Déjà vu strikes Labour party as Joan Burton quits while she’s behind

Joan Burton during a media briefing at RHA Gallery, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Somewhere in south Dublin yesterday afternoon, a grey-haired retired politician was having a strange feeling of déjà vu.

After a disastrous election campaign, a high-profile Labour leader was about to step down amid backroom talk that it was either go or be pushed out by colleagues.

Shuffling into a crowded media press conference, the leader smiled and said the party will come first.

And just as quickly, her previously internal detractors were suddenly desperate to canonise instead of criticise — before biting their forked tongues when asked if they might possibly be interested in the newly available role.

If it all seemed a bit too familiar, it’s because it was.

O May 27, 2014, Eamon Gilmore “chose” to walk the political plank after the 2011 Gilmore Gale became little more than a local elections whimper.

Déjà vu strikes Labour party as Joan Burton quits while she’s behind

Almost two years to the day later, his replacement Joan Burton — rumoured to have been among those to have effectively pushed him out — suffered the same fate.

Yesterday’s press conference at the Royal Hibernian Academy on Ely Place in Dublin City centre to announce her resignation as leader was not so much about Labour’s future direction as accepting another consequence of the party’s time in power.

However, it was equally an indicator that sometimes ambitious politicians who have talent and an understandable desire to push for the top position should be careful what they wish for.

When Ms Burton took charge of Labour two years ago, replacing a rival she believed was no longer up to the job, her party was at 7% in the polls and — just about — surviving with 37 TDs.

Now it is in the popularity doldrums and has just seven TDs to keep an array of back-room officials company.

Two years ago the party — while battered by a local elections backlash — was still in government. Now it is struggling for speaking time with Sinn Féin, AAA-PBP, and the Social Democrats.

And while Ms Burton is disarmingly friendly, even witty, in person, the reality is her time in charge — a period she expected would lead to Labour being given the credit for Ireland’s recovery — has seen it face a near total wipe-out.

Déjà vu strikes Labour party as Joan Burton quits while she’s behind

If Gilmore struggled to stay above water while in power, Ms Burton’s time can only be described as an utter failure. Hardly what she expected on her predecessor’s departure in 2014.

Like in 2014, talk will now turn to who the Dublin West TD’s replacement will be — although if one was to believe the formal positions taken by the frontrunners yesterday, who were keen not to rain on Ms Burton’s parade, no one has yet made up their mind.

Asked at yesterday’s press conference if she had been “encouraged” by any of her TD colleagues to stand down, and whether three prominent TDs standing to her right had expressed any private views on the subject, Ms Burton joked that she didn’t need any advice and asked who these people might be.

As she did, Sean Sherlock theatrically looked around to see who the “prominent TDs” were, while Brendan Howlin stared straight ahead and Alan Kelly said it would be “brave” if someone named them. Then they smiled for the cameras and made all the right noises.

Mr Sherlock and Mr Howlin said today was Joan’s day and that other matters can be addressed at a later date.

Mr Kelly, who will be a notable guest on Friday night’s Late Late Show, said he will make his decision known after Labour’s executive board confirms whether a contest or a coronation will take place at the weekend.

And Jan O Sullivan, the Limerick-based former education minister understood to not be ruling out putting her name forward, mentioned Ms Burton’s “humanity” and work ethic.

Job done and pleasantries expressed, Labour’s TDs, senators, and back-room staff departed for a few farewell drinks for their leader, with some attending the de facto political wake being the same people who will now be just as quick to jump into Ms Burton’s grave.

It was a near identical scene to 2014, just with the boot being now firmly on the other foot.

Penny for your thoughts, Eamon.


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