Meet Labour's Lazarus ...
New minister will need infinite reserves of tact to keep party's traditional paymasters on side
Published 12/03/2011 | 05:00
His appointment this week as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform represents a stunning comeback for Brendan Howlin. Almost a decade after he lost the Labour leadership for the second time, Howlin has staged a resurrection worthy of Lazarus himself.
All of the media coverage of this week's cabinet appointments concentrated on the shafting, real or imagined, of Joan Burton. Eamon Gilmore's decision to appoint his former finance spokeswoman as Minister for Social Protection and give the newly-created Public Expenditure and Reform portfolio to Brendan Howlin instead has been widely portrayed as being somehow motivated by hitherto unsuspected misogynistic tendencies on the part of the new Tanaiste.
The truth is almost certainly more prosaic. While Burton was a superb opposition finance spokeswoman, probably one of the best ever, that was no guarantee of success in government. The cohabitation agreement negotiated between Enda Kenny and Gilmore for the old Department of Finance will demand infinite reserves of tact, diplomacy and low animal cunning from the new Labour minister.
Not alone will the incumbent have to ensure that relations with Finance Minister Michael Noonan remain on an even keel, there is also the small matter of ensuring that Labour's trade union paymasters are somehow kept on side during what promises to be an extremely difficult period in government.
While the agreement between Fine Gael and Labour to divide the old Department of Finance between Noonan, who retains responsibility for budgets and overall economic policy, and Howlin, who will have responsibility for delivering much-needed public sector reform, has been portrayed in some quarters as a "victory" for Labour, be careful what you ask for.
The events of the past three years have clearly demonstrated that Ireland's public sector is not fit for purpose. Despite spending unprecedented amounts of taxpayers' money and, when tax revenues collapsed in recent years, borrowing ever larger sums on the international bond markets, there has been little tangible improvement in the quality of our public services.
The pension levy and recent public sector pay cuts notwithstanding, we still have some of the best-paid hospital consultants, policemen, nurses and teachers in the world. So why do we have hospital patients spending days on trolleys, a criminal underworld that can apparently kill with impunity and an education system that leaves a quarter of 15 year olds functionally illiterate?
Quite clearly fundamental public service reform is desperately needed. With the State utterly dependent on the EU/IMF bailout fund to provide the cash we need to pay public sector workers and social welfare recipients, we are going to have to get used to doing more with a lot less.
While the previous government kicked the politically-explosive issue of public sector reform into touch with last year's Croke Park Agreement, the new minister will enjoy no such luxury. With Croke Park failing to deliver the promised savings and efficiencies, he will have to persuade, threaten and cajole the public sector trade unions, traditionally Labour's paymasters, to swallow some extremely unpleasant medicine.
Which is where Howlin comes in. The son of John Howlin, who was an official with the old ITGWU (now part of SIPTU) for 40 years, Brendan Howlin is Labour Party born and bred. Unlike Burton, whose public manner tends to veer toward the strident and whose voice possesses an unfortunate hectoring tone, Howlin is the personification of emollience. Gilmore is clearly hoping that he will be able to deliver the bad news to the public sector trade unions with a mixture of tact and steel that Bruton could never hope to match.
Until he was selected by Gilmore to be one of Labour's negotiating team in the coalition talks with Fine Gael, Howlin's political career seemed to be in at least partial eclipse. When Dick Spring resigned as Labour leader after the 1997 General Election, Howlin lost the subsequent leadership election to Ruairi Quinn. Then, after Quinn stepped down following the 2002 General Election, Howlin threw his hat into the ring once again, only to lose out to Pat Rabbitte.
As a two-time leadership loser there was little surprise when Howlin accepted the position of Leas Ceann Comhairle, and the junior minister's salary that goes with it, after the 2007 General Election. Despite this, Rabitte was known to have been privately annoyed that Howlin had taken the job.
By taking the Leas Ceann Comhairle's job, Howlin effectively ruled himself out of active involvement in party politics and didn't serve on the Labour Party frontbench in the last Dail. Although he stood for re-election in the recent General Election, most observers did not include him in their lists of possible Labour ministers.
That changed after the election. When selecting his negotiating team, Gilmore had no hesitation in picking Howlin who, despite the reverses of the previous 14 years, remained one of Labour's genuine "big beasts". As well as having been Leas Ceann Comhairle in the last Dail, Howlin served as Minister for Health in the 1993-4 Fianna Fail/Labour coalition and, when that government was replaced by the Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left "rainbow" coalition in 1994, served as Minister for the Environment from 1994 to 1997.
In other words, having served in two of the largest government departments, Howlin has a range of senior ministerial experience only matched by Quinn, who was appointed Education Minister this week. It was hardly any coincidence that Quinn was one of those most vocal in emphasising Howlin's vast experience when this week's cabinet appointments controversy erupted. Gilmore clearly decided that Howlin represented an asset that he could not afford to ignore.
Unlike most of the other denizens of Leinster House, Howlin doesn't do glad-handing or table-thumping. He prefers to make his point in clear, precise terms without raising the decibel count unnecessarily. An intensely private individual, he keeps his personal life separate from his political career.
A native of Wexford town, Howlin qualified a national teacher. However, the political bug took root early and he was first elected to the town's borough council, on which his father had served for 18 years, in 1981 at the age of just 25.
However, the ambitious young Howlin was never going to be content with being a borough councillor. His move up the rung into national politics came the following year when, after failing to be elected to the Dail seat previously held by former Labour leader Brendan Corish in the November 1982 General Election, he was appointed to the Seanad by then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.
Howlin recaptured the traditional Wexford Labour Party seat in the 1987 General Election and has held it ever since. Dick Spring's decision to appoint him chief whip after the 1987 election was a clear signal of the high regard in which Howlin was already held in senior Labour Party circles.
The split in the Department of Finance has been modelled on the UK system where the treasury sends two ministers to cabinet, the chancellor of the exchequer and the first secretary. While the treasury du-umvirate generally works quite well, it has never been in conditions as extreme as those Ireland is now facing. Howlin will need all of his reserves of experience to make a success of his demanding new role.
Joan Burton may have been luckier than she realises.