Howlin only interested in building Labour policy platform

Howlin only interested in building Labour policy platform

Labour leader Brendan Howlin shrugs at the idea that he may someday be offered the role of Tánaiste, but his party could be the linchpin in any new coalition if there is a snap election here.

Instead, Mr Howlin says his agenda will be issue-led in any talks if and when voters go to the polls.

As he prepares for a party conference this weekend in Cork, he outlined why the Government must ramp up its Brexit plans, the “red line” issues for Labour, and why Taoiseach Leo Varadkar treats the Dáil like a “college debating society” in an“undemocratic” Boris Johnson-esque way.

Amid the ongoing chaos of Brexit and British prime minister Boris Johnson’s push for a snap election, there is rising speculation here about when and how a similar vote may come about.

Labour holds its pre-Dáil think-in in Cork City tomorrow and on Monday, and a focusing on will be what new policies the party has as well as how prepared its TDs and senators are for a snap election.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner,Mr Howlin called on Mr Varadkar to be firm and upfront about Ireland’s position on Brexit when he meets Mr Johnson face-to-face in Dublin on Monday.

We can’t be triumphant that our line of arguing is winning. We need to be calm, clear. In terms of what Leo [Varadkar] is doing generally, we need to be much more assiduous in our preparations for a hard Brexit.

Mr Johnson’s drive to win a general election in Britain was “extraordinarily reckless and dangerous” for Ireland, Mr Howlin said.

On top of the fear of job losses in tourism and damage to the agri-food sector, Mr Howlin said trade union officials had already told him of cuts by in firms, including redundancies and overtime bans.

The Government’s no-Brexit contingency plans need to be shared on a confidential basis with opposition leaders, maintained Mr Howlin.

Furthermore, he said the “passive” approach by ministers in asking firms to come forward to seek help and advice at forums and conferences needed to end and be replaced with an active campaign, including an instruction to Enterprise Ireland and the IDA to survey firms about their Brexit plans.

His criticism of the Coalition extends beyond Brexit.

“The current Government can’t function,” he said, pointing out that some 200 Dáil bills passed were currently “in limbo”.

Furthermore, Mr Howlin argues that Mr Varadkar sometimes treats the Dáil with contempt.

“The vote of the Dáil was regarded as sacred. They got used to ignoring votes of the Dáil. It is twice a week at least now that the Government lose. That is fundamentally undermining a democracy, that is anti-democratic.

“If a vote of the Dáil has no more consequence than the vote of a college debating society — that puts us into Boris Johnson territory.”

He also said the Government had simply “ignored” advise from the Data Protection Commissioner and her concerns about the 3m people using the Public Services Card.

Labour has struggled to regain support after a bruising 2016 election and mediocre results in the recent local elections. With just seven TDs, it is a shadow of the party it was in thelast Government.

At the Cork-based think-in, the party will address the need for income equality and for the lower paid to get higher wages and more training. This will form part of its election manifesto.

Fundamentally, we have a very uneven distribution of pay in this country. We have one of the worst gaps between the lowest and highest paid in the OECD.

The party also wants collective bargaining rules with employers addressed as well as a new national housing programme that could build 80,000 new units over five years with a huge €16bn fund.

“The money is there to directly build those houses,” argues Mr Howlin.

Some of these demands will be “red line” issues for Labour before and after the next election, maintains Mr Howlin. Primary care centre developments and the further rollout of free GP care are also core demands, Mr Howlin explains.

Another issue at a party think-in just a year ago was Mr Howlin’s tenure of the troubled party. He dismisses the notion that his leadership will arise any time soon.

“What issue?” he asks.

For Labour, any post-election decision will likely centre on if it will join a Government. Its time with Fine Gael between 2011 and 2016 saw support plummet, in part because of reneged promises. Reviving support is a delicate strategyprocess.

Mr Howlin points to a scenario where Labour could be on “the outside” supporting a Government.

“It will be a pragmatic decision based on who will implement the strategy Labour has set out,” he says the party leader.

“If anybody is interested in us supporting any future Government inside or outside, it will be on the basis of policies.” But there will be no pre-election pact, he insists.

Asked if he wanted the role of Tánaiste in any future Government, the Labour leader responds: “It is just an issue which doesn’t arise in my thinking at all. I’m interested in building Labour and ensuring we build a policy platform for the country.”

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