By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — New Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan has caused a major surprise by snubbing his main opponent for the top job, Enda Kenny, when he announced his new slimmed-down front bench.
Noonan had been expected to find a place for the County Mayo TD as part of a healing process in the party following the ousting of John Bruton.
While Noonan stressed there was no personal animosity involved, Kenny made no secret of his anger and said they had a "frank and forthright" 10-minute conversation.
"The decision sends out a wrong signal for the party," Kenny said. "It is that one should not contest these open, democratic decisions."
He said his dropping was "a belt" and he pointed out he had got the backing of 40 percent of the parliamentary party. He claimed calls had been flooding in from party supporters who found it "difficult to stomach."
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Kenny’s Mayo runningmate, Jim Higgins, got the job as spokesman on Public Enterprise and Tourism.
Noonan dumped seven of the old Bruton front bench, including deputy leader Nora Owen, when he cut the numbers to 14. Bruton had 20 portfolio holders and 41 spokespersons with responsibility for areas of policy.
However, adopting a European model, Noonan’s front-benchers will each be backed by a "cabinet" of two TDs and a senator.
Noonan retains the Northern Ireland portfolio and the new lineup includes Bruton’s bother Richard as director of policy and features three women.
The rest of the new front bench is: Jim Mitchell, deputy leader and Finance; Alan Dukes, Agriculture, Marine and Natural Resources; Jim O’Keeffe, Foreign Affairs; Charles Flanagan, Enterprise, Trade, Employment and Local Development; Gay Mitchell, Health; Alan Shatter, Justice; Frances Fitzgerald, Equality, Opportunity and Family Affairs; Dinny McGinley, Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands; Brian Hayes, Social and Community Affairs; Deirdre Clune, Environmental and Consumer Protection; Michael Creed, Education and Youth Affairs; Olivia Mitchell, Housing and Local Government and Gerry Reynolds, Western Development.
Phil Hogan is retiring as party chairman and will be director of organization with front bench rank. Former party secretary Paul Bradford will be chief whip.