JOAN Burton is the most powerful woman in Irish politics. According to one recent opinion poll, she is also the most popular member of the Cabinet. Not surprisingly, the Minister for Social Protection is frequently tipped as a future leader of the Labour Party -- although for the moment she is staying coy about her ambitions.
"I have an enormous job to do," Burton says, talking to the Herald in her high-ceilinged and remarkably tidy Dail office. "Eamon Gilmore has my support and people in the Labour Party are very fond of him. Life is full of possibilities, but I think people want me to do my best in the position I have now."
Right now, Burton is facing the biggest challenge of her political career. On December 5, she will be required to make savings of around €500m in the Government's latest austerity Budget. At this point, her only promise is that "core social welfare rates" will not be touched -- which suggests that secondary payments such as child benefit and rent supplements are very much in the firing line.
"All cuts are difficult," she admits. "But if you look at the overall social welfare budget, it has basically doubled in the past 10 years [from €9.5bn in 2002 to €20bn]. That is not sustainable if we want to get the country back to financial health."
While Burton is proud to call herself a socialist, she insists that social welfare cannot be seen as a lifestyle choice. Her record so far proves that she is no soft touch, creating the internship scheme JobBridge but also cracking down on fraud and introducing stiffer penalties for people who make no effort to find work.
"I come from a very working-class background," she says. "My dad was an iron moulder at the CIE foundry in Inchicore, my mother worked for Batchelors in Cabra West and I was always expected to have a job myself. Social welfare must be a trampoline, not a cushion -- I want to reform the system so that it does more to actively help people get back into employment.
"The most depressing part of my job is meeting large numbers of young people with excellent qualifications who come out of college and find they can't get a job. I constantly remind my Cabinet colleagues that we have over 300,000 people who are completely locked out of work. When you strip away all the geeky stuff about promissory notes and bank guarantees, that is what the Government has to address."
Turning to specific Budget issues, Burton hints that the child benefit system will look quite different after December 5. She talks with apparent enthusiasm about the recent expert group's report that suggested cutting the rate but awarding a top-up to low-income families.
"I have made no secret of the fact that I think we have an imbalance," she says. "In most countries you have a mix of direct payments and services, but in Ireland the cost of childcare can be equivalent to a second mortgage. I would like to see a shift to make sure we have adequate investment in pre-school services such as providing more children with a breakfast."
So she would accept a reduction in child benefit if the savings are invested in childcare?
"Yes. We already spend a lot of money on family income supplement for people who get low-paid jobs, which is quite clunky in structure. We could make it more streamlined by having a second-tier payment for families on low income, in work or out of work."
Burton was openly disappointed not to be made Minister for Finance last year, but that has not stopped her from regularly speaking her mind on economic issues. She is still openly lobbying for an increase in PRSI and urging employers to pay for workers' sick leave -- even though this has made her highly unpopular with some Fine Gael colleagues.
"Our social insurance fund now has a deficit of almost €2bn," she points out. "PRSI is not just taxation, the social dimension is also very important. I think you could close the gap over time by making small increases -- but this decision is one for Michael Noonan."
On the abortion issue, Burton's clear opinion is that the Government should legislate for both the X case and the ABC case. Unlike some Labour TDs, however, she does not support a more liberal regime such as the UK's.
"Like a lot of women, my views reflect my life experience," she says. "As someone who is adopted, I feel very sensitive about it. I would always hope to see women being able to bring a baby to term that would be loved and welcomed into this world.
"What happened to Savita Halappanavar is every woman's nightmare. Our Constitution does recognise the unborn and that is important, but we also recognise the equal right to life of the mother. If there is a contest there, I would have been brought up with the traditional view that the mother's life is sacrosanct."
It is at times like this, Burton says, that she wishes there were more women in politics. "I think we do have a greater desire for discussion and working in a collective way. When we were debating the Galway tragedy in Cabinet the other day, I could not help counting that there were only four women around the table [herself, Frances Fitzgerald, super-junior minister Jan O'Sullivan and attorney general Maire Whelan]."
Burton clearly loves her job, but there is one aspect she finds a bit mortifying -- being slagged off as 'Moan Burton' or having her distinctive tones imitated by comedians such as Oliver Callan and Mario Rosenstock.
"I'm sure I should work on my voice, it's my new year's resolution," she laughs.
"I went to see Mario Rosenstock live once and he made absolute bits of me. What can you say, he's very funny. But he still has a lot of work to do before he gets me right."