA as a primary objective. The Special Criminal Court was reactivated, and in less than a year, the IRA called off its campaign. Haughey was a young man in a hurry in that job. The powerful secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, later wrote that "while he was in justice, Haughey was a dynamic minister. He was a joy to work with and the longer he stayed, the better he got."

Honourable mention: Des O'Malley (Fianna Fáil, right) and Kevin O'Higgins (Cumann na nGaedheal)

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (aka Industry and Commerce) Albert Reynolds (Fianna Fáil)

A choice that will raise a few eyebrows. He probably wouldn't be one of the 15 best cabinet ministers since the foundation of the state, and his time at taoiseach was a turbulent one as he failed to develop harmonious relations with his coalition partners. But Reynolds is one thing that the vast, vast majority of politicians is not – a risk taker. And every good cabinet needs a risk taker. Of course, this can have a downside, but the upside more than compensates. Reynolds' record on the peace process is evidence of the dividends that a risk-taking approach can yield. Many scoffed at his initial declarations on the peace process, but he set a goal and resolved to achieve that goal come what may. As a businessman, Reynolds also understood how the world worked outside politics, so he would be a perfect fit in enterprise, trade and employment – a position he filled in 1987-88.

Honourable mention: Seán Lemass, Fianna Fáil (see Taoiseach)

Minister for Foreign Affairs - Eamon de Valera (Fianna Fáil)

Love him or loathe him, the country's longest-serving Taoiseach simply has to be in our fantasy cabinet, and foreign affairs (or external affairs as it was known then) where he served for an incredible 16 years (while also taoiseach) between 1932 and 1948 is the obvious role. De Valera excelled in the role and his contributions to the League of Nations were hugely respected and achieved significant international recognition. His finest hour probably came in 1938 when he led the negotiations with Britain which ended the economic war and saw the British occupied ports returned to Ireland. It proved crucial in Ireland's subsequent neutrality during World War II. De Valera was and is to this day rightly criticised for expressing condolences to the German ambassador on the death of Hitler (when he fell victim to his near obsession with observing protocol in all circumstances) but it is often forgotten that he courageously publicly denounced the German invasions of Belgium and Netherlands in 1940 at a time when it looked like Hitler would emerge victorious in Europe. He kept a cool head (cooler, it seems, than some of his officials) during the war years and skillfully guided Ireland through a very dangerous time. And while the country remained neutral, it was a benevolent neutrality towards Britain. His diplomatic excellence was in the stark contrast to what has been described by one eminent historian as the inept and shambolic way the succeeding inter-party government handled Ireland's declaration of a republic.

Honourable mention: Frank Aitken (Fianna Fáil); Garret FitzGerald (chosen as our Minister for Economic Planning and Development, but who served in Foreign Affairs from 1973-77)

Minister for Transport - Alan Dukes (Fine Gael)

You often see in the GAA All Stars a player being named as a half forward even though he played the majority of the season in the full forward line just because the selectors want him on the team. And with a similar justification, we're going for Dukes in the transport job. He spent only a few months in the department in 1997, taking over from Michael Lowry, but given his overall brilliance and contribution to politics during 21 years in the Dáil, we wanted him on the team. One of a select band of TDs who became a cabinet minister on their first day in the Dáil, Dukes' huge intellect meant he seamlessly took on the huge responsibility. He was frustrated in his spell as finance minister in the 1982-86 government as Labour refused to back cuts in spending. He will probably be best remembered for his time as leader of the opposition in the late 1980s when he put the national interest before party politics with his Tallaght Strategy of agreeing to support the government's efforts to tackle the economic crisis. It did not win support either in his party or among the electorate but it was a major factor in the economic recovery.

Honourable mention: Seamus Brennan (Fianna Fáil)

Minister for Defence - Richard Mulcahy (Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael)

This selection will not be well received in some quarters because he was commander-in-chief of the Free State army and defence minister in a government responsible for the ruthless execution of anti-treaty figures and War of Independence heroes. Opinions differ as to whether the executions shortened the civil war, saving lives in the process, or stiffened the resolve of the anti-treatyites to continue. But there is little doubt that, although Mulcahy was criticised within his own party for not being tough enough, his role in the civil war denied him his own place in the popular pantheon of Irish heroes. But his service to the state is beyond doubt both as a director of the War of Independence and a politician in the new free state. Never more so when he resigned as defence minister before he was pushed over the sacking of the army council in the wake of the army mutiny of 1924. Historian JJ Lee said that Mulcahy was probably the "one man who might have roused sufficient military support to pose a real threat to the government" but instead as a "committed democrat", his "restrained response" and acceptance of his humiliation "forestalled a really serious crisis". As leader of Fine Gael in 1944, he rescued the party from oblivion and again showed how selfless and honourable he was by stepping aside to allow John Costello become taoiseach when it became clear Clann na Poblachta could not stomach being led in government by the commander of the Free State forces during the Civil War. He served instead as Minister for Education. A genuine patriot and hero, we want him in our team.

Honourable mention: Desmond FitzGerald (Cumann na nGaedheal)

Minister of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources - Conor Cruise O'Brien (Labour)

A hugely divisive figure and another controversial choice, O'Brien – who served as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs between 1973 and 1977 – certainly had his blind spots and could be infuriatingly wrong at times, but his sheer brilliance and ability (his CV, which includes achievements in the media and publishing, international diplomacy and politics is extraordinary) means he simply could not be left out. At his funeral, Fr Patrick Claffey described O'Brien as "a prophetic figure, inhabiting the somewhat lonely spaces that prophets do, on the margins." It was in the nature of prophets, he added, "to be prickly, awkward, angular, contrary in every sense, saying things we don't always want to hear and calling for us to change our way of thinking in building a world based on truth and justice". Enough said. Imagine the fireworks with O'Brien and Charlie Haughey sitting around the same cabinet table.

Honourable mention: Jim Mitchell (Fine Gael)

Minister for Economic Planning and Development - Dr Garret FitzGerald (Fine Gael)

Okay, we're cheating a little with this one. Unlike all the others, Garret FitzGerald never served in this particular department. In fact the department only existed for three years from 1977-80. However, there is intense speculation that this department will be revived – at the expense of Community and Rural Affairs – as part of a cabinet reshuffle next year because of the need to overcome our traditional weakness in long-term economic planning. And in our fantasy cabinet, we believe there is a need for such a position and FitzGerald, a brilliant economist and intellectual, would be perfect for the job. His time as taoiseach was mixed – his government never got to grips with the economic crisis – but like so many on our list, he is simply too good to leave out.

Honourable mention: Michael McDowell (PDs)

Minister for Health - Dr Noel Browne (Clann na Poblachta and later Labour)

An easy choice, Noel Browne had his faults but he was ahead of his time. His Mother and Child Scheme was a major cause célèbre of 20th-century Irish politics.

After becoming health minister in 1948, Browne proposed introducing a scheme which would provide free healthcare for mothers and their children up to the age of 16.

The scheme sparked controversy as the Catholic church was opposed to it and Browne, who had lost a number of family members to the TB disease that was rampant across the country, was decades ahead of his time in his willingness to face down the church.

Historian JJ Lee acknowledged that Browne was "probably his own worst enemy", but "he brought idealism, energy and ability to his task". All welcome attributes at the fantasy cabinet table.

Honourable mention: Mary Harney (Controversial to even give her an 'honourable mention' but she deserves recognition for taking the job Brian Cowen dubbed 'Angola' when nobody else wanted it.)

Minister for Social Welfare - Brendan Corish (Labour)

Famed for a 1967 speech that blasted "the '70s will be socialist", Labour leader Brendan Corish gets the social-welfare chair at this cabinet table.

Corish was Minister for Social Welfare for two periods (1954 to 1957 and 1973 to 1977) and the state's social-welfare spending increased greatly in his second period in office.

Corish was Tánaiste and Minister for Social Welfare and Health, in the 1973-77 government and with his close political ally and junior minister, Frank Cluskey, they gave the state much of the social welfare system that is currently in place.

Timing is everything in politics. Corish took office three months after Ireland entered the EEC when agricultural subsidies and grants started to flow into Ireland. Tax resources that normally went into the agricultural sector were now freed up for other uses and much of this money was transferred into social welfare.

Social welfare payments increased through his period in office, pensions increased and initiatives such as the scrapping of the Poor Law brought in under British rule in favour of the introduction of community welfare officers.

Corish brought in what was then a controversial payment to single parents and pioneered other initiatives in line with new EEC social policy.

Tony Brown, who was special advisor to the Corish and Cluskey team, recalls, "Corish and Cluskey, were responsible for a fruitful period of ideas and more would have been done if it was not for the oil crisis.

"As leader of the Labour party he brought in people like Barry Desmond, Justin Keating and Conor Cruise O'Brien, modernised the party and opened a lot of doors in Irish politics."

Honourable mention: William Norton (Labour Party minister in 1948-51 Inter-party government)

Minister for Education - Donagh O'Malley (Fianna Fáil)

Shay Given, Henry Shefflin, Colm 'Gooch' Cooper and Brian O'Driscoll all have one thing in common. If any of them are available for selection in their given sports they are among the first names their respective managers put on the team sheet.

Donagh O'Malley is in that league and he would be one of the first politicians to take a seat at the 'Fantasy Cabinet' table.

A hugely dynamic politician, he will be forever remembered for his contribution to the Irish education system.

In his tenure as minister between 1965 and 1967 he introduced many pioneering schemes, some of which were stillborn, but his best-known was the introduction of free secondary education and free school transport.

These reforms opened up the education system to thousands of children who would otherwise have been denied the opportunity. Capital investment in community schools and overseeing the introduction of the regional technical colleges, which opened access to third level education, were among the other achievements of this progressive politician.

Honourable mention: Eoin MacNeill (Cumann na nGaedheal)

Minister for Agriculture - James Dillon (Independent and later Fine Gael)

The list of former agriculture ministers provides no automatic choice for this seat but James Dillon's achievements merit his appointment.

He was the only TD in the Dáil to vote against Ireland's neutrality in World War II. Agree with him or not, it was a courageous and bold move to go against all of his contemporaries in the Dáil chamber and favour Ireland joining the Allied forces.

He departed Fine Gael in 1942 over the contentious neutrality issue but still became Minister for Agriculture in 1948 in the first ever inter-party government, formed under Taoiseach John A Costello.

Since the collapse of the PDs, Mary Harney has been a non-party government minister. Dillon was the last politician to hold that distinction as he was the one independent figure in a government made up of Fine Gael, Labour, Clann Na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan and the National Labour party.

A wonderful orator, historian Professor JJ Lee recorded how Dillon proved a "resounding political success, the star electoral act of the inter-party government".

Among Dillon's plans was the launch of the ambitious Land Rehabilitation Project to reclaim more than a million acres of land, mainly in the west, for poor farmers struggling to eke out a living in the days before European subsidies.

He also presided over an increase in the quality of Irish agricultural produce, an increase in the cattle and sheep exports and a deal which allowed Ireland export eggs to Britain.

Professor Gary Murphy of DCU notes in his new book, In Search of the Promised Land: The Politics of Post-War Ireland that Dillon, who would later rejoin Fine Gael and become its leader in 1959, was "something of a maverick" as agriculture minister. There has to be room for mavericks and risk-takers in a national government of the brightest and best politicians since 1922.

Honourable mention: Mark Clinton (the Fine Gael minister who negotiated Ireland's entry into the Common Agricultural Policy)

Minister for Arts, Sport, Tourism and the Gaeltacht - Maire Geoghegan-Quinn

Arts fanatic Michael D Higgins is probably best qualified for this job but other factors have to come into play.

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, no more than Higgins, would not make a list of the top 15 politicians this country has produced. But you could not have a fantasy cabinet of 15 male brains. So in the interests of producing a more gender balanced cabinet, Geoghegan-Quinn gets the nod.

The first female cabinet minister since the foundation of the state, Geoghegan-Quinn was a progressive minister for justice, with decriminalising homosexuality her main ministerial achievement.

However, Haughey was undoubtedly a better justice minister so Geoghegan-Quinn slots into our Arts, Sport, Tourism and the Gaeltacht portfolio as she served as Minister for the Gaeltacht from December 1979 to June 1981.

Honourable mentions: Michael D Higgins,Tom O'Donnell (Fine Gael, Minister for the Gaeltacht, 1973-'77)

Secretary General to the Cabinet - TK Whitaker

Whitaker is Ireland's greatest politician that never was. And probably the best public servant in the state's history. The 1950s' secretary at the Department of Finance produced a landmark plan for the development of free trade, ending economic protectionism and developing industry. In 1958 the plan became a government White Paper known as the 'First Programme for Economic Expansion' which provided the blueprint for Ireland's transformation from economic backwater to modern nation open to foreign investment. A blueprint like that would certainly be invaluable today.

Honourable mentions: Seán Cromien (One of the architects of the 1980s 'Bord Snip' report)

Attorney General - John A Costello (Fine Gael)

A little like Jack Charlton having the luxury in 1987 of playing Ronnie Whelan at left back and Paul McGrath at right back because he was so spoilt for choice at midfield and centre back, we are able to name an esteemed former taoiseach as AG, a position in which he served from 1926-32. Would combine political savvy with a keen legal mind.

Honourable mention: Peter Sutherland (left)

Curricula vitae

* Seán Lemass (1899-1971)

Minister for Supplies 1939-45, Minister for Industry and?Commerce 1941-48, 1951-54, 1957-59, Taoiseach 1959-66

* WT Cosgrave (1880-1965)

Minister for Local Government 1919-22, Minister for Finance 1922, President of the Executive Council 1923-32

* Ray MacSharry (1938-)

Minister for Agriculture 1979-81, Minister for Finance 1982, 1987-88

* Charles Haughey (1925-2006)

Minister for Justice 1961-64, Minister for Agriculture 1964-65, Minister for Finance 1966-69, Minister for Health and Social Welfare 1974-79, Taoiseach 1979-81, 1982, 1987-92, Minister for Gaeltacht 1989-92

* Albert Reynolds (1932-)

Minister for Posts and?Telegraphs 1979-81, Minister for Transport 1980-81, Minister for Industry and Energy 1982, Minister for Trade, Commerce and Tourism 1982, Minister for Industry and Commerce 1987-88, Minister for Finance 1988-91, Taoiseach 1992-94

* Eamon de Valera (1882-1975)

President of the Executive Council /Taoiseach 1932-48, 1951-59, Minister for External Affairs 1932-48

* Alan Dukes (1945-)

Minister for Agriculture 1981-82, Minister for Finance 1982-86, Minister for Justice 1986-87

* Richard Mulcahy (1886-1971)

Minister for Defence 1919-24, Minister for Local Government and Public Health 1927-32, Minister for Education 1948-57

* Conor Cruise O'Brien (1917-2008)

Minister for Posts and Telegraphs 1933-37

* Dr Garret FitzGerald (1926-)

Minister for Foreign Affairs 1973-77, Taoiseach 1981-82, 1982-87

* Dr Noel Browne (1915-97)

Minister for Health 1948-51

* Brendan Corish (1918-90)

Minister for Social Welfare 1954-57, Minister for Health and Social Welfare 1973-77

* Donagh O'Malley (1921-68)

Minister for Health 1965-66, Minister for Education 1966-68

* James Dillon (1902-86)

Minister for Agriculture 1948-51, 1954-57

* Maire Geoghegan-Quinn (1950–)

Minister for the Gaeltacht 1979-81, Minister for Tourism, Transport and Communications 1992-93, Minister for Justice 1993-94

* TK Whitaker (1916-)

Secretary at the Department of Finance 1956-69, Senator 1977-82

* John A Costello (1891-1976)

Attorney General 1926-32, Minister for Taoiseach 1948-51, 1954-57