Sunday 26 January 2020

Knives out in Labour as Howlin eyes Burton's leader role

Brendan Howlin: discussed leadership heave at meeting. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Brendan Howlin: discussed leadership heave at meeting. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Niall O'Connor

Outgoing Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin is actively seeking support for a tilt at the Labour leadership - as pressure grows on party leader Joan Burton to announce her decision to step down as early next week.

Mr Howlin held a meeting with Cork East TD Sean Sherlock in Leinster House on Thursday, during which the pair discussed the prospect of an immediate challenge to Ms Burton's leadership.

Mr Sherlock is understood to have agreed to support Mr Howlin, according to party sources.

The pair are also believed to have reached a consensus that Ms Burton should announce her intentions to step down as party leader in the coming days - instead of waiting until after a Government is formed.

Several party sources last night said Ms Burton faces the prospect of being told next week to step down and that her position is no longer tenable.

"Joan knows the writing is on the wall and, although she feels bruised, it is time to step aside sooner rather than later. That message will be made clear to her possibly as early as next week," a senior party source told the Irish Independent.

The meeting between Mr Howlin and Mr Sherlock took place just 24 hours after Ms Burton's leadership came under attack at a party meeting in Dublin.

Several defeated TDs, including Emmet Stagg, Anne Ferris, Michael McCarthy and Ciarán Lynch, all demanded a change of leadership.

But following the meeting, Ms Burton is believed to have told colleagues that she felt "set up" by Mr Howlin.

The Wexford TD sat back for most of the meeting as members queued up to criticise the party leadership.

During Ms Burton's own contribution, which lasted almost 30 minutes, Mr Sherlock stood up and walked out.

He later expressed deep frustration to colleagues that the meeting did not discuss how to put in place new structures so the party can move forward.

But in a further development last night, sources confirmed that Alan Kelly, the outgoing Environment Minister, has begun seeking support for a leadership bid.

However, in order to do so, the Tipperary TD will require the support of at least one other member of the parliamentary party.

He is now expected to speak to the remainder of his colleagues - Jan O'Sullivan, Brendan Ryan and parliamentary party chairman Willie Penrose - to determine whether he can secure their support.

The news of Mr Kelly's interest the leadership will surprise many in the party, who believe he has been damaged following his claim that "power is a drug" during a recent Sunday Independent interview.

Labour's deputy leader told the meeting on Wednesday that he regrets the remark.

Sources last night pointed out that Mr Kelly is far more popular among Labour's grassroots than his national profile would suggest.

There is also bad blood between Mr Kelly and Mr Sherlock that is widely known about within the party.

Meanwhile, relations between Mr Kelly and Mr Howlin have also soured during the lengthy government row over rental regulation.

These strained relations are seen as a factor in encouraging Mr Kelly to put himself forward for the leadership so as to ensure Mr Howlin is not treated to a 'coronation'.

The issue of the Labour leadership is now likely to come to a head at the Labour parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday.

The party's national executive did meet on Thursday - however, the issue of leadership was not discussed.

Instead, party figures discussed staffing and the need to relocate its headquarters to a more modest venue.

Irish Independent

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