DANIEL MCCONNELL: ‘Combative Jack Russell’ Brendan Howlin on salvation mission as new Labour leader

Labour leader Brendan Howlin is congratulated by his predecessor, Joan Burton.

At the third attempt, Brendan Howlin has become the Labour leader.

Having been defeated by Ruairi Quinn in 1997 and Pat Rabbitte in 2002, Howlin, aged 60, had made it known he would only take the job if unopposed.

After several days of internal discussions, Alan Kelly’s bid to become leader ran into the sand as not one of his colleagues would second his nomination.

Howlin’s moment in the sun yesterday was partly overshadowed by Kelly’s petulant decision not to show up to the press conference.

Brendan Howlin flanked by senior Labour Party members including, from left, TD Jan O’Sullivan, senator Kevin Humphreys, TD and party chairman Willie Penrose, and TD and former party leader Joan Burton.
Brendan Howlin flanked by senior Labour Party members including, from left, TD Jan O’Sullivan, senator Kevin Humphreys, TD and party chairman Willie Penrose, and TD and former party leader Joan Burton.

Described by a former colleagues as a “combative Jack Russell”, a reference to his diminutive stature, Howlin is a politician of vast experience who, by this stage, has seen and done it all.

The task he faces is anything but diminutive, as the party is struggling to stay relevant in a very crowded political field.

But, according to those who have worked with him, both in government and in opposition, Howlin’s collegiate attitude and knowledge of how the Oireachtas works will stand to him in the 32nd Dáil.

“His will be a credible voice of opposition, not the loony left or the amateur nature of Sinn Fein.

“He is the steady hand at the tiller at this most critical time,” said one former ministerial colleague.

A former national school teacher, Howlin’s strong links to the unions, given his Wexford base, has been a major factor in his approach to political life.

He said the Labour Party is in his DNA and many of the party’s wounded troops see him as the ideal man to save it from obliteration.

First elected to the Dáil in 1987, having been a senator since 1982, Howlin has held several key minsterial posts.

In the last Dáil, he was Public Expenditure Minister during the most traumatic period in recent history and implemented harsh austerity among many groupings who would have been sympathetic to Labour.

The self-declared ‘Minister for Cuts’ was to turn into the ‘Minister for Giveaways’ but the splurge was too little too late for an angry and weary people.

He was the Minister for the Environment who previously abolished water charges in 1996, and a former Health Minister.

A singleton, Howlin according to many of his closest allies, say he is married to his party and is the quintessential Labour man.

Howlin’s mother Molly died in 2003, having lost her husband 17, years previously. One of four children, he has one brother, Ted, and two sisters, Mary and Jackie.

His late parents were steeped in the Labour movement. He paid warm tribute to his father during the press conference yesterday.

John Howlin was secretary of Irish Transport and General Workers Union in Wexford for 40 years, a member of Wexford Corporation for 18 years and election agent to the late Brendan Corish.

Howlin will have to abandon his tendency to be a bit pompous and cling to his collegiate strengths if he is to save his beloved party from destruction.


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