Last Refuge


Helen McEntee

Helen McEntee

MUCH MYSTERY and knowing punditry surrounded the survival of Helen McEntee as justice minister given all the indications that persuaded most people to believe she was a goner. However, it was not so much the political permutations, geography, gender, ideology and so on that proved most crucial in the end.

Neither was it political circumstances and parliamentary party factors that led former justice minister Frances Fitzgerald – she who possesses the wise, shrewd head that has allegedly guided Taoiseach Harris since he was in short trousers – to persuade the new leader to keep Helen in situ.

The original plan was to install Peter Burke – and decidedly not Jennifer Carroll MacNeill – in justice for a variety of reasons, many of which were splashed all over the media in the days before the Cabinet was determined and announced.

McEntee had made a public and media pitch to be retained as justice minister but not many believed that this was going to influence Harris. Neither did many view the political influence of the McEntee clan as being of huge weight inside the Blueshirts, as has since been claimed.

However, as the days passed the existence of one particular individual in the McEntee operation – a non-family person – became significant, namely Caroline Murphy, wife of RTÉ programmer Sean O’Rourke and a press advisor to former justice minister Charlie Flanagan from 2018 to 2020. When Fiach Kelly relinquished the post of press advisor to McEntee, Murphy was appointed to replace him and her knowledge of the justice department was regarded as crucial.

There are various reasons why McEntee was elevated to the position of justice minister in 2020, as the profile published in The Phoenix (see edition 1/7/22) outlines. As stated there: “McEntee’s loyalty to Varadkar and Murphy [Varadkar’s chief of staff, Brian Murphy] was regarded as vital as Vlad was acutely aware of the UDI tendency at justice where some officials really do believe they are the permanent government. Having the trusty McEntee in situ suited the Taoiseach down to the ground, providing him with a regular supply of real, unvarnished information from the department from the most obedient of ministers.”

Fitzgerald, as ex-justice minister, knew what a minefield that department could be. More specifically, she knew what an independent fiefdom it could sometimes behave as and how ministers could become prisoners or victims of the scheming mandarins or permanent government that some civil servants regard themselves.

Incoming Taoiseach Harris certainly did not want to become prey to this tendency that exists in all departments, but especially justice, and was quickly apprised of the view that even the capable Burke could become a cropper there before he became fully familiarised with the area. Thus, a team comprised of Murphy and McEntee, who had much combined experience of the department, was seen as a safer bet.

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