Wednesday 20 March 2019

Sacking Howlin may not heal Labour pain

Brandan Howlin
Brandan Howlin

Has anybody seen the Labour Party recently? Only seven years ago, it was riding so high that its then leader, Eamon Gilmore, ordered some mugs and T-shirts bearing the legend "Gilmore for Taoiseach".

Today the party seems almost invisible, still shell-shocked by its 2016 election meltdown and languishing at the scarily low figure of 3pc in one recent opinion poll.

As a result, it's hardly surprising that Labour now finds itself on the brink of yet another leadership crisis. Last week, four councillors publicly urged Brendan Howlin to stand down for the good of his party.

To quote a few of their complaints, "We're sleepwalking towards oblivion", "Matters have gone from bad to worse" and "Brendan just hasn't clicked with the electorate".

Howlin's allies, on the other hand, are making it clear that he won't go without a fight. A statement signed by 16 councillors and released last week declared: "We do not feel this is the right time for a change."

In a way, that leaves Labour with the worst of both worlds, openly divided among themselves but not quite desperate enough to do anything about it.

Why is Howlin struggling so badly? He's a politician of vast experience, having first entered the Oireachtas in 1983 when Leo Varadkar was barely out of nappies.

Even his critics would accept he's intelligent, honest and the ultimate safe pair of hands.

Unfortunately for the Wexford opera fan, he has some serious weaknesses too. As a leading member of the last government, he's strongly associated with the austerity policies that allowed Labour's left-wing enemies to claim it had sold its socialist soul.

There's also the unfortunate fact that many voters find him boring, because apart from a notorious 2002 interview in which he denied being gay, he has usually refused to talk about his personal life.

Some unpopular party leaders survive because there doesn't seem to be any real alternative. That's most definitely not the case here.

Alan Kelly, the self-described "brash, up-front and opinionated" former deputy leader, has always made it clear that he would crawl naked over broken glass for the top job, telling one journalist: "I'm probably the most ambitious person you are ever going to interview."


The pugnacious Tipperary man certainly has a lot going for him. Nicknamed AK47 due to his take-no-prisoners style, he's far and away Labour's best Dail performer these days.

It was his forensic questions about garda whistleblowers that forced then Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald to fall on her sword last November, and he's currently making a lot of noise on the cervical cancer scandal too.

Sadly for the bruiser who once said, "Power is a drug... I think it suits me", he has one major problem - his fellow TDs seem less than thrilled at the thought of having him for a boss.

When the leadership last came up for grabs two years ago, he could not persuade a single one of them to nominate him, which was why two-time loser Brendan Howlin ended up succeeding Joan Burton without a contest.

The wounds from that controversial episode have yet to fully heal.

"It was wrong and I'll always think it was wrong," Kelly told an interviewer last year.

"I was pretty annoyed about what happened. I don't bear grudges, but you don't forget. You put it inward and you use it for motivation."

Now the question all Labour TDs must be asking themselves is whether or not they made the right choice.

Last November, Kelly even took the amazing step of giving Howlin a public deadline for improvement, announcing that the party needed to dramatically boost its poll ratings in less than six months.

When the time was up, Kelly withdrew his threat, but the fact that he made it at all tells us everything we need to know about relations between the two men.

The current mini-revolt among Labour's councillors seems unlikely to go anywhere either. Howlin is too proud to walk away voluntarily, and Kelly can't launch a challenge without any parliamentary support.

Either way, however, the party will surely remain in dire straits until it stops getting outflanked by Sinn Fein and other more populist voices on the left.

Dick Spring once said that leading Labour was like taking a bath in public - that is to say very hard to do with dignity.

Brendan Howlin urgently needs some eye-catching new policies to act as a fig leaf - and maybe even persuade some voters that they should give him another look.

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