Gerard Howlin


Howlin’s assured performance can’t mask same, laboured ideas

While the economy and how we live have changed utterly, Labour’s template hasn’t at all, writes Gerard Howlin

Howlin’s assured performance can’t mask same, laboured ideas

While the economy and how we live have changed utterly, Labour’s template hasn’t at all, writes Gerard Howlin

THE indifference that has replaced anger as the prevailing public attitude towards the Labour Party is its most insidious enemy. Attention is essential in politics.

Brendan Howlin’s address to his party conference last Saturday might be a breakthrough. These events have become stilted, but his “performance” of Labour politics on stage was the best leader’s speech at an Irish party conference I have seen in years. It put colour into the public image of a supposedly grey man. The shade was magenta. A strong, simple stage set the scene. He spoke off the cuff, without a lectern, in a way only practice allows. It was good for him, and good for his party.

A strong sense of values was espoused, not least in calling out the “new toxic racism that has entered our politics”. Great aspirations were expressed. “One in seven of our children and young people has one or both parents from another country,” Howlin said. “One in 20 are visibly different, from an African or Asian background. These are our children, our people, our equals.” That’s the Ireland I live in and identify with.

The politics was clear, too. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in a “partnership government”. Fianna Fáil are just “taking up the space” in opposition. Labour’s key word is “equality”. Fine Gael “opportunity” was disparaged. Fianna Fáil’s “fairness” wasn’t mentioned, though they got a kicking. Sinn Féin got the silent treatment. But Howlin was clear about where Labour stood: “We’ll support politicians who will turn up for work in Stormont or Westminster, to fight for Northern Ireland’s interests.”

If values were clear, economics were less so. It was a speech laden with promises; or five, to be precise. Since Enda Kenny’s five-point plan in 2011, this seems to be the preferred number. (It must have the best electoral feng shui.) There was no talk at all about how wealth would be created, except for some whimsy about state enterprises leading economic change. Historically, they have delivered services at a higher cost, and with less choice. There is essential infrastructure that should be in state hands, but that is a different issue. But beyond that, nothing, absolutely nothing, about how astonishing largesse is to be afforded and funded. If you are in the private sector, on the modest salary of €35,300 (which pays the higher rate of tax, at 40%), there is little for you, except the continual servitude of paying better wages for public servants, who, additionally, will have a pension you can never afford to provide for yourself.

As Howlin acidly said of Fianna Fáil last Saturday: “There is no evidence that they’ve learned any lessons.” The unlearnt lesson for Labour is that while the economy and how we live have changed utterly, their template hasn’t changed at all. Looking past the bravado of the performance, what I am left with, again, is my lifelong suspicion. This is a small party, full of very assured people, who fundamentally think they know best how to spend my money and direct my life. It is paternalistic from its core, and oblivious to the extent it is deeply patronising. Still, I am unlikely to be its intended audience, so no matter. But the sums simply don’t add up.

Most of the economic aspirations were harmless. In a magical world, where everything is possible, they could be considered desirable. In reality, in government, they will be negotiated away.

Brendan Howlin knows that, because he mastered that art. What he insisted is non-negotiable, however, is more insidious. “The pledge I announce tonight” is that “Labour will campaign to stop the rise of the pension age to 67 for the lifetime of the next government”. The context, he says now, is the “need to revisit some of the decisions forced on Ireland during the economic collapse”.

This is not just an unnecessary and expensive promise. In its reasoning, and on the issue itself, it is an epic U-turn for Labour, and one which, despite the poise of its presentation, left Howlin’s credibility on the stage floor around him.

Talk about what was “forced on Ireland” is revisionism. Sensible measures, to reverse what were unaffordable spending policies, were offered as part of a bailout agreed by the Fianna Fáil-Green government prior to 2011. Fine Gael and Labour continued delivery. At every stage, there was choice, although little of it was desirable. This talk of force, and the attendant accusation of the treachery of those who acquiesced, is exactly the rhetoric Labour railed against in government. It is also fundamentally false. To deploy it now is a singular betrayal of truth, in a way Brendan Howlin deeply understands. To use it as camouflage for electoral gain, on the back of a wildly imprudent policy, is a betrayal of, not a furtherance of, the values Labour says it believes in. Worse than being revisionist rewriting of history, or betrayal of values, it is, above all, a political mistake. Howlin unveiled his own version of the 2011 Tesco-style ad that did such damage to Labour then. Lest there be any doubt that this is his flagship project, he raised it at leader’s questions in the Dáil yesterday. This has been doubled down on since Saturday.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s response was clear. He rightly cited that Labour’s Joan Burton, then social protection minister, was the one responsible in 2011 for the raising of the pension age.

Burton deserves praise for delivering without fuss a fundamentally good measure. When implemented, it will save about €250m per year, compared to what would be required. (Though pension costs will rise inexorably as we live longer. That cost will bear down on fewer workers supporting more dependents.)

Moving eligibility up to 67 can only be a staging post to an eventual requirement of 70. That’s retirement age in the public sector now.

Labour’s Joan Burton
Labour’s Joan Burton

IN the fifteen years from 1996 to 2011, when Labour in government moved to increase the age of eligibility to 68 years from 2021, average life expectancy rose by over 23%. In 2020, an additional €330m will be needed to fund pensions.

The secretary general of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection told the Public Accounts Committee only last Thursday that the Social Insurance Fund, which Howlin enthused was edging towards €4bn, is at the top of a trend that “will not continue”. He said, too, that “cyclical forces can wipe out this surplus very quickly — in 2008, a surplus of €3.4bn was wiped out in 15 months and, over the next six years, the SIF was dependent on exchequer transfers totalling €7.4bn in order to meet its obligations”.

But that was then. Now there is an election.

The Labour slogan is YOLO: You Only Live Once. It’s showtime, folks.

While the economy and how we live have changed utterly, Labour’s template hasn’t at all

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