Sunday 18 March 2018

Joan bows to the inevitable but history will be kinder

Joan Burton speaks to media at RHA Gallery after she announced her resignation as party leader (Photo: Steve Humphreys)
Joan Burton speaks to media at RHA Gallery after she announced her resignation as party leader (Photo: Steve Humphreys)
Joan Burton played a strong role in the May 2015 same sex marriage referendum and was vocal in calling for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment on abortion. She agreed with Fine Gael to park the issue until after the recent election (Photo: Frank McGrath)
Water was not her happiest element. In November 2014 water protesters detained her for two hours in Tallaght. In December 2015, she fell from a boat while visiting flood-stricken areas in Kilkenny (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

With business completed, Joan Burton wandered over to have a closer look at some of the paintings hanging on the wall of the Royal Hibernian Academy. She seemed almost in a dreamlike state.

Many of the old Labour Party staff had come back to say goodbye - some who have moved on to other positions as well as others now seeking work after the bloodbath.

Her hairdresser, who had tended her tresses on a daily basis throughout the election, was there.

So too were her daughter, Aoife, her husband, Pat, and the former Senator Mairia Cahill, to whom Joan has been something of a surrogate mother of late.

The outgoing Labour Party leader's inner circle is a small one - but it is unparalleled in its ferocious loyalty.

Several in the room had tears in their eyes.

The atmosphere within the party has been "changed utterly" since the election, said an insider, claiming: "It's been a different place completely."

The only thing keeping the announcement from descending into a wake was Joan herself - who was brisk and practical. Her mourning had already been done - it has been 75 long and introspective days since she landed, ashen-faced, into the Dublin West count centre in Phibblestown following her own late-night reprieve and the general Labour decimation.

Then, she had ground her knuckles into her eyes to stop the tears from coming.

She recognised the inevitable, even at that stage.

This time, there were again no tears - but only a slight thickening of her voice as she confirmed what was already known. Her fractious tenure at the helm of the shattered party was over.


This was her day and she was duly flanked with respect by the 11 remaining Labour TDs and Senators.

It mattered not for now that at least three of them have leadership ambitions - nobody would counter any speculation as to who will be take over.

Unless you count the press release sent out by RTÉ announcing that Alan Kelly will be appearing on Friday night's 'Late Late Show'.

Of all female politicians this State has seen, Joan managed to climb furthest up the greasy pole - as leader of a major party and Tánaiste - after almost 50 years of political activism. (Yes, Mary Harney held the same positions, but the PDs were a niche party. Up to the election wipeout, Labour was the second largest party.)

And it was something Joan remembered in her dealings with other women in the political circle.

"She will rarely, if ever, pass up an opportunity to promote a woman over a man. She lives her strongly-held feminist principles," an activist mused ruefully two years ago after she was appointed leader.

Even as she was questioned over her possible successors, she reminded them of the presence of Jan O'Sullivan - who subsequently admitted she wasn't ruling it out.

Joan had been "very strong" as a leader, said Jan, adding she was "very proud as a woman that she was the first female leader of the Labour Party".

Brendan Howlin described her as "an extraordinary, compassionate, committed woman who has been a role model for women across the country".

But Joan's very femininity - which was her fundamental strength - was also part of her downfall. 'Joan the Moan' became her nickname. Voters complained of her "screechy" voice - which was a boon for professional mimics.

As she stood in the gallery of the RHA, there was none of that, only a quiet dignity and a regret that things had not been different.

But as well, there seemed to be something of a short-sightedness in seeing where the problems really lay. Rightly or wrongly, many people feel Labour let down the most vulnerable.

"Like most of the party, I entered government with both hope and fear in my heart - hope that, with unyielding effort and sustained policy implementation, we could turn things around; fear that the situation had already deteriorated to a point of no return," she said.

"In the five years that followed, the Labour Party stood by the Republic, helping people back to work, safeguarding the social protection system against those who would have stripped it to the bone, building new schools across the country, and securing the funding for a new social housing programme - while all the time dealing with the morass of failed banks and toxic banking debt."

She reminded us of the uncertain and unstable place Ireland had been back then.

Had the Labour Party left the country in a better place than they had found it?

Joan thought so.

She was asked if she would have done anything different - but misunderstood the question, going off on a different track.

Asked again, she drifted off again almost dreamily.

She would have liked more hours in the day. In fact, she would have liked 48 of them.

There was a hint of bitterness in her words as she said how there was a level of "very raw politics" in terms of "some people" projecting for political reasons a very negative image on Labour.


On the other hand, an academic article published three weeks ago showed the party fulfilled "over 60pc of their promises".

"I think when the heat of the battle has died will allow people to be more reflective," she said, certain history will be kinder than might be suggested today.

She said she had devoted a lot of time and attention to turning the Department of Social Protection around, prompting laughter as she quipped: "I hope other people will look after it."

She refused to be drawn on who her successor might be.

But directly behind her, practically queuing up, stood Alan Kelly, his eyes glittering with the kill.

Irish Independent

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