Monday 14 October 2019

Is Brendan really a lost king or is he the prince in waiting?

The John Drennan profile

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin at the Labour Party national Conference in Killarney. Photo: Frank McGrath
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin at the Labour Party national Conference in Killarney. Photo: Frank McGrath

John Drennan

Amid all the conference rhetoric, the most significant move of the political year was made last week by Brendan Howlin, courtesy of the Public Expenditure Minister's announcement that a forum should be set up to discuss budget priorities for 2016.

Mr Howlin went to some pains to note his proposed "national social dialogue'' was not an attempt to bring social partnership in via the back door.

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny, of course, was even more anxious to consign the social partnership word to the political spittoon.

This, Enda said was a bad thing that had taken place behind closed doors; something that never happens with this Government.

However, despite the best attempts of Mr Kenny and Mr Howlin, the denials were less than convincing. As the old rule goes: if it walks like a dodo and quacks like a dodo then it probably is a social partnership duck in disguise.

Brendan might call it a national dialogue, but, given that there is an election coming up and there's a few quid available in the bank, you will forgive us if we suspect Fine Gael and Labour are planning to indulge in a reprise of the old Bertie-style politics of the pork barrel.

Mind you, in fairness to Mr Kenny and Mr Howlin, their promise that any dialogue that would occur would be done in an open forum is believable.

If there are cheques to be signed, after the last seven years we have endured, the lads will want to ensure that there are plenty of cameras there to witness the return of all those former trade union figures who have been so absent since the gaudy house they built on sand collapsed so comprehensively.

This suspicion increased, when in a second significant intervention Mr Howlin also said last week that our public sector unions would be met shortly to see how the Coalition and their public sector union partners could "unwind the emergency measures" of recent years.

In case you're wondering, - that is code for cashback for Labour-voting public sector workers. As an opening election offer from a Labour public sector minister, such delights should not surprise too much.

Though the new high-profile position being taken by Howlin has come as something of an eye-opener, it was certainly not always the case that one would be surprised by the sight of Howlin dominating the news coverage. He was, after all, once the man who would certainly be king. Indeed, between the planning and the battlefields, Brendan spent two decades loudly announcing that he would be king.

Then - almost in a flash, though it actually was a decade - he became the little man who would never be king.

Once we placed him in the 'never being king' casket, Mr Howlin disappeared from public consciousness. Though he retained sufficient tenacity to secure a senior ministry. Mr Howlin, prior to and after Election 2011, became as much of an invisible man as Eamon Gilmore.

The invisibility of Howlin was stranger, given that he is the joint Finance Minister with Michael Noonan. However, while Mr Noonan is the national grandfather, the Public Reform Minister evolved into a political ghost.

Mind you, the contrasting roles of Fine Gael and Labour meant the cloak of invisibility was no bad thing.

In yet another example of Coalition government a la mode Fine Gael, Mr Noonan might have been the man in charge of tax cuts while Mr Howlin, by contrast, was knee- deep in buckets of blood, gore and freshly steaming guts as he busily implemented Ireland's ongoing austerity regime.

One supposes that when you are the man constantly putting the knife to Bambi's throat, not being noticed is a good result.

Within Labour, nothing epitomised the apparent erosion of desire within Mr Howlin for that which he once most cherished than his decision not to challenge Joan in 2014.

After the resignation of Mr Gilmore, the two-time contender for the Labour leadership had a real chance to make a serious run for that which he has always most cherished. Instead, he decided he would play a similar gnomic role to that patented by Mr Noonan during that spot of bother Mr Kenny experienced in 2010.

By retreating to the mountain top and ceding the field of battle to the two contenders, Mr Howlin secured the grateful promise of both that he would be allowed remain in his political eyrie of Public Expenditure.

The decision of Mr Howlin to withdraw from that particular wacky race did not surprise insiders that much.

The incipient leadership contender can resemble a pedigree horse sweating up before the big race. The nostrils are flaring, the eyes are wild and everything is surrounded with an air of giddy skittishness.

By contrast, in the short run-up to decision day, a relaxed Mr Howlin resembled the sort of footballer with too much mileage in the legs who is secretly glad when the World Cup is over, even if they lose.

Still, it was a little strange to see Mr Howlin settling for the same elder lemon role as Mr Noonan.

The Public Expenditure Minister has always - in so far as it is possible in Labour - been associated with youth and vitality.

In contrast Mr Noonan was a bona fide pensioner when he pulled his most cunning stroke of all.

And when Mr Noonan decided to play the role of a Delphic Buddha it was from the position of being an exiled back-bencher.

Mr Howlin, in contrast, took the decision to step aside from the fray whilst still apparently being the fourth most powerful man in Government.

Intriguingly, in recent weeks something appears to have changed when it comes to Mr Howlin. The quiet persona of the dog who did not bark in the Labour leadership race has been replaced by the older, far more noisy, Mr Howlin.

On one level, the change may be informed by the new circumstances the State is facing. Suddenly, the dead zone of the recession, where Labour and the Irish economy walked hand and hand in a fairground of zombies, has been replaced by the first signs of an economic spring.

Suddenly, there is an ever so timorous chance that if Labour can get its hands on enough hard cash, there is a chance of survival.

But could something even more subtle be at play?

Mr Howlin appeared liberated by his casting aside of the weight of anticipated leadership, once it was decided he would never be leader. Mr Howlin's new intensity is undoubtedly driven by the current plight of Labour. However, even if a modest recovery occurs, such are the current dire straits of the party neither Joan nor heirs such as Alex or Alan Kelly are, to put it mildly, secure in their fiefdoms.

Mr Howlin may be publicly content with his current status as Labour's lost king. But, a little of him will always be a prince in waiting. And if the Sancerre-sipping socialist of Sandymount's burden was thrust upon him, it is doubtful that even a politician so modest quiet and unassuming as Brendan would refuse.

Factfile

NAME: Brendan Howlin

AGE: 58

POSITION: Minister for Public Expenditure

IN THE NEWS BECAUSE: He has, after a long period of quiet, come out of the political closet and started to create quite the rattle and hum about all the nice things Labour plan to do . . . particularly if you happen to be one of the special race of public servants

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