Thursday 14 December 2017

More to leader than her failure to banish Labour's many bitter election woes

Joan Burton with former leader Dick Spring
Joan Burton with former leader Dick Spring
Joan Burton as a young Labour member
John Downing

John Downing

We already knew how this one ended. Joan Burton took over as leader of a very battered Labour Party, in early July 2014, and will leave an even more battered party to her successor in the coming weeks.

Critics may say her ousted predecessor, Eamon Gilmore, to whom she was infamously disloyal, could have handily delivered that outcome.

The party was on 7pc of the national vote when Gilmore was forced to quit just hours after counting was completed in the May 2014 local and European elections. And they got 6.6pc of national first preferences on February 26 last, dropping from 37 TDs in 2011 to the current seven TDs.

Yet there is much more to Joan Burton's almost 50-year association with the Labour Party. Many of them turn around her boundless capacity to continue in adversity, a trait on display in abundance yesterday as she stubbornly refused to admit that she made any mistakes over the past two years.

In fairness, this first woman Labour Party leader had grounds for arguing that her party and she had played their part in Ireland's economic revival over the past five years. They have justification for arguing that the most vulnerable people were protected on their watch in government.

Ireland was the only country in such a parlous economic position not to cut core welfare rates in the midst of its economic nightmare. But credit in that regard must also go to the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition which preceded Fine Gael-Labour.

Joan Burton can also take some credit for increases to the minimum wage, the creation of a Low Pay Commission and launching debate on the concept of a living wage. She also showed courage in taking the blows on efforts to steer unemployed young people and lone parents towards work, training or education, instead of long-term welfare dependence.

None of these things helped Labour avoid a woeful general election defeat. The cruel reality is that injudicious promises in the February 2011 general election could never be recalled or explained away. The fundamental problem was that the bulk of voters had stopped listening to Labour long ago.

She would come out well in a 'compare and contrast' between her and Enda Kenny's recent general election campaigns. True, she struggled in some of the TV debates. But unlike the other leaders like Gerry Adams, she made no gaffes.

Taking the longer view of her involvement in Labour and politics, she emerges as one of the few people who blazed a trail on behalf of women. As well as being the first Labour leader, she was one of only three women who held the office of Tánaiste.

She showed courage in adversity. Her first Dáil foray in June 1989 ended in defeat, before she won in the 1992 "Spring tide".

She was appointed junior minister for social welfare on her first Dáil stint in the in the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition.

Under the Rainbow Coalition which followed in December 1994, she moved to overseas aid and impressed, especially helping frame Ireland's response to the Rwandan genocide.

Joan Burton battled back to the Dáil in 2002 after defeat in the 1997 election and she eventually became finance spokesman at the time of the economic crash. Here she did well, excoriating the government - but was not convincing in framing Labour's response to the crisis. Michael Noonan, doing the same job in opposition for Fine Gael, was deemed to have a much clearer grasp of the situation.

She was devastated when she did not get the Labour post of Public Expenditure Minister, which went to Brendan Howlin.

Being Social Protection Minister was poor consolation. But she threw herself into it and managed a positive image despite ongoing austerity Ultimately, however, her singular disloyalty to Gilmore did her no good.

Irish Independent

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