Saturday 25 January 2020

Joan has to be Labour's cunning fox in the box

John Drennan warns that when it comes to Ireland's new 'national Mum', the real Joan Burton is still quite the mystery

Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton
Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton

John Drennan

The strange thing about political leaders is that often we actually know very little about them until the game is up and we are taking the corpse off the battlefield.

Intriguingly, despite her oft-proclaimed status as an open talking book, the same can be said of Joan Burton, for we know very little about the secret, or rather the real Ms Burton.

This is no longer a minor issue either, for Ms Burton's performance in office will save or destroy the Coalition and the declining reputation of Irish politics itself.

Defining Joan is not made any easier by the plethora of Burtons that prance across the public stage.

For some she is the Dail equivalent of Miriam O'Callaghan; a sort of national Mum if you like, though obviously more of the Super Gran than the MILF variant.

Other more cynical observers suggest, given her accelerating political astuteness, that an element of Bertie Ahern in a dress is gliding into her persona.

Some who do not love "that lady" claim an element of Blackadder's capricious 'Queenie' who was always on for the chopping off of heads if she didn't get "a present" can be discerned.

Within Labour, they will be hoping that Joan is the political equivalent of the sort of soccer forward known as 'the fox in the box', who loiters in an unnoticed manner for most of the match.

On one level the metaphor doesn't hold, for one could never accuse Ms Burton of loitering or being unnoticed.

She is, however, a fox and Labour are praying that, somehow out of the nowhere of the 2014, Green Party-style meltdown, she is the striker that will help the party secure the utterly unexpected victory of mere survival.

Their prayers may not go unanswered too, for the new Tanaiste is a far more guileful political creature than her well caricatured, loquacious, sunny-side-up, girls-school- hockey-teacher persona.

This is epitomised by that happy escape in which Joan, even though she is of a similar age, managed to avoid being dragged into the ranks of the coalition Grumpy Old Men.

This is not so surprising for the Grumpy Old Men syndrome was as much an attitude of mind as a consequence of ageing.

And unlike Ruairi, Phil, Mr Shatter, Brendan, Enda and the rest of the Grumps, Joan has a natural sweetness of disposition.

Indeed, some have suggested that were she ever to suffer a similar fate to the very different Joan of Arc, our heroine would be more likely to be concerned about the health and safety implications for the soldiers lighting the faggots beneath her feet than her own travails.

But, there is more to Joan than a level of good intentions that would seduce a vicar's wife into the sin of jealousy.

When it came to the long agony of Eamon Gilmore there was no open disloyalty, but it was clear that with regard to the iron age of austerity, unlike her obedient Mrs Doubtfire of a leader, she was of the devil's party.

However, while many in Labour urged Joan to move against Mr Gilmore, Ireland's national Mum was never going to engage in such illicit practices as swapping tongues with treason

Instead, like the classic fox in the box, Ms Burton waited and waited until the prize was secured with the ease of an apple falling from the tree in winter.

This has brought new challenges, for Joan is now a national leader rather than just another cabinet minister.

In a sense it is like moving from the comfort zone of a mid-table premiership team to Manchester City or Chelsea.

She is in the same league, but the levels of expectation in terms of performance are very different.

Instead of hanging around in a permanent off-side position - as her political opponents claimed she did - she must define her Government's response to issues as diverse as abortion or Ann Phelan's claim that Labour will now fight 'tooth and nail' to save rural Ireland.

Joan in short is a political play-maker rather than her previous stance as the Government's left winger.

Her most difficult task, as Tanaiste, will be to 'put manners' on her Fine Gael Roundhead coalition 'partners' - and that may not be as easy as her supporters think.

Originally, when the tattered new dawn arrived, even FG supporters were fearful that leaving Enda Kenny alone in a room with the clever Ms Burton would cause all sorts of disasters and queer things.

In fact, Ms Burton discovered the hard way that, whilst her FG un-civil partners may be mice when it comes to over-mighty mandarins or Merkel, within the Dail creche they have quite the facility for pulling political pig tails.

Of course, in securing the respect of her Coalition partners it would help Ms Burton enormously if she can convince FG that it is not tethered to a corpse.

Labour may be the second- largest Dail party, but its scale resembles that of the poor Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1914.

Those within Labour who would sign an armistice before a shot is fired, would do well to note that Ireland's national Mum was forged by a tough school of politics that featured plenty of use of the elbow.

Joan managed to carve out a political career against the very diverse competition provided by Liam Lawlor, the Lenihan dynasty and the unique Bertie Ahern-style school of politics.

Even today, she is still somewhat awed, in a half -amused, half-shocked manner, by the political cunning of the former Taoiseach.

This admiration has manifested itself in a set of intriguing similarities between Joan and Fianna Fail's bete noire.

On the stump, her capacity for empathy and to meet and greet vast numbers of voters in the manner of a whale dining on plankton matches that of Mr Ahern. And when it comes to finding voters she is either related to or shares an interest with, Joan surpasses the old wizard of Drumcondra.

The one down side of all of this is that she has also acquired some of the flaws of Mr Ahern.

Outside of treating decisiveness like an electric fence, Ms Burton has also acquired the Bertie tendency to respond to politically difficult situations with extra-ordinarily lengthy displays of loquaciousness.

The problem with the 'if I can just say' tactic is that verbose incoherence lost its charm a long way before Bertie's ending and Joan's beginning.

We are perhaps being unfair in trying to shoehorn Joan into the Bertie box, for the most intriguing feature Ms Burton possesses is that she is a genuinely independent politician who does not need focus groups to tell her what to think.

The self-same capacity for thinking independently and, worse still, voicing those independent thoughts at some length, has been the catalyst for many doleful asides from long-suffering former colleagues who are now on gardening duty, for Irish politics does not do independent thinking (or women in positions of authority for that matter) too well.

The even greater putative difficulty Ms Burton faces is that Joan's political ideology might be best defined as being one of Moral Methodism.

By this we mean that unlike most Irish politicians whose relationship with reform resembles that of the child and castor oil, Joan actually believes reform is something that should be embraced.

Joan and Bertie may be both 'Socialists', but whilst Bertie was a fan of the bread- and-circuses variant Joan espouses the virtues of thrift and self-reliance.

Sadly, Joan may now spoil the long, happy political bachelor party Dear Leader Enda has been so enjoying, for while they may have been Pious Protesters in opposition, Fine Gael is now more than enjoying its current transformation into FF-style Cute Hoors.

In a strange way, Joan Burton espouses the designated Fine Gael virtues in a more comprehensive manner than the closet Fianna Fail figures who dominate Enda's court.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the great task of Labour's guileful Joan of Arc will actually be to to convert Fine Gael back to the path of righteous reform?

It may, however, be the only way the last of the Moral Methodists can save both the Coalition and her own ever- struggling party.

Sunday Independent

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