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Tuesday 17 October 2017

Exit stage left for Quinn as new era looms for Labour

Ruairi Quinn knows that there is no room in politics for sentimentality.

When the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition collapsed in 1994, he was the man who marched into Taoiseach Albert Reynolds' office and declared: "We've come for a head."

Yesterday, Ruairi (below) finally accepted that his own head was on the block - and saved his executioners the bother by resigning as Minister for Education.

Quinn's only consolation is that he will not be the only Labour veteran to leave cabinet over the next few days. Joan Burton has made it clear that assuming she defeats Alex White tomorrow, she will want to build a younger and fresher team around her.

As a former party leader, minister in four governments and part of the Leinster House furniture since 1977, Ruairi was the ultimate symbol of Old Labour - and so he had to go.

In fact, Quinn should understand Burton's need for new blood since he was once a fire-breathing student radical himself. At UCD in the late 1960s, where many people still revered the communist Chairman Mao, his unusual appearance earned him the nickname 'Ho Chi Quinn'.

middle-class

Within the Labour Party, Quinn always had a slight image problem. He was a middle-class, Blackrock College boy who wore flashy ties and smoked fat cigars. In other words, it was all too easy to caricature him as the original smoked salmon socialist.

However, Quinn's talent could not be denied. He first served in cabinet under Garret FitzGerald during the gloomy 1980s, where he would cheer up his colleagues by drawing cartoons of them.

When the finance minister Alan Dukes snapped one day: "I am f***ing sick of it... Taoiseach, you have to go to the country", Ruairi lightened the mood by asking: "Had you any particular country in mind, Alan?"

Quinn's finest hour arrived in the mid-90s when he became Minister for Finance himself. In fact, his admirers would claim that he was the most successful steward of Ireland's economy we ever had.

He delivered steady growth, reduced unemployment and became the first Irish finance minister in decades to record a budget surplus.

Quinn's strong record helped him to defeat Brendan Howlin for the Labour leadership after Dick Spring resigned in 1997. He then successfully pushed through a merger with the smaller socialist party Democratic Left.

This had important consequences, since it brought future leaders Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore into Labour - ironically the two men who are tipped to join Ruairi in the departures lounge next week.

Overall, however, Quinn's tenure as Labour leader was a disappointment. As the Celtic Tiger began to roar, he struggled to lay a glove on Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

When he tried to show passion in the Dail, Fianna Fail ministers jeered him as 'Mr Angry from Sandymount'.

In some ways, Quinn was ahead of his time. A passionate social liberal, he caused a stir by claiming that Ireland had become "a post-Catholic society". He also suggested that we might have a gay or lesbian Taoiseach one day.

Quinn quit the leadership shortly after Labour failed to make any progress in the 2002 general election. He admitted yesterday that this was the biggest disappointment of his career. He then took some time off to write his autobiography Straight Left, before returning to the party front bench.

Quinn was not originally on Eamon Gilmore's cabinet team sheet, but scraped in at the last minute.

To his credit, he set out to be a radical and reforming Education Minister. He has done Trojan work in reducing the influence of religious schools and replacing the outmoded Junior Cert system.

Unfortunately, his relationship with the teachers' unions was terrible and an embarrassing U-turn on third level fees meant that students were not crazy about him either.

In his younger days, Ruairi Quinn was a champion runner. Now his race is over - and the baton will be passed to a new Labour generation.

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