News John Downing

Friday 22 August 2014

From 'Ho Chi Quinn' to first Labour Finance chief, Ruairi can look on long march with pride

John Downing

Published 03/07/2014 | 02:30

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Ruairi Quinn
Ruairi Quinn

THE Maison d'Antoine is one of Europe's most famous chippers, celebrated for its double-fried Belgian frites. My first conversation with Ruairi Quinn was in the huge queue for Brussels's most celebrated take-away at a late hour on a freezing cold night in January 1995.

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As newly-appointed finance minister he was determined to deliver dinner promised to a group of journalists after an EU ministerial meeting which had dragged on well after restaurant closing time.

Thanks to indulgent staff the "health food" was consumed in a nearby bar. The rest of us had beer but Ruairi Quinn opted for a nice glass of French red as he talked quietly about his plans as Labour's first finance minister in the State's history.

The former student radical known as "Ho Chi Quinn" would soon be central to all the negotiations which would see the EU single currency launched on international money markets in 1999 and in people's pockets in 2002. It is excessive to say he actually came up with the name "euro" for the currency as has been claimed elsewhere yesterday.

But he did strongly defend the choice of the name arguing that it worked across the EU's many languages. In December 1996, he brokered a compromise on the EU currency membership rules as chair of a crucial all-night meeting in Dublin Castle. His architect's training also came into play as he had an input into the design of the euro notes through a competition run by the Irish EU presidency also in 1996.

For many, these were his finest years, as an avowed supporter of the EU project seeking ways to advance it. At home he acquitted himself well in the Rainbow Coalition bringing in the first budget surplus in many years.

But by summer of 1997 he was leading a Labour Party again in opposition and battered by voters after exiting two back-to-back coalition governments. It would be another 14 years before he would again enter cabinet at a time when the country was once more broke to the ropes.

Ruairi Quinn's announcement yesterday signals an end to an extraordinary political career which spans five decades. He was beaten by 39 votes in his 1973 debut Dail election, was appointed to the Seanad in 1976 and remained at Leinster House ever since. He was a TD, a senator, a junior minister and by turns Minister for Public Service, Labour, Enterprise, Finance and Education.

His surprise departure yesterday means that the spotlight now moves on to his other long-serving colleagues, Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore. By his own admission, Quinn jumped before he was pushed. A similar choice may await the other duo.

Across five decades he was uniquely involved in four coalition governments variously with Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and Democratic Left. The latter group was successfully merged with the Labour Party under his party leadership which ran from 1997-2002.

Quinn's decision to stand back from a pre-election coalition pact with Fine Gael in May 2002 contributed to electoral meltdown for FG. Neither did it work for Labour, as Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats had enough numbers to make up a renewed coalition government which would last another five years.

Quinn stood down as party leader in autumn 2002 and devoted considerable energy to work with the European socialist group where he is still highly rated. But the 2002 decision to shun FG, and Quinn's conduct during the ill-fated 1992-1994 Fianna Fail-Labour coalition, are sometimes used to blame him for a right-leaning trend in Irish politics over the decade 1997-2007.

It is accepted that Albert Reynolds's failure to meet Labour half-way in the coalition formed in late 1992 was the main cause for that government's collapse. But Quinn's insistence "on a head" in a complex row over a High Court appointment is also cited.

The complicated thesis has it that Quinn's role in this FF-Labour rupture and his failure to agree a pre-election Labour-FG pact in 2002 opened the door for the small but forceful Progressive Democrats to dominate government from 1997 to 2007 and drag it to the political right.

The argument further goes that had FF-Labour worked from 1992 onwards, it could well have been re-elected in 1997, and thus have delivered 10 years of centre left government.

As a theory this is both too neat and too complex to fit the realities of day-to-day politics. The simple truth is that Quinn's role in the FF-Labour coalition's demise was minor enough and his options in 2002 were limited and luck was not with him.

His recent three-year stint has been a mixed bag, overshadowed by his discreditable breaking of an election pledge on third level fees. Progress has been made on reducing the Catholic church's role in education, and there are some good things in planned reform of the Junior Cert. But the latter is flawed on the issue of teachers assessing their own pupils.

Overall, though as the curtain comes down on a five-decade political career, Ruairi Quinn can look back with considerable pride.

Irish Independent

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