FROM adoption as a toddler to elevation to the office of Tánaiste at the age most people retire, Joan Burton’s life has been shaped by a remarkable ability to overcome the odds.
Born to an unmarried mother from rural Carlow in the chill winter of February 1949, the icy cold societal prejudice of the time saw the baby put up for adoption to an American couple, but after that fell through she was welcomed into a boisterous, closely-knit working class family in inner city Dublin.
“I always knew I was adopted. I went to the Burtons at two and a half and was formally adopted at four.
“I can remember the social workers coming to inspect me. I remember half the street standing over me, getting me to eat in case when the social workers arrived I’d be taken away, so, I’m afraid to say, I’ve had a lifelong fear of social workers,” she later recalled.
He adoptive mother, Bridie, died from cancer when she was just 20, and after winning a scholarship to study commerce at UCD, she became increasingly drawn to the social justice agenda of the Labour Party.
After a whirlwind romance with fellow activist Pat Carroll, Ms Burton first attempted to trace her birth mother in the run-up to their wedding in 1975, writing a letter to let her know she was happy.
But the hostile official attitudes of the day prevailed and the letter was returned by adoption authorities.
Ms Burton was finally successful in tracing her birth mother in the 1990s, but by then she had been dead a number of years.
“She didn’t marry. Everyone said that she really loved children. I went and met her generation and sat in so many farmhouses crying. That’s what Ireland was like then,” Ms Burton said after finding out her birth mother had been a sheep farmer who had a romance with her cousin and little choice but to hand their daughter over to nuns to take to Dublin at six months old.
Ms Burton has a deep bond with her only child Aoife, and the pair are often inseparable, but Mr Carroll has lamented the demands a political career imposes on family life: “It can be a very isolated existence, not just for the spouse but for the minister.”
Mr Carroll was the first to try and run for the Dáil in 1977, but after the pair spent three years in Tanzania in the mid-1980s, Ms Burton experienced a political awakening, noting that women in the developing African nation took the right to divorce for granted while those back home in Ireland had no such freedoms.
With Labour lacking a single woman TD or Senator in the late 1980s, Ms Burton put herself forward as a candidate and won first-hand experience of the boom and bust nature of the party’s periods in power after being elected to the Dáil on the Spring tide of 1992, and then being hung out to dry by voters in 1997 — despite holding junior ministerial posts in welfare, overseas aid and justice.
She was back in the Dáil in 2002 in time to lose out in a bid for the deputy leadership, but Pat Rabbitte made her finance spokesperson.
Some critics call Ms Burton disruptive, others deploy the term “ambitious”, but she can never be accused of unquestioning devotion to any of the leaders she served.
Relations with Mr Rabbitte are said to remain strained, while the Joan and Eamon soap opera of the last few years left Labour audiences in despair.
Brian Cowen, first as finance minister, and then Taoiseach, could barely conceal his dislike for Ms Burton, which many put down to sexism.
As she repeatedly interrupted Cowen in the Dáil, he turned to Mr Gilmore and said: “Try and rein her in now and again.”
Labour may have engaged in the same auction politics as everyone else in the 2007 election, but by the crash in 2008 it was on the right side of history again when it stood alone against the blanket bank guarantee scheme which saddled the country with €64bn of debt and led two years later to the national humiliation of the bail-out.
Ms Burton was a key voice in taking Labour in that direction, and was furious to be demoted to the social welfare role once in government as Brendan Howlin was handed the glittering prize of the Public Expenditure Reform portfolio, which Ms Burton felt was rightfully hers.
This marked a plunge in already frosty relations with Mr Gilmore which often broke-out into thinly veiled criticism of his policy agenda.
Things reached such a low in 2013 that Mr Rabbitte issued what amounted to a public rebuke directed at Ms Burton urging her to look at the devastation personality-based in-fighting had done to the Australian Labour Party, which had just suffered a crushing defeat thanks to continued sniping at its leader.
The jockeying for position did Ms Burton’s standing with colleagues much harm, and if the choice of leader had been left to the parliamentary caucus alone, it would have been a far tougher challenge for her to prevail against slick party insider Alex White.
Critics accuse Ms Burton of indecision and a lack of subtlety, while journalists despair at her inability to answer a question in 20 snappy words when she feels only 200 stodgy ones will do.
Supporters say that despite being dealt a bad hand, Ms Burton made a good fist of social protection, tenaciously defending her budget, despite some controversies like the across the board cut on child allowance.
Ms Burton also acted as the only internal opposition within a Coalition many Labour voters felt was so tight it all but suffocated the party.
Far more popular with the public than fellow Labour TDs, those deputies will now be hoping the new leader can sprinkle some of her undoubted political stardust back on the party, as it slumps to just 4% in the polls.
Conventional wisdom dictates that Ms Burton has 18 months in the limelight at the very most, but the 65-year-old has a lifetime of experience in defying convention and refusing to be reined in.
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