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Health Minister James Reilly (above)

A recent opinion poll shows significant gains by Sinn Fein at the expense of all the main parties. It also suggests Fine Gael has been damaged by recent ministerial controversies, not least the ongoing row about garda whistleblowers.

However, we are a long way from an election, and such dips can be expected with a Government overhauling the country after a period of crisis. Indeed, it could well be that those politicians who will be rewarded electorally or at least remembered best from this unprecedented period will be those who embraced it to really try and change things and disrupt the vested interests, regardless of immediate popularity.

Time goes by quickly in politics, as does a ministerial career, so it’s worth making the most of it while you’re there. And when all the heat and dust of political battle subsides – and a lot of it really is just heat and dust – what we really remember, for posterity, are those politicians who made major and often painful changes.

Given that the Government’s ‘prescription list’ was dictated by an outside troika, they had little alternative to implementing major and long-overdue reforms, and to their credit most of them honoured the task, especially Labour ministers, for whom it has been most awkward.

A crisis is an opportunity and there will never be an opportunity like the present. Most of the Cabinet have thus presided over major changes, albeit in ways that are still hard to quantify. Brendan Howlin has overseen a ‘major overhaul’ of the public service but with the two Croke Park deals, its old ways and structures remain basically intact.

Michael Noonan had to oversee a transformation of our finances and banking sector, but the project is bigger than him and he inherited the blueprint. Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are implementing changes in fast-changing areas of agriculture and public transport, and Varadkar in particular will rarely take the populist route.

The most debatable reputation in this ‘reformer or retainer’ debate is Joan Burton. She is often presented as someone who will radically change our huge social welfare system, and make it less elaborate and disincentivising, but at every Budget her huge spending figure still hasn’t come down – despite the demands of the now departed troika.

In fairness, an elimination of fraud and overpayment and the promised out-sourcing of the job-seekers system offer real change, but the perception is that Joan would sooner see James Reilly do the big changes and make the big savings.

In which case, perhaps it is Reilly, Phil Hogan and, yes, Alan Shatter who are the real reformers in Cabinet and the ones who are implementing painful but necessary changes – and facing down the powerful vested interests, regardless of consequence. Here, after all, are ministers who really don’t seem to care about popularity and having the easy life.

James Reilly doesn’t bother with spin and, as a medical doctor, he is in political life purely to try and tackle the health issue. Yes, he has caused crisis and calamity, but how could he not when he is trying to reform an area that had defeated successive governments and is compounded by powerful vested interests, consultants and trade unions? But he keeps going, despite the poor press, and despite the naysayers.

Phil Hogan is another man who just gets the job done, and doesn’t court easy press. He has annoyed his county councillors, including those from his own party, with his local government reforms, annoyed septic tank owners and annoyed countless others with the property tax and water charges.

And yet he doesn’t care. He’s in politics too long to just do nothing and has more or less withdrawn from the media spotlight after a few bruising personal encounters.

Shatter is the same. Whatever one thinks of the whole whistleblowers saga, no one can deny that he is a hardworking and hands-on minister who gets things done and doesn’t appear to care a whit about staying popular.

Like Reilly and Hogan, he has antagonised his own legal community and promises an overhaul of a sector that has resisted all previous government attempts to reform.

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Former Health Minister Noel Browne

And that is what politics should be about – bruisers and troublemakers who confront special interests and annoy the consensus to make changes. Think of Noel Browne (above) and his Mother & Child medical scheme in the 1950s, which enraged the Catholic Church and the medical profession, or the education changes of Donogh O’Malley in the 1960s, which so annoyed the church and the teaching establishment.

Both of these men were awkward and stubborn, and bucked the consensus. But history honours their legacy and remembers them precisely for this maverick and effective quality.

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