Friday 13 December 2019

Burton: ‘Coping classes are today’s new underdogs’

New Labour leader talks to Anne Harris

HAND OF HISTORY: Joan Burton, the new Tanaiste, and first female Labour leader, talks to Anne Harris. Photo: Gerry Mooney
HAND OF HISTORY: Joan Burton, the new Tanaiste, and first female Labour leader, talks to Anne Harris. Photo: Gerry Mooney
The new Labour leader is congratulated by Eamon Gilmore, her predecessor. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Joan Burton with the new deputy leader, Alan Kelly. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Anne Harris

Joan Burton has used two words a lot since her historic election as the first woman Labour leader: head and heart as instruments of rule. There are two other words which are also  emblazoned on her consciousness; anger and urgency. They are and always have been Labour watchwords — the anger of the underdog and the urgent need to redress it.

The hand of history is on her shoulder. And, as always, that  hand is a whip hand. Burton’s urgency is compounded by the fact that there are, in all probability, about 18 months left in this Government. There will be no honeymoon. First thing on Monday, she will meet the Taoiseach and the matter in hand will be of the seismic kind: the Cabinet reshuffle.

Will she  lance the suppurating boil that Pat Rabbitte has, almost wilfully, become on the face of Government? Or will she brook the brother who dared to approach the throne, Alex White? There was no triumphalism in the woman I met. As always, she is the happy warrior. But she carried the confidence born of an intimate knowledge of the party she leads — clearly, she used the protracted hustings as a sort of national therapy session. Add this to the fact that she turned the snubbing of her Finance Department ambitions and her relegation into Social Protection into a major political advantage, and you have one of the few members of Cabinet who has never lost touch with the people. Gone are any old Labour shibboleths. Joan Burton has examined the landscape of a country ravaged by recession and austerity and is gambling on a major repositioning of the party.

You are the happy adopted child. Whence the passion for the underdog?

I grew up in the centre of Dublin in a very strong, solid working-class community. There was never a time when I didn’t know I was adopted. People would talk very openly about it in those days. A lot of people went for different reasons into institutions, whether it was people who were adopted or into industrial schools. I would have been in a mother and baby home for a period of time so I suppose one of the reasons why I’m involved in the Labour Party is that I’m very conscious of the fact that the opportunities that I got were really through public provision, particularly in relation to education.

Did this then bring you in touch with Labour politics?

Yes. Both my parents were very focussed in supporting me and my brother in anything we wanted to do educationally. Luckily for me, I got a scholarship and that opened up enormous opportunity, so I very much believe that the Labour Party has always been for people who aspire to get a job, to get an education. 

Who do you think is the underdog nowadays?

The people who probably have the most difficult situation are, say, families with children, who perhaps took out a heavy mortgage at the height of the crisis. In some cases, they would have very respectable income by traditional standards, but the fact is they’re heavily indebted.

What you described there is what the Sunday Independent calls the “coping classes”. Do you think Labour could represent their needs as well as Sinn Fein or Fianna Fail, or Fine Gael for that matter?

One of the issues around Sinn Fein’s economic policies is, I don’t think they’ve really been tested. A lot of their policies are well meaning, but to effectively promise that there would be no property tax, that there would be no water charges, you’d have to be able to fund that and the general funding arrangements are around an unspecified wealth tax, which I have to say I fear would actually hit families like that ultimately quite severely.

Michael Noonan says that earning €100,000 a year does not represent “wealth”. What would you define as wealth? 

If you take a garda who’s married to a nurse, who have perhaps been working in public service for a prolonged period, they may be exactly the sort of people who bought at the height of the boom. So although they’ve a good income, after tax it’s not enormous. Post the crash, with mortgages and all the difficulties around debt, families like that are really pushed to do the things that would have been more normal 10 years previously. It doesn’t mean they’re totally impoverished, it just means they are very, very stretched.

You chose people who work in the public sector. In the private sector, salaries are much lower, and the big difference is they wouldn’t have guaranteed pensions. Pensions in the private sector are savaged now to the point of non-existence.

That’s a huge issue. As soon as we have a little more economic recovery, we need to face up to that. The state pension is relatively generous on the European scale, but it’s nowhere near enough to meet the expectations of most middle-income people.

How do you feel about the revolt against austerity which has been started by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi?

This is a conversation that’s been going on among social democratic parties for a couple of years. I’m really pleased at what has happened in terms of investing in projects that get people back to work. What they’re basically saying to Europe is: do a bit of clever accounting with the rules on the deficit. If you, as a country, decide to invest in specific areas which will help the economy grow, that part of that investment won’t count towards the deficit. If it were agreed throughout Europe that Ireland would be able to apply for that, it would make huge sense from an economic point of view. It’s a very old Keynesian idea to refloat the economy and get people back to work. The biggest grower of jobs are small businesses that take on extra people and they’re supported in doing that, because probably the biggest difficulty in the Irish economy is that the supply of credit is still very slow.

And the SMEs are massively indebted, which is preventing any follow through to retail. Where would you give the money back in the Budget, if you had any?

I don’t know yet how much room for manoeuvre we have. But going back to those working families, childcare is a huge cost. Both myself and Frances Fitzgerald are agreed. that we’d like to see a second preschool year happen as quickly as possible.

Is that realistic?

I think down the road it’s something we can and should commit to. If you have somebody parenting on their own, childcare is crucial. I’m very conscious that it was Frank Cluskey in 1973 who produced the unmarried mothers’ allowance, and five years later the mother and baby homes were largely gone because women had an opportunity of some independent income. Now the next step is to put an additional focus on parents having an opportunity to work.

Would you ever see a situation where you’d incentivise builders to create social housing?

On the Live Register we have about 80,000 men who were builders, and we have a need for social and affordable housing, particularly for young families. If we had investment into that, we could create a virtuous cycle, in economic terms, of putting people from the construction industry back to work and building homes for families. I’m not talking about any kind of return to the Celtic Tiger excesses, but it makes sense for the future to invest.

In the light of all of this, does it anger you at all that Irish Water was set up and instantly gave bloated salaries to those at the top?

As I’ve said before, we have no need of a gold-plated Irish Water. Or any gold-plated organisation.

Waste of money offends you?

When I became minister, I made a very specific decision to address issues around fraud in the social welfare system, which was not a lot, but on a budget of €19.5bn, 2pc is a lot of money. 

You have a new relationship with Enda now. How do you get on with him?

He phoned shortly after the declaration, congratulated me, and said he was nominating me as Tanaiste, a position I was very happy to accept. I’m very conscious that I’m the first woman Labour leader, and we had a very cordial conversation about the need to complete the Government’s mandate. And to make progress, not just on the economic but on the social issues as well.

Do you anticipate the Government will go the full term?

Yes, because the Government set out to have the country recover its prosperity and I think we can do that. We’ve had a difficult period and that’s had a difficult impact on a lot of families.

And on Labour as well.

Yes, but Labour did go into Government with its eyes wide open. We could have stood aside and said we won’t get involved in trying to fix what’s been broken. There were a lot of people who said you’d be better waiting until 2016 and build the party’s advantage, but some of those siren voices were also suggesting we should default. I think that would have been a disaster, particularly for the families we’re talking about.

How will your leadership differ from Eamon Gilmore’s?

The opportunities now are different. The economy’s in a better place. There’s a window of opportunity to make progress. Tone, probably. I would anticipate having a very collaborative leadership.

So you think the old leadership was a little bit exclusive?

I worked with Eamon in opposition as his deputy, and in Government, and we’ve had a very strong working relationship; but the last three years has been exceptionally difficult in terms of the job that had to be done. We’re in a new place. Michael D always said government was about ruling both with the head and the heart. It’s getting the balance right that produces a better country. Welfare is a great safety net but I want to see people at work. The social welfare department is now not just paying benefits, the traditional thing, we’re actively trying to get people back to work. That’s a radically different approach.

As I see it, your priority is to get people back to work. To get the coping classes a better deal. To support small businesses with as many stimuli as you possibly can.

I have a duty to people on social welfare, but I also have a duty to people who pay the taxes and PRSI. What they say to me is we want a strong welfare safety net, but we want the money going to the right people, to pensioners and so on. I’ve taken that very much as a mission.

So do you think you might have to leave the Department?


You’re going to stay?

I haven’t started any detailed conversations.

So have you had no thoughts on  the Cabinet at all?

I’m having thoughts.

What will you do about Pat Rabbitte?

What I want to do is sit down and first of all meet the Taoiseach and discuss the shape of what’s going to happen, and then I will start to make my decisions. I’m not commenting on any particular individual. We’re very lucky in the Labour Party to have an extraordinary number of very talented people, and Pat obviously is among them.

But Pat has been, how can I say, sort of recalcitrant and grumpy lately.

Well, look, as I said, I haven’t made any decisions yet.

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