Thursday 18 December 2014

Joan Burton in battle mode as Labour builds its defence

Party's biggest asset leads charge in town as crucial election draws near

Published 06/04/2014 | 02:30

On the campaign trail: Lorraine Higgins (centre), the European  candidate, with Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton in Mountmellick, Co Laois. Photo: Tony Gavin
On the campaign trail: Lorraine Higgins (centre rear), the European candidate, with Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton in Mountmellick, Co Laois. Photo: Tony Gavin

WE are in Portlaoise, and Labour Party Senator John Whelan, in freshly-polished shoes, is clucking over Social Protection Minister Joan Burton with the proprietorial delight of a hen who has laid a particularly fine egg.

Though it has not upset the consciousness of the voters too much, the political establishment are acutely aware that only two months remain before the local and European elections.

Normally, such elections are dismissed but the imploding status of FG, Labour's standing as the walking dead and FF's ongoing position as the Unforgiven Ones of Irish politics means almost anything can happen and any meaning can be taken from the results.

In theory, Laois-Offaly should be a putative Labour gain, because in election 2011 – even with the ebbing of the Gilmore tide – Whelan was the last man out.

Despite this result, Whelan still needs to get councillors elected in the traditionally arid territories of Laois as a sign that Labour will have skin in the game in 2016.

Outside of a slew of local councillors, the party's North East candidate, Lorraine Higgins, who narrowly lost out in the general election to that exotic political bird, Colm Keaveney, is also present.

The Senator, the councillors and the EU election candidate have different needs but all are united in the hope the sunlight of Labour's biggest electoral asset may warm their fragile chances.

When, after a quick check of the hair, Joan sweeps into a business breakfast at Mulhall's Restaurant, 'where friends meet', the demanding nature of the audience is epitomised by one exchange where Joan's query of "do you see the retail recovery?" is met by a tart response of "no" from a local retailer AJ Flynn.

There is plenty of straight-talking as the 'Downtown traders' engage with the minister about the "17 vacant units on the street", competing with the dole for workers and the "70 months of hell" the business community has gone through.

Joan, however, deals with the complaints with a patented mix of empathy, knowledge and reason.

The minister notes she had driven "down the main street this morning. I always do that to see what shops are boarded up" and responds to concerns that Labour is not the business person's friend by citing "Ruairi Quinn's experience in architecture and construction, I was in accountancy and finance; I think that rates very well compared to the Cabinet".

As Whelan enters the fray, with the observation that "the only finance spokesperson to oppose the banking guarantee was Joan; that was business judgement and business savvy when it counts" the Downtown traders leave in a better humour than when they came in.

Throughout the rest of the day's canvass, it swiftly becomes clear there are echoes of Bertie Ahern's boundless energy around Joan, as the intensity of the 60-something Social Protection Minister's canvass leaves those half her age wilting.

Like Bertie, she also has a connection with every group, as a charmed group of UN veterans are told of her family's army history.

On meeting Archie Raeside, one of the last army survivors from that tragic first Irish UN mission of the Congo in 1960, we are treated to the somewhat unlikely spectacle of the two chatting amicably about the respective parts of the Congo Joan has visited.

At a Men's Shed group, as they examine a varnished hazel stick that is a work of pure art, one of the lads happily notes "you should bring that back for Mr Shatter".

Fortunately, the minister does not cite her most high-profile use of a shed to safely store all of those 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' posters.

The men in the shed are equally charmed "at the first woman in here" and we move on to a plethora of Citizens Advice Centres where the main activity is the taking of photographs of a smiling minister and equally happy citizens.

It is not a first either – for the Whelan literature on political issues is speckled with photographs of Joan at the Ploughing Championship and Jobs-plus announcements.

Oddly enough, Messrs Gilmore and Rabbitte are absent from the pages.

The pleasantries are of course nice, but the minister is also knowledgeable and empathetic on everything from dementia to prisoners securing work.

Even the formidable worker who notes that "a rise would not go amiss" is sweetly told: "in 2016, 17 or 18 things should pick up considerably".

As the minister engages with a mums' group that is the grateful recipient of a €10,000 grant, the talk outside is of national politics where the citizenry are particularly intrigued by the conundrum where "every time Fianna Fail attack the Government, the Sinn Fein vote goes up".

The main concern of the councillors, Senator, spindoctors, EU candidates, drivers and advisers accompanying the minister, of course, is whether the Labour vote will go up.

And while Burton's presence certainly brought a bit of sweetness and light to the political lives of Labour's struggling candidates, two concerns will preoccupy them.

Outside of the unlikely-hood of that warmth lasting through to May, many in Labour wonder just how well the increasingly detached Mr Gilmore would have fared on such a tour.

Sunday Independent

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