THIS Wednesday will see the biggest political cull since Albert Reynolds' afternoon of the long knives when 17 senior and junior ministers were axed in little more than a quarter of an hour. Although Reynolds' protégé, Brian Cowen, is nothing like the gambler that his mentor was. If anything, he would be closer in instinct to Bertie Ahern who was notoriously cautious when it came to ministerial changes. But these are extraordinary times and, while no Taoiseach likes the idea of having to limit the number of goodies he can divide among supporters, Cowen knows that to continue with 20 junior ministers at a time of massive cutbacks and tax increases would be politically impossible.
Besides, he can hardly have been enthused with the performance of his team of junior ministers over the past year. And the question is – will he limit the cull to five or will he be more bold and drop eight or nine and freshen up the team with some new faces? It will also be interesting to see if geography (and by extension electoral considerations) continue to be a major factor in Cowen's considerations or if the gravity of the recession, and the need to get the strongest team out front, will over-ride such traditional factors.
And will Cowen revert to the more traditional one junior minister per department approach of the past or continue the current system of ministers taking a particular brief that sees them spread across two or three departments?
But ultimately it's not about titles, it's about faces – both new and old. So who is likely to go this week? Which of the junior ministers will be nervously pushing their half-eaten breakfast to one side come Wednesday morning and which of them will be confidently tucking into their bacon and eggs? And, if Cowen goes against type and goes for more than five demotions, who are the young bucks who could be getting a call from Government Buildings?
Safe as houses
Pat Carey: Department of An Taoiseach with special responsibility as Government Chief Whip and for Active Citizenship and at the Department of Defence
Very well regarded. One of the few junior ministers regularly put out on television to bat for the government. And for an essentially decent and nice person, has shown the requisite toughness for the job of chief whip.
Barry Andrews: Minister of State at the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform with special responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs
Like Carey, Andrews sits at cabinet in his capacity as children's minister. Has taken a hammering in the media for his handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in the diocese of Cloyne, but Cowen is a known admirer. His seat at the cabinet table, allied to the fact that the last thing this complex brief needs is another new minister, means he won't be shifted.
Dick Roche: Minister of State at the Departments of An Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for European Affairs
Mr Europe will be needed for the autumn Lisbon treaty re-match. Peerless knowledge about the EU. Won't be going anywhere.
Trevor Sargent: Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture
Ignore the jibes about his famous press release on how to cook brussels sprouts, Sargent knows his brief inside out. Precedent from the 1989-92 Fianna Fáil-PD government – when as with the Greens in the current Dáil there was six PD TDs – is that the junior coalition partner gets two cabinet posts and a junior minister. Given the importance of keeping the Greens in government, that's not going to change.
Conor Lenihan: Minister of State at the Departments of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with special responsibility for Integration Policy
As many departments as Pádraig Flynn has homes, but Integration is an important posting. Lenihan's style may be quirky, but he has been consistently one of the better performers among the junior ministers since his elevation in 2004.
Billy Kelleher: Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with special responsibility for Labour Affairs
Kelleher probably holds one of the better junior ministries and he is pretty well regarded around Dáil Éireann. One of the bankers to be reappointed on Wednesday.
John Curran: Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs with special responsibility for Drugs Strategy and Community Affairs
Hasn't had much of a media presence given the potential profile from his position, but is seen as highly competent and is a major Cowen supporter.
Should be alright
John McGuinness: Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with special responsibility for Trade and Commerce
Speaks his mind, particularly in relation to the public service, but probably didn't do himself too many favours with his recent comments that the government had "made a bags" of last October's budget, even if he was only stating the obvious. Economically literate and understands business. And if ever there was a time for plain speaking, it's now.
John Moloney: Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, at the Department of Education and Science, at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with special responsibility for Equality, Disability issues and Mental Health
Just how irritated was Brian Cowen about Moloney's "no one knows what's gone wrong with him" comment about the Taoiseach that leaked out from a private lunch he attended in Portlaoise last January? Hardly enough, one imagines, to demote his good friend and constituency colleague.
Michael Finneran: Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing
Yet another very low-profile junior minister, but Finneran is close to Cowen who only promoted him last year. Very hard to see him rowing back on that 12 months on.
Peter Power: Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (with special responsibility for Overseas Development)
Bright and a decent media performer. Also a Cowen supporter, who was only elevated a year ago. No change here.
Martin Mansergh: Minister of State at the Department of Finance including special responsibility for the Office of Public Works and at the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism with special responsibility for the Arts
Has one of the plummest of the junior ministries at the OPW. The artsy crowd also love him and he is certainly able, but can be an erratic media performer. Gets credit for being one of the first junior ministers to say he would make way in the national interest. Has also done the state some service and there may also be an eye on holding two out of three seats in Tipperary South (although that looks a long shot at this point). Should survive but certainly not guaranteed and there may be an argument for a more media savvy junior at the Department of Finance.
Noel Ahern: Minister of State at the Department of Transport with special responsibility for Road Safety
Ahern hasn't got the highest profile and if Cowen is intent on a new broom then he could be facing the chop. However, the shortage of ministers north of the Liffey should stand to him. Furthermore, does Cowen want to further alienate his predecessor Bertie Ahern?
Tony Killeen: Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with special responsibility for Fisheries and Forestry
Cowen will be reluctant to leave Clare without a junior minister but with constituency colleague Timmy Dooley regarded as ministerial material, Killeen is a possibility for a return to the backbenches.
Seán Haughey: Minister of State at the Departments of Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment with special responsibility for Lifelong Learning and School Transport
Do we really need a junior minister for school transport? Haughey has been largely anonymous since finally getting ministerial recognition. Is well liked by Fianna Fáil TDs. That, and the lack of ministers on the northside of Dublin, should just save him. But it could be a close run thing.
Tipped for the chop
Jimmy Devins: Minister of State at the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Education and Science with special responsibility for Science, Technology and Innovation
There are those that think Devins should have gone as a minister for initially failing to back government policy on centres of cancer excellence in relation to the ending of services in his home town of Sligo, although politically he probably had little choice such was the level of emotion on the issue. May yet hang on, not least for geographical reasons, but faces an anxious few days ahead.
Seán Power: Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources with special responsibility for the Information Society and Natural Resources
The Kildare South deputy has operated almost entirely under the radar – his constituency colleague Seán ó Fearghail seems to have a higher profile. His saving grace could be geography. Fianna Fáil has four out of seven seats in Kildare and Power is the only minister.
Mary Wallace: Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with special responsibility for Health Promotion and Food Safety
Her position looks precarious. Didn't react well to being dropped by Ahern in 2002, but was surprisingly reappointed by him four years later. Pretty low profile but has two main assets in her bid to stay on as a minister: there are precious few women junior ministers and secondly, Meath is a Fianna Fáil stronghold with four out of six seats. Unlikely to be enough.
Michael Kitt: Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for Local Services
Kitt has had one of the lowest profiles of the junior ministers, although to be fair local services isn't exactly the kind of portfolio that gets a politician's name up in lights. One of the three siblings in the Dáil at the moment, Kitt's best chance of survival is geography and, possibly, Cowen's reluctance to alienate another member of the Kitt family after not promoting Tom to the cabinet last year. It's at best 50-50 on him staying on though.
Máire Hoctor: Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children at the Department of Social and Family Affairs and at the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for Older People
Very popular among fellow TDs but she was really badly exposed in a recent Prime Time programme when a pre-recorded interview, which she had to start three times after twice losing her train of thought, was accidentally shown in its entirety. No real hope of a Fianna Fáil gain in Tipperary North, so no real geographical reason for keeping her. However, the shortage of women junior ministers will help her case. Hard to see both Hoctor and Wallace being dropped, unless of course Margaret Conlon of Cavan-Monaghan is promoted.
The next generation?
Dara Calleary. Young, very bright and a good media performer. After only a couple of years in the Dáil, Wednesday may be too soon for the Mayo TD, but his time will certainly come.
Thomas Byrne. Decent media performer and not afraid of sticking his head above the parapet. Probably a long shot for Wednesday, but if Mary Wallace is dropped, and Cowen wants to keep a strong ministerial presence in Meath, then perhaps he could get the call.
Margaret Conlon. The surprise package of the 2007 general election when she came from nowhere to win a seat for Fianna Fáil in Cavan-Monaghan that Fine Gael was expected to win. Could she do the same on Wednesday? Impressive first couple of years in the Dáil, if Cowen is looking for gender balance among the juniors, Conlon could cause another surprise.
Daragh O'Brien. A lot of people in Fianna Fáil won money when O'Brien, a first-time candidate, gained a seat in Dublin North in 2007. The odds will be even longer on him getting the nod this week. He is though a natural born politician and will be a minister some day.
Timmy Dooley. Impressive, not just because he obviously has the political smarts but also because he has a bit of bottle. Has shown he has what it takes for ministerial office by the way he has handled himself over the tricky issue of Ennis Hospital in his local constituency.
Seán Fleming. Has the misfortune of being in the same constituency as Cowen and John Moloney but, in terms of ability, deserves to be a junior minister. Probably won't happen on Wednesday, but it should.