Mary Hanafin: seen as a safe pair of hands in what is likely to be a key new department

SOCIAL affairs minister Mary Hanafin has emerged as the most likely person to fill the expected new jobs and economic planning department in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle.

Hanafin had not been regarded as a Cowen favourite and was seen as initially reluctant to deliver on the necessary cutbacks in government spending when the economic and budgetary crisis first broke.

But having overseen and strongly defended a cut in social welfare rates in last December's budget, she has earned considerable respect in cabinet and put herself in line for elevation in the reshuffle.

She is also known to get on well with finance minister Brian Lenihan although suggestions in government circles that Lenihan was talking her up for the new position were dismissed out of hand by sources close to the minister.

Hanafin handled some elements of the Finance Bill in the Dáil last week and would be seen as a safe pair of hands in what is likely to be a key new department.

The department is expected to involve the most important sections of the current Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

The embattled incumbent in that department, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, will not fill the new position but could keep elements of her current portfolio, with some speculation linking her with a new trade and tourism brief.

However, no final decision has been made on the make-up of the new departments.

The Taoiseach may be reluctant to move Hanafin from social affairs given her impressive media performances at the times of the cuts in social welfare. However, next December's budget is unlikely to involve further cuts in rates and, with job creation likely to be the key issue over the coming year, it is vital that whoever takes over from Coughlan is a strong communicator, particularly with the media.

The new minister will also likely play a short-term role in supporting Lenihan in some of his duties as finance minister while he continues his treatment for cancer.

There is ongoing speculation that Cowen will go further than expected in his reshuffle and that Martin Cullen and Willie O'Dea will not prove the only departures.

Most attention is focusing on community, rural and Gaeltacht affairs minister Éamon Ó Cuív and agriculture minister Brendan Smith.

Mary Harney's position is no longer regarded as rock solid following last week's developments.

There is surprise in Fianna Fáil circles at the long duration of her trip to New Zealand, but most observers believe the Taoiseach will keep her on in health.

After the decision of Martin Cullen to resign his Dáil seat, there is renewed nervousness among government TDs about the coalition's ability to see out its full term.