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John Downing: Tough and passionate -- but now she's lost chance to make mark

ROISIN Shortall's decision to abandon her first shot at being inside government after 18 years as 'an outsider' strongly suggests she prefers the 'comfort zone' of opposition after all.

It is legitimate to ask: why, after spending two decades seeking senior political office to do things, does one walk away? Her ongoing spat with Health Minister James Reilly was well-known -- but even before she got to Leinster House she well knew politics is all about battles.

Her decision to resign as Junior Health Minister and from the Labour Parliamentary Party is an immediate double blow to her party leader Eamon Gilmore. By extension, in the medium and longer term, it is also a reverse for Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who must look now to keeping this bloated-majority government stable.

It is absolute murder for the smaller coalition partner in time of recession to show results and keep a stamp of identity. But as he walks the soul-less corridors of the United Nations headquarters in New York, Mr Gilmore knows this makes it all the harder to convince his die-hard left-wing members that his party is not being walked upon in government.

In this battle for the 'soul of Labour' he has already lost grassroots stalwart Willie Penrose, who has quit as 'super junior'. Ms Shortall's decision is another big score on the board for the 'I-told-you' brigade.

Up to last night, Ms Shortall had been part of an elite band of Labour TDs who came in on the celebrated 'Spring tide' of 1992 and managed to stay on long afterwards. She was a comfortable 1,200 votes over the quota in her first Dail electoral outing in November 1992; but almost five years later, in June 1997, she saw her vote had halved and she was the last of four TDs elected, scraping home without a quota on the 10th count.

That was quite a feat for Ms Shortall as the Labour Party saw its number of TDs all but halved from 33 to 17. It certainly showed she had a deal of luck -- but it also revealed grit that would see her continue to hack it over the coming decade-and-a-half.

Ms Shortall, who grew up in Drumcondra in the neighbourhood of Croke Park, is from a Fianna Fail background and clearly learnt a lot from that about pragmatism and constituency performance. She was educated at the Dominican College in Eccles Street in Dublin, a school known for instilling traditional values with an added dash of character and self-confidence.

After doing a BA at UCD, she did a diploma in teaching deaf children at St Mary's College of Education in Marino and went to work at St Joseph's School in Cabra. She had a solid background of local activism in housing and school projects in Ballymun, Finglas and other parts of north Dublin, before being elected to Dublin City Council in June 1991 where she served until the ban on TDs also being councillors took effect in 2003. She also served on the old Eastern Health Board and was chairwoman for a term.

In the run-up to the November 1992 general election she fought a tough battle to get the Labour nomination and another follow-up row to ensure she was the only candidate.

She has always spoken with real passion about the need to represent vulnerable groups such as children, the unemployed, women and handicapped people.

She has also shown political ambition -- something that raises surprise about her recent behaviour. In 1997, when Dick Spring stood down as Labour leader she briefly floated her name as a potential candidate. In October 2002, she did stand and was placed fourth of four candidates as Pat Rabbitte romped home.

But she has also been drawn more towards the awkward squad than the officer board of the party. She was critical of the leadership after the 2002 General Election and shunned outgoing leader Ruairi Quinn's frontbench.

Realistically, there was little surprise when she was not included among the five chosen for the Cabinet by Mr Gilmore in March 2011. The Junior Health Minister's job did offer a chance to make a mark -- especially in relation to tackling alcohol abuse.

But all of that is history now.

From today, she will sit with the Independent TDs.

Irish Independent