Tuesday 20 February 2018

New Labour leader struggles to shake 'taint' of Fine Gael

Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan had a close working relationship Picture: Frank Mc Grath
Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan had a close working relationship Picture: Frank Mc Grath

Fallout from the Alan Kelly leadership contest 'lock-out' may not be Brendan Howlin's biggest problem. Bigger by far will be the perception that the new Labour leader had morphed into a 'crypto Fine Gaeler' during his five years in government from March 2011 until just three weeks ago.

How can the 'minister for cuts' suddenly become the workers' champion? And can he, with any credibility, attack his former government colleagues?

Can we ever imagine him rounding on his all-time best buddy, Finance Minister Michael Noonan, with whom he founded a public mutual-admiration society?

Some within Labour feared that the division of the Finance Department on March 9, 2011, fell far better for the senior party of government. It meant that Michael Noonan was the 'tax gatherer' in Finance. But Brendan Howlin, as Public Expenditure Minister, was the spreader - the spreader of misery, for the most part.

As the minister in charge of that most difficult and thankless department, he had a huge bearing in reducing public-service pay and seeking more working hours. He was the one who perennially said "no" to the Department of Health in a situation which frequently left that troubled zone with a 'fictional budget'.

It is to his credit that he held the line and successfully kept spending ceilings in all the major spending departments. It is to his further credit that the public pay bill was tamed without any significant industrial unrest.

History will very probably be kind to him. But that is very unlikely to help him rebuild Labour right now.

Brendan Howlin is also entitled to credit in another area of his ministerial portfolio relating to political reform. His worst moment in that regard was the loss of the referendum in October 2011, which would have empowered Oireachtas committees to properly investigate issues such as the bank system's collapse.

Howlin and government colleagues failed to sell the case and were upended by a belated rearguard action by lawyers.

But on his watch there was whistleblowers legislation, reform of Freedom of Information and a first move to bring accountability to political lobbying.

The importance of these things can be lost on voters - but they are significant.

Recalling them will gain him credibility with Labour's faithful and may help restore relations.

But beyond the Labour faithful, it will be a hard slog to win kudos for them.

In February, voters clearly did not rate them as stand-out achievements of the last Government.

From the moment he was declared elected in bizarre circumstances last Friday, Howlin was trying to renew his Labour vows, evoking the legacy of the long-time leader Brendan Corish in his Wexford base. He has an ability to buck trends - he was first elected in 1987 when Labour took a pasting.

In 1997, when voters again turned on the party, he was elected on the first count in Wexford, where he has a big personal support.

He also has the vital political attribute of persistence, having failed twice to win the leadership in 1997 and 2002.

Brendan Howlin is a politician of skill and eloquence who served in three coalitions. First appointed in January 1993 to the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition, he later served in the 1994-1997 Rainbow Coalition. There was a long period in opposition in 1997-2011, characterised, among other things, by opposition to a 2007 electoral pact with Fine Gael. Such scepticism about Fine Gael was never in evidence in the last government.

There was a change of gear in evidence yesterday in his first-ever question to the Taoiseach as Labour leader. Howlin asked would the Government speed up restoration of pay and pension cuts, without saying he himself had created many of them.

Slyly, the Taoiseach complimented Howlin on his previous good work on public pay.

Irish Independent

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