Labour’s palace coup leaves the possibility of a left-leaning opposition coalescing to counter Mary Lou’s bombast with the finesse of sweet reason
Alan Kelly has a people problem. He made an awful lot of enemies on his way up the greasy political pole. Last week, he could have done with a few friends. They were thin on the ground.
For a Labour leader who has been a senator, a deputy, an MEP and a minister, he might have expected to pick up a few close comrades on his political journey. On Wednesday, as he made his resignation speech on the Leinster House plinth, he was surrounded by the entire Labour parliamentary party. And he was all alone.
He managed to be elected leader of the Labour party two years ago because he was popular with the membership. He was liked by most of Labour’s local councillors, some of whom are shellshocked by his removal without any consultation.
Yet he has a record of bad relations with those who have worked with him at close quarters.
In 2016, when Joan Burton resigned as leader, Alan announced in a fanfare that he would contest the leadership against Brendan Howlin.
Despite exerting fierce pressure, he could not persuade a single Labour TD to give him the second signature necessary to get him on the ballot paper. He was quite prepared to propose himself, but they all politely refused to facilitate him. They humbled him, leaving him stranded. They knew him.
Kelly served in the Department of Transport as a junior minister in the unpopular 2011-16 Fine Gael-Labour coalition. He was unloved by most of the civil servants who encountered him there.
When I was in the same department — after 2016 — I used to mischievously sound out the mandarins, seeking their thoughts on ministers who had served in the Transport slot in the previous government.
They were wary of talking about former ministers, but over time it became obvious that most of them liked and respected both Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe when they were in the Transport hot seat. Among the juniors, the name of Michael Ring was usually greeted with mild affection and an amusing yarn. The mention of Alan Kelly prompted a stony silence.
One or two, if pushed, would signal, in mandarin-speak, that he was not the flavour of the month. It was not his politics, nor the obsession with his local constituency interests — rather, it was his abrasive manner, his brash way of doing things, that didn’t go down too well.
Last week, Labour presented an absolutely united front for the cameras. The visuals on the plinth were chilling. Alan had to go. Labour TDs and Senators stood behind him like prison officers, ensuring he didn’t bolt before he had done the deed.
He had alienated even his supporters in the parliamentary party who had been plotting his downfall for several weeks. A mysterious row about a flawed process for a Labour Party staff appointment was lurking in the background. The TDs are all, in unison, refusing to talk about it. It looks like there’s more to this issue than meets the eye. They’re trying to dismiss it as an internal matter, just another of many problems.
Some Labour spinners say that the real reason is the stubborn opinion polls.
Labour has been consistently languishing around 3-4pc. Alan’s leadership brought no improvement. The same narrative suggests that Alan has tried hard, has performed erratically, sometimes well, in the Dáil — but he has a fundamental problem, in that he cannot escape from his time as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in the later years of the 2011-2016 government.
He will forever be identified with that detested regime and his prominent role in the water rates debacle.
The clinical method of his execution suggests meticulous preparation. The plotters had many meetings. Last Sunday they had a secret rendezvous in Senator Marie Sherlock’s home in Phibsboro to prepare the ambush.
Uncannily, there was no leak to the media until Wednesday afternoon, forcing a hurried press conference on the plinth. Labour does executions well, because they’ve had plenty of practice. Ask Eamon Gilmore.
It is inconceivable that Alan’s execution was not planned without an agreed successor in mind. There was only one: Ivana Bacik.
There is no suggestion that Ivana was one of the main plotters, but she must have been aware of the plot. The only other credible candidate would have been Aodhán Ó Ríordáin from Dublin Bay North, who stood against Kelly two years ago. He is left-wing, able, and articulate — but in any contest he would be Bacik light.
The succession was undoubtedly sewn up long before Kelly’s three closest ‘friends’ in the parliamentary party — Cork East TD Seán Sherlock, Fingal TD Duncan Smith, and Senator Mark Wall — entered his office with a revolver and glass of whiskey last Tuesday.
Ivana is seen as Labour’s last possible saviour from extinction. Her victory in the Dublin Bay South by-election last summer was the highest point in Labour’s fortunes since the 2011 general election, when they won 37 seats. Yet there has been no follow-through, no bounce in the recent opinion polls.
Labour TDs want to see Ivana’s face on every party poster in the country at the next election. She is the perfect image for modern, middle-class, urban Ireland — but may not be as welcome in Alan Kelly’s Tipperary or Michael Healy-Rae’s Kerry as she is in Rathmines. Her Dáil performance since her election has been muted, but all Labour TDs have been overshadowed by Kelly’s bombastic style.
Ivana is the model social democrat — liberal, left-wing, but not threatening to the middle classes. Her first move this week should be to amble along the corridors to Catherine Murphy’s office and seek a chat.
Ivana may not initially receive the warmest of receptions, as the Soc Dems are rightly proud of their achievements that consistently put them ahead of Labour in the polls. Why would they join up with Labour, a party in permanent decline?
They would never have joined up with Kelly — his personality is too combative to have made that a possibility — but Ivana is a far more conciliatory operator. And so we have the possibility of a strong social democratic presence in the Dáil, with a serious chance of entering the next government.
Ivana’s leadership of Labour will pose fresh challenges to Sinn Féin, which has dominated the opposition benches throughout this Government’s term.
The media are already licking their lips at the prospect of the silent rivalry looming with Mary Lou. One, the bruiser who lands punches on Micheál Martin week after week; the other, a cerebral persuader who fillets the Government with sweet reason.