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Tug of War: how tension prevails over Labour's leadership

Steady-as-he-goes Labour leader Brendan Howlin has more than stagnant party poll ­results to worry about; how can he ward off his younger, brasher rival Alan Kelly? In the last of our series on political odd couples, ­Andrew Lynch ­reports

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Brendan Howlin and Alan Kelly in 2012. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Brendan Howlin and Alan Kelly in 2012. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Alan Kelly after re-election in 2016. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Alan Kelly after re-election in 2016. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Brendan Howlin after re-election in 2016. Photo: Mary Browne

Brendan Howlin after re-election in 2016. Photo: Mary Browne

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Brendan Howlin and Alan Kelly in 2012. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

On May 20, 2016, in the Royal College of Physicians, Brendan Howlin was crowned leader of the Labour Party without a contest. Alan Kelly decided not to attend. Later that day, the Tipperary TD, whose colleagues had denied him a place on the ballot paper, sat in his local pub and tweeted a photograph showing seven pint glasses filled with varying amounts of Guinness. It was accompanied by a cryptic message which read, "The seven stages of leadership!"

Kelly's motivation for this has never been entirely clear. One Labour source at the time suggested that he was "taking the piss out of himself", while another believed he was "licking his wounds and wanted to make sure, 'I'm the story this evening'." The man himself had a much more innocent explanation: "It was a bit of craic."

Whatever the truth, it seems safe to assume that leadership issues are still very much on Kelly's mind. Over a year and a half since Howlin defeated him for Labour's top job, the unresolved tension between them has become a running sore within the party. With Labour stuck at around 5pc in most opinion polls and apparently going nowhere fast, the TDs who froze Kelly out must be asking themselves an awkward question - did we make the right choice?

Dick Spring famously once said that leading the Labour Party was "like taking a bath in public - difficult to do it with dignity". Today, Brendan Howlin knows exactly what he meant. In virtually every New Year's interview given by the current leader this month, he has been asked about the fiery Tipp man breathing down his neck.

"Alan is personally ambitious and that's a very fine trait," Howlin told one of his interrogators. "I encourage ambition… but in terms of leadership, that's a settled matter. I will lead Labour into the next election."

Unfortunately for Howlin, the situation is not nearly so simple. As recently as November 6, Kelly took the extraordinary step of giving his boss a deadline for improvement. "We need to see a dramatic change in how our support base is responding to us," he told The Sunday Show on TV3. "We also need to see changes across a whole range of issues." Asked if he would give Howlin six months to increase Labour's poll ratings, Kelly replied: "I would say less than that."

The response was telling. At a meeting of Labour's parliamentary party shortly afterwards, several TDs and senators rebuked Kelly for publicly undermining their leader. Outside Leinster House, however, several councillors admitted that he had a point - including Mick Duff in Dublin South-West, Lettie McCarthy in Dublin-Rathdown, Fiona Bonfield in Tipperary and Frankie Daly in Limerick. The chair of the Association of Labour Councillors, Dermot Lacey, went so far as to say: "If there had been an election [in 2016], I would have voted for Alan. If there is an election, I will vote for him. At the moment there isn't a contest."

Safe pair of hands

So with the clock now ticking, what sort of relationship do Labour's odd couple really have? "It's not as good as perhaps we would like it to be," the outgoing SIPTU president and prospective Dáil candidate Jack O'Connor admitted on RTÉ radio a fortnight ago. "I think [Kelly] has ambitions, he's entitled to hold those ambitions and the time will come when he'll get a chance to offer himself to the party membership. But that time is not now." Asked if Kelly would make a good leader one day, O'Connor gave the non-committal reply: "I think he's developing."

The choice of Howlin over Kelly in May 2016 had nothing to do with policy or ideology. Instead, it was almost entirely about character.

Howlin is a calm, cautious, exceptionally reserved man and often described as "a safe pair of hands". Kelly is, in his own words, "brash, upfront and opinionated". Howlin always chooses his words deliberately, while Kelly's tendency to shoot from the hip has earned him the nickname 'AK47'.

Howlin is a regular guest at the Wexford Opera Festival, Kelly is fanatical about Irish rock music and claims to know every song ever recorded by Thin Lizzy. Howlin is single and has always refused to talk about his private life since a 2002 interview in which he denied being gay, Kelly is married with two young children.

In the aftermath of a disastrous general election, it was hardly surprising that Labour's surviving TDs chose steadiness and experience over youthful aggression. The two men do, however, have a few things in common, too. Both come from small-town Ireland, both were effectively born into the Labour Party - and both are passionate about rescuing it from its current slump.

Howlin even has the distinction of being named after another Labour leader, Brendan Corish. His late father John was Corish's long-term director of elections in Wexford as well as a Labour councillor and trade union official. Brendan qualified as a national teacher but soon began his own political career, entering the Seanad at the age of 26 in 1983 and the Dáil four years later.

Although Howlin became widely respected for his parliamentary skills, he also developed a pompous manner which left some colleagues cold. He served as Minister for Health and Minister for the Environment in the 1990s, but gradually came to be seen as Labour's 'nearly man'. After losing two leadership elections in 1997 and 2002 (to Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte respectively), he declined to be a candidate when the job became vacant again in 2007 - prompting speculation that his ambitions were over for good. Following Labour's return to Government Buildings after the 2011 general election, however, Howlin found himself catapulted back into the frontline. Eamon Gilmore controversially chose him to become Minister for Public Expenditure instead of finance spokesman Joan Burton, a decision that left Burton privately furious. Howlin went on to form an effective double act with Fine Gael's Michael Noonan, delivering five budgets together and guiding Ireland out of the EU/IMF bailout - but when yet another Labour leadership contest came up in 2014, he apparently decided that Burton was unbeatable.

Alan Kelly's career has been even more topsy-turvy. He comes from the village of Portroe in Co Tipperary, which is one of Labour's few rural strongholds, mainly because miners in a local slate quarry formed a union there. The Kelly family has strong Labour connections and one of Alan's earliest memories is sitting on his father's knee while listening to him complaining about Charles Haughey. At the age of eight, Kelly stood up in class and announced that he would be a TD one day. He was a keen sportsman and once recalled: "I used to get into trouble playing rugby, hurling and football. So, I would've seen my share of red cards. I'd be pretty expressive on a pitch!"

After working for nine years as an e-business manager with Fáilte Ireland, Kelly was elected to the Seanad in 2007. He then set his sights on a European Parliament seat in 2009, promising party members that he would run "the most professional campaign you have ever seen". He won with the aid of a campaign rap song which included the lyrics: "His opinion isn't outdated like lino in kitchens - and women like to say he looks like Brian O'Driscoll."

Although Kelly had promised to serve a full five-year term in Brussels, he decided in 2011 that Dáil Éireann was in greater need of his talents and successfully contested the general election. He was immediately appointed as a junior minister for transport and continued his rise to the top. The 2014 deputy leadership contest saw him cementing his reputation as a grassroots favourite, triumphing with 51pc of the vote in a four-person race.

As soon as Kelly reached the cabinet table, however, he ran into difficulties. The new Labour leader Joan Burton made him Minister for the Environment with responsibility for Irish Water, which he later acknowledged was something of a "hospital pass". He pinned his hopes on the introduction of a new pricing scheme, but failed to prevent the water charges issue from turning into a political disaster.

Kelly's bruising personality, meanwhile, also began to make him enemies both inside and outside Labour. Eyebrows were raised over a newspaper interview in which he described power as "a drug", adding: "It's attractive. It's something you thrive on… I think it suits me." He was also mocked for his exuberant celebrations after being narrowly re-elected in the last general election, repeatedly roaring, "Yeeeees!" at the count centre as his face turned redder than his tie.

Leadership contests are often decided by timing. Howlin and Kelly approached the 2016 race from very different perspectives, with the older man's reputation on a relative high and the younger one struggling to regain his footing. Kelly made it clear that he was determined to run anyway, while Howlin told colleagues that he would only accept the job if it was given to him without a fight.

After a week of private canvassing and a typically combative appearance on the Late Late Show (where he responded to Ryan Tubridy's probing by saying: "It's like me asking you, do you intend to present this show next week?"), Kelly had to accept the humiliating reality. Not a single Labour TD was prepared to second his nomination. He made his displeasure crystal clear by staying away from Howlin's public coronation, a decision which left the new leader "hugely disappointed".

"It was wrong - and I'll always think it was wrong," Kelly said when reflecting on the episode last year. "I was pretty annoyed about what happened. It was a difficult period but I've moved on.

"There are no issues. I don't bear grudges. But you don't forget. You put it inward and you use it for motivation."

Now it looks as if the two men's political fortunes are diverging once again. Although Howlin's leadership of the party has been steady and competent as expected, he is clearly struggling to make an impact outside the Leinster House bubble and his personal approval rating in last Thursday's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll was a dismal 18pc. Even Kelly's harshest critics, meanwhile, must concede that AK47 has started scoring some direct hits - most notably his forensic Dáil questions about garda whistleblowers that forced the resignation of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in November.

Challengers on horizon

From Kelly's point of view, it is easy to see why he would prefer another leadership contest sooner rather than later. If Howlin steps down or is forced out before the next general election, Kelly will be a virtual certainty to replace him. If not, then former TDs such as Ged Nash or Aodhán Ó Ríordáin might have a chance to re-enter Dáil Éireann and become potential candidates themselves. The outcome of this power struggle could have national implications as well. While Labour may seem stuck in the doldrums now, even a modest recovery would see them re-emerge as viable coalition partners for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. It does not require a huge leap of the imagination to see Howlin, Kelly or even both serving in cabinet again before the decade is out.

One of Howlin's favourite pieces of music is the The Pearl Fishers' Duet by Georges Bizet, in which two men promise that they will stay friends forever. In the end, one sacrifices his life to preserve the other's happiness.

Whether or not Labour's leadership tug-of-war has a similar outcome is something that Howlin and Kelly will have to work out for themselves.

Labour's Odd Couple at a glance

Brendan Howlin

Age: 61

Family: Single.

Education: Wexford CBS, St Patrick's College, Drumcondra.

Political CV: Senator 1983-87. TD for Wexford since 1987. Minister for Health 1993-94. Minister for the Environment 1994-97. Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform 2011-16. Leader of the Labour Party 2016 to present.

Howlin on Howlin: "I like to be a private person when I can be [but] my home is a very open forum where people come to see me."

Kelly on Howlin: "Brendan Howlin has my support, however let me say this very clearly - we need to see a dramatic change in how our support base is responding to us."

Alan Kelly

Age: 42

Family: Married to primary school teacher Regina O'Connor since 2004. The couple have two young children, Aoibhe (7) and Senan (6).

Education: Nenagh CBS, UCC (BA in History and English, M.Phil Hons in Political History), Boston College (Certificate in Leadership), UCD (MBS in e-Commerce)

Political CV: Senator 2007-09. MEP for Munster 2009-11. TD for Tipperary since 2011. Minister of State for Public Transport 2011-14. Minister for the Environment 2014-16.

Kelly on Kelly: "I am probably one of the most ambitious people you are ever going to interview." (January 2016) "I must be the most psychoanalysed politician ever." (May 2016)

Howlin on Kelly: "Alan Kelly's heart is in the Labour Party… his place is at the heart of the Labour Party."

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