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Sinead Ryan: My U-turn on Joan Burton after she showed her emotional side

"Try and rein her in now and again", smart-alecky Brian Cowen sneeringly told Eamon Gilmore of Joan Burton, his then finance spokeswoman. But it seems that Burton's unwillingness to be "reined in" on any occasion may well have cost her the job of her dreams.

If I were her, I wouldn't worry. Yes, Joan is strident, harsh and overly opinionated. These qualities wouldn't be attractive in a man and are definitely unbecoming in a woman.

In Finance, diplomacy is going to win out -- despite all the guff and nonsense about shoving bondholders where the sun don't shine. So mild-mannered Brendan Howlin got the "coveted" gig instead.


My mind changed about Joan since the election. She had been "emotional" on being told of her appointment to Social Protection rather than Finance, we were reliably informed.

It turned out that the teary display was for an entirely different reason: 10 minutes beforehand, in the Dail chamber, she had been handed a cherished photograph -- her only one -- of her birth mother at her age. We don't know from whom, or why, and it's none of our business.

Joan is adopted, and has spoken movingly about it. She is also the mother of a daughter of whom she is very proud. She makes a mean cheesecake and is an avid gardener. She was a founder of the anti-apartheid movement and is a qualified accountant.

It is these qualities, rather than those of the strident leftie that will be important in her new portfolio -- it makes her an everywoman. That is important to say because often we talk about politicians in the abstract -- as if they don't have feelings or aren't 'real'.

I have no gra for the Labour Party or socialist politics in general. But I'm extremely pleased Joan got this gig and not Finance.

She mightn't be happy about it -- but I think Joan doesn't even realise how important she is going to be.

Howlin, by comparison, has a simple job: obey our EU/IMF masters. Do what he's told, in other words. His is a role that will be instructed to, rather than one he can be creative with.

That's not his fault -- it's the way things are.

Being in charge of a Finance portfolio in debt-ridden Ireland is no better than a small child being allowed the 'big job' of picking the biscuits to put in the supermarket trolley when out shopping with mum.

Being an accountant or a teacher is irrelevant.

So is being a man or a woman.

Let me tell you why Joan is ideal in Welfare: it's nothing to do with qualifications, but a speech she gave after the last Budget. "Perhaps all those tycoons ... like Mr Dunne and Mr Drumm -- to use the minister's phrase 'they continue to party on' ... but who are the losers?

"A family with three children will lose €40 a month. A worker who has lost their job, through no fault of their own, will see another cut of €8 in jobseekers and basic social welfare payments, in addition to the €8 cut in the last Budget".

She continued -- and bear with me, as it matters: "The loss of a job has a marked impact on health. There is an average loss of life expectancy of one to one and a half years. Children suffer when their parents are laid off: they are more likely to fall behind in school and tend to earn less than the offspring of those who stay working."

These are Joan's new customers. She will run the country's biggest budget -- €20.62bn, for them. Her goal will be to have fewer customers at the end of it. Perhaps it's just cant. I hope not. Joan lives in a constituency with much deprivation. I think she gets it. She should also get over herself and embrace the challenge. It's not just about doling out the dole. It's about fundamentally caring about why there are so many recipients.

Joan must slap a sense of purpose on to herself and go do her job.