Sunday 25 September 2016

New Labour leader Howlin has thunder stolen by rival Kelly

Alan Kelly's 'petulant' absence from press conference raises eyebrows, writes John Downing

Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30

Leadership rivals: Alan Kelly and Brendan Howlin at a Labour event last week. Photo: Collins
Leadership rivals: Alan Kelly and Brendan Howlin at a Labour event last week. Photo: Collins

Modesty is not Alan Kelly's strong suit, nor is patience. And he came a long way in a short few years. In July 2007, he was a new Senator and by July 2014 he had one of the biggest budget Cabinet jobs as Environment Minister. He was also deputy Labour leader and it was widely assumed that he would lead the party soon after that.

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In fact, the only doubt about his future leadership in 2014 centred on what would be left to lead. Now, following a gruelling stand-off with his six party colleagues, Alan Kelly has been bested in a leadership battle which ended because he could not get to the pitch where he felt he could have won.

Mr Kelly launched his campaign last week on RTÉ's 'Late Late Show', addressing his message to the 4,000 Labour members who could decide on a one-member/one-vote basis. He looked a likely winner, viewed by some observers as the one who could find the party some space and listening time in a very crowded and noisy political opposition space.

But there was a small technicality: he needed one TD to second his own nomination of himself.

There followed a series of pressure-cooker meetings. Kelly was trying to get one of them to sign his nomination, even purely in the interests of democracy, rather than as a declaration of explicit support.

It is clear that Kelly's colleagues could not get beyond their doubt and dislike of the Tipperary bruiser. What made doubters think again was that Howlin insisted he would not contest a members' vote.

The only way Howlin was going for leadership was via the endorsement of his TD colleagues, what some would dub "a coronation". Howlin, who turned 60 earlier this month, brushed aside this characterisation - saying it is simply what the Labour Party constitution says.

It must also be noted that the Wexford man, who evokes the proud Labour tradition of Brendan Corish, lost two leadership elections in the past. He was defeated by Ruairi Quinn in 1997 and by Pat Rabbitte in 2002. If his parliamentary colleagues wanted him so badly this time round, then they would have to keep Alan Kelly off the pitch.

And that was what they did. At lunchtime yesterday, this strange process meant that Brendan Howlin was the last man standing. His colleagues - bar one Alan Thomas Kelly - accompanied him to meet the awaiting political journalists.

Obvious questions like 'How in the love of God can you resurrect this battered Labour brand?' took a back seat to the 'K-questions'.

There were mutterings that Kelly was "considering his position in Labour."

By his absence, Kelly was suddenly becoming rather like Banquo's ghost at the feast in Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'. In a further ironic twist, Howlin himself read a congratulatory text message from Kelly.

It later became clear that Alan Kelly was not parting company with Labour. "Despite disagreements, we all need to support the revival of our great party. Warm congrats to Brendan and all his team in Wexford," he said via Twitter.

Kelly later said he had wanted a contest to involve members and get their ideas on Labour's potential revival. "The rest of the parliamentary party took a different view to what I believe is the members' wish and entitlement," he said.

There were also noises off from several leading party members. From Limerick, Labour election strategist Joe Kemmy, a brother of the late Jim Kemmy, went on RTÉ news to express his displeasure at what he called "a plot". Former Dublin South Central TD Mary Upton was another prominent member who decried the lack of a contest.

Others in the parliamentary party dismissed Kelly's behaviour, especially his absence yesterday, as "childish".

Some suggested that his petulance eloquently explained why they doubted his ability to lead Labour at this crucial juncture.

Many others will doubt Brendan Howlin's ability to re-invent himself as leader of a left-leaning Labour after five years as a hard-line Public Expenditure Minister.

He is among the most eloquent and accomplished politicians this country ever produced, having served in three coalitions.

The doubt will centre on Howlin's taste for political scrapping.

Of course, Alan Kelly has that attribute in abundance - but his colleagues thought this was not enough to make them trust him with the party leadership.

Irish Independent

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