Time not on side of 'best leader Labour never had'
Published 28/08/2007 | 11:39
BRENDAN Howlin’s supporters will probably argue he’s destined to go down in history as the best leader the Labour Party never had.
The only problem is the party had two opportunities to elect him as leader and declined on both occasions.
Nonetheless, Howlin’s contribution to the party is indisputable.
He was bitten by the political bug in the late 1970s when he campaigned against a nuclear power station at Carnsore Point in his native Co Wexford.
Hailing from the party heartland of Wexford town, the Labour movement was already in his blood.
His late father, John, was a party councillor and an official with the old Irish Transport and General Workers Union in Wexford. His father was also close confidante of former Labour leader and Tanaiste Brendan Corish, and Howlin Jnr later followed in his footsteps by joining the Corish campaign.
He was director of elections for Corish’s last Dail campaign in the late 1970s.
After qualifying as a primary school teacher, Howlin followed in his father’s footsteps and was elected to Wexford Borough Council and subsequently the county council.
Missing out in the 1982 general election, he was a Taoiseach’s nominee to the Seanad and was first elected as a TD in 1987 at the age of 31.
When Labour returned to Government in the ill-fated coalition with Fianna Fail in 1992, Howlin was made Minister for Health.
He switched portfolios to become Minister for the Environment when Labour entered the Rainbow administration with Fine Gael and Democratic Left in 1994.
Howlin was part of the Labour negotiation team on that occasion and the Fine Gael side claimed he was quite keen to move on from health.
In both departments, he was regarded as a bright and progressive figure.
When Dick Spring resigned as leader in 1997, Howlin ran against Ruairi Quinn for the title and was narrowly beaten by 34 votes to 27. He became deputy leader and a key member of Quinn’s kitchen cabinet.
Back in opposition, Howlin took on the justice portfolio for Labour and is best known from this period for his role in revealing corruption in the Donegal Gardai, which led to the setting up of the Morris Tribunal.
Along with his Fine Gael counterpart Jim Higgins, he resisted intense pressure to reveal the source of his information and access to documents on the McBrearty case.
After the 2002 general election, history repeated itself, Quinn resigned and Howlin ran for the leadership for the second time.
Despite being seen as Quinn’s anointed heir and being well thought of within the parliamentary party, he failed to build on his favourites tag and lost to Pat Rabbitte.
Staying on the frontbench, he was again capable as enterprise and, later, justice spokesman. Over the past five years, he was clearly identified as the main opponent to Rabbitte’s electoral strategy and the Mullingar Accord pact with Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael.
After the election, he accepted Bertie Ahern’s offer to become Leas-Cheann Comhairle of the Dail, even if it did mean a step back from the frontline of party politics.
Pat Rabbitte’s unexpected resignation last week caught him off guard as he took the plum job in anticipation of their being no vacancy at the top of the party for another year, at least.
At the age of 51, he insists he still has much to contribute to politics but there is a sense his career is now on the downward curve.
Howlin is single and his personal life has been the source of controversy in the past.
In a celebrated interview in ‘The Star’ newspaper before the last leadership contest, Howlin denied he was gay.
There was a view his decision to reject rumours he was gay backfired, and it was reported rumours he was gay cost him votes in the 1997 contest for the leadership of the Labour Party.