John Downing

Saturday 2 August 2014

Born under a lucky star – but will Joan's good luck extend to party's future?

John Downing

Published 05/07/2014|02:30

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Joan Burton with her daughter Aoife Carroll
Ms Burton as a young woman.

'JOAN Burton is like Marmite – you either really like her or you don't like her at all."

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That was the verdict of one long-time political associate on the woman who has spent her adult life as a Labour Party activist, and who now leads the battle for that party's very survival.

"She doesn't listen. And I don't mean that as a way of saying she won't do what you want her to do. I mean that all too often she simply does not listen at all. She is too busy thinking about something else and too often she is the one talking," another Labour stalwart offers.

"She will rarely if ever pass up an opportunity to promote a woman over a man," a third party activist offers rather ruefully as he ponders his potential future role.

The Dublin West TD and Tanaiste-elect has travelled a long road and shown considerable determination over 45 years of political activism. She married into the party and it has been a central feature of her professional, family and personal life.

She met her husband Pat Carroll through Labour. On a very wet afternoon in October 1973, he cycled across Dublin to her family home in Stoneybatter seeking her help ahead of yet another fractious Labour Party conference.

Joan Burton agreed to deliver her branch nomination for the maverick half-in-half-out Labour TD Noel Browne to allow him attend conference. The conference outcome is long forgotten but Pat and Joan will be married 40 years in August of next year.

At Leinster House, the couple, along with their daughter Aoife who is now a barrister, are seen as something of a mini political caucus. Joan Burton remains somewhat aloof from the parliamentary party, relying more on her family and a small group of friends for advice and support.

Pat Carroll is a mathematician by training and recently retired from his lecturing job with DIT. He was involved in Labour politics since the mid-1960s.

The couple spent two years working in Tanzania, Africa, in the mid-1980s. Joan recalls that it was during this time, using distance from Ireland to help her assessment, that she decided she wanted to be a politician. In the succeeding years, Pat decided to take a back seat and support her.

After an unsuccessful outing in the June 1989 Dail elections in Dublin Central, she switched to Dublin West and won in the November 1992 'Spring tide'. On her first week in the Dail, she was appointed a junior minister for social welfare responsible for anti-poverty measures.

It seemed an appropriate appointment for the scholarship girl who was among the few from Stoneybatter to go to college in the 1960s and who went on to qualify as a chartered accountant. But few at Leinster House or elsewhere knew just how apposite the appointment was.

Joan Burton was born in Carlow in February 1949 to a young woman who was unmarried. Later, painstaking research revealed that her father was very likely her mother's cousin.

The family did not shun her mother and Joan was born at their home in Carlow. But soon afterwards she was transferred to a baby hospital run by the Sisters of Charity in Blackrock, Dublin. Later research turned up a passport for her with entry visas for USA and Canada.

There was a huge trend in American-Irish adoptions in those years and right up to the 1970s. But the nuns deemed little Joan too frail for the journey and instead she was adopted by the Burtons.

"I've always considered myself born under a lucky star. I might have had a difficult start. But I was, like a lot of adopted people, incredibly lucky to find a second home where I was absolutely loved and cherished," she told the 'Sunday Independent' last month.

Eventually, she did trace her birth mother only to find that she had died, but she did also have emotional meetings with other relatives.

When the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition broke up in acrimony in November 1994, she retained her junior ministry in the new Rainbow Coalition headed by Taoiseach John Bruton. She moved to take responsibility for overseas aid and visited Rwanda to help guide Ireland's response to the awful genocide there in 1995.

Joan excelled in the job of overseas aid minister – but she also lost her seat as part of the anti-Labour backlash in the June 1997 election. It was a very difficult time as she was without a political platform, having been forced to give up her county council seat as a junior minister.

But she showed her determination to persist and won the last seat in Dublin West in June 2002, retaining that seat in subsequent elections in 2007 and 2011.

She was Labour finance spokesperson during the chaotic period of threatened bank collapse in autumn 2008 and excelled in her skillful excoriating of Brian Cowen's government performance.

"But she was less sure about what Labour's response should be. She was great at putting the boot in – but very slow to decide what Labour should propose," a party colleague of that era recalled yesterday.

She was also famously unhappy with Eamon Gilmore's leadership. Her constituency allocation of posters proclaiming "Gilmore for Taoiseach" while the party was enjoying opinion poll success were abandoned.

Joan Burton was utterly dismayed not to get the Public Spending Department when the new Government was announced on March 9, 2011. She got Social Protection, a much more junior job.

But again she persisted and managed to fight her corner well in the allocation of scarce public money. She also managed to cultivate a good public image in spite of the continual stream of bad news.

As party leader, Mr Gilmore continued to struggle; her declarations of support were often halting. After Labour's local and European electoral meltdown of May 23 last, her opportunity came as Mr Gilmore quit the leadership.

Through all the highs and lows of her political life, Joan Burton firmly believes that she was born under a lucky star. Labour Party loyalists now hope that she can bring a whole lot of luck to bear on their fortunes.

Four facts you may not know about Burton

* Her Labour activist husband, Pat Carroll, was first into politics. He was a Dublin city councillor for nine years. He stood unsuccessfully for the Dail in 1977.

* Former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy was in her BComm class in UCD. She had wanted to study English only but added commerce on the advice of one of the porters in UCD on her first day, who said: "You'll need a job".

* She stood against Bertie Ahern in Dublin Central for her first electoral outing in June 1989. But the real battle for Ms Burton was with her Labour running mate Joe Costello. Neither of them was elected on that occasion.

* She nearly went to the European Parliament. In June 1989, she had been chosen as "first sub" for Barry Desmond who was elected MEP. When he was appointed an EU Auditor in 1993, she was already a junior minister in the FF-Labour government. The MEP seat went to Bernie Malone.

Irish Independent

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