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McGrath gets thumbs up from Fine Gaelers, but surprise expressed on Chambers' leap to finance

McGrath is seen by some Fine Gael TDs to be ‘more open with the purse strings’ than their very own Paschal Donohoe.

LESS THAN AN hour after Michael McGrath had been announced as nominee for Ireland’s next EU Commissioner, the exiting finance minister was in the Dáil canteen with his wife Sarah. 

No sooner had they set their lunch trays down in the corner, McGrath was beset with well-wishers from all political parties.

“Well done”, “delighted for you”, “congratulations” they said as they shook his hand. 

It was a big day for the Cork man and father of seven, who was first elected to Passage West Town Council in 1999 aged just 22, before moving onto Cork County Council, the Dáil and then Cabinet. 

Now he is onto an even bigger stage. 

In the courtyard of Government Buildings earlier this morning, McGrath said he is “immensely excited” to have the opportunity to help shape policy across the European Union.

He regaled to reporters how 25 years ago this month he ran for election for the very first time, though he added he was a “much more fresh faced 22 year old” back then. 

Tanaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin described McGrath as a “very able, intelligent, highly effective politician”.

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Simon Harris said he is “a dedicated public servant, a skilled minister and an extremely diligent and hard worker”.

“For me, this isn’t about tribal politics or party politics or partisan politics, just by putting our best foot forward and about sending the best person that we can to the European Commission,” said Harris. 

So what is the thinking behind McGrath going to Brussels?

A “high-calibre” candidate was always going to be needed for such a prestigious position in Europe, with government sources stating that there were really only two options open to them: McGrath or Martin. 

The Tánaiste is understood to have toyed with the idea, but it soon became clear over the last year that he wanted to stay put and lead his party into the next general election. 

McGrath was therefore the chosen one for some time now, with many The Journal spoke to stating that they were not surprised by the appointment. 

While those within his own party will of course sing his praises, it is interesting to note that those in Fine Gael also have complimentary things to say about the Cork man. 

‘Decent and non partisan’

“McGrath is well liked across all parties. He is very decent and not partisan,” said one senior Fine Gael minister. 

“Fine Gaelers like McGrath,” said one Fine Gael TD, stating that he is “very capable”.

Another said there is “no negativity” towards McGrath from the Fine Gael benches, adding that if anything, he was seen by Fine Gael TDs to be “more open with the purse strings” than their very own Paschal Donohoe. 

They said it would often be said in jest that “it was easier to get €100 million out of McGrath than €1 million out of Paschal”. 

the-minister-for-finance-michael-mcgrath-td-right-and-the-minister-for-public-expenditure-national-development-plan-delivery-and-reform-paschal-donohoe-td-speaking-during-a-press-conference-at Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

While most in Fine Gael said the decision was the right choice, there were some concerns about the job McGrath might end up getting in Brussels. 

One said it is likely McGrath would get a “mid-tier job” such as internal markets and competition, while if the Tánaiste had decided to take on the Commissioner role, a job higher up the ladder might have been available for a former Taoiseach. 

This Fine Gaeler also raised concerns about Fianna Fáil MEPs not backing Ursula von der Leyen for the European Commissioner job and questioned whether it might have an impact when the Commissioner roles are being doled out. 

All four Fianna Fáil MEPs — Barry Andrews, Barry Cowen, Billy Kelleher and Cynthia Ní Mhurchú – pledged to voters in the run up to the European election that they would not vote for von der Leyen to have another term. 

Martin said this week that he would engage with his MEPs ahead of the vote, though as it is a secret ballot, the party whip would prove ineffective. 

Overall, those that spoke to this publication said that McGrath would do a good job in Europe.

Those in Fianna Fáil obviously see it as a successful day for the party, though some now question the direction for the future. 

Jack Chambers tipped for the top

McGrath would have been an obvious successor for leadership — but now there’s speculation that Jack Chambers, the new finance minister, is tipped for the top. 

Those within his own party told The Journal that Chambers is well-liked by party colleagues, but is also described as a hard worker and “well able” for the task ahead of him. 

The Tánaiste likes and trusts Chambers, according to those within his own party, who state that Martin sees him as a possible successor. 

former-taoiseach-bertie-ahern-left-and-jack-chambers-minister-of-state-at-the-department-of-transport-arrive-for-the-state-funeral-of-former-taoiseach-john-bruton-at-saints-peters-and-pauls-chur Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Jack Chambers. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

There is no doubt that the Dublin West TD has made quite the leap — from junior ministry right into one of the most senior positions at the Cabinet table. 

Less than a week after he was appointed as the new deputy leader of Fianna Fail, Chambers now finds himself with a number of challenges on his desk. 

He’ll have to contend with the Summer Economic Statement shortly, before entering into the budget negotiations, where be will have to put a shape on the tax package. 

He will also find himself dealing with budget kites flown by his coalition partners in Fine Gael, such as inheritance tax and the 9% VAT.

What do Fine Gaelers make of the appointment? 

“Delighted for him,” said one, who predicted that he might become Ireland’s second gay Taoiseach one day. 

However, others within Fine Gael expressed their surprise at the appointment, stating that there are concerns about the lack of experience as he has never led a department before.

The general feeling in Fine Gael is that Junior Minister Dara Calleary would have made a good finance minister, and questioned the “strange carry on” of appointing Chambers the deputy leadership just a week ago. 

One TD said putting someone from a junior position in the finance ministry might be a good way for the Tánaiste to run the show during budget negotiations. 

Another deputy agreed, but added: 

“One thing is clear from all this, Micheál Martin plans to be around for a good while yet.”

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