FERGUS FINLAY: Astute, talented, Howlin deserves to be supported not sniped at

I joined the Labour Party as an ordinary member in my early 20s, and I’ve been a member now for not far short of half a century.

I’ve seen the party go through terrible times and much better times, and occasionally been part of the roller-coaster ride that seems to be Labour’s lot in life.

I used to tell people that when I started working for the party full-time we had 15 TDs, and when I finished we had 16. 

Not much of an achievement for nearly 20 years in full-time politics — but there were a few highs in between.

Over the period, Labour faced what nowadays we would call existential threats. After one of the several elections in the early 1980s, Vincent Browne published a long article headed “Obituary for the Labour Party”.

I can still remember the long night of the election in 1987, when Dick Spring became the 12th Labour TD by four votes, and the party’s national share of the vote was just over 6%.

Labour was blamed back then for everything that had happened in the previous four years. That’s the recurring theme of Labour’s history. As Dick Spring used to say ruefully, Labour got 10% of the vote and 90% of the blame.

But it recovered then, and in the process saw off threats from its left, in the shape of the Workers Party. And it went on to play a strong role in the Anglo-Irish peace process, and in the delivery of a great deal of social change, before being hammered again in 1997.

Once more the party went through a period of agonising soul searching. It rebuilt and reorganised under Ruairí Quinn — who had been one of the most effective finance ministers the country had ever seen.

Pat Rabbitte consolidated the recovery, although not to his own satisfaction. (He remains the only leader of the party to have resigned after a good election.) And then Eamon Gilmore led the party to unprecedented heights in the 2011 general election.

I guess it would be true to say that it has all been downhill since then, to the point where there is now a real question mark about Labour’s viability into the future.

There are several reasons for that, and I’ll talk about them in a minute. But I should say something about the leadership first.

I’ve known Brendan Howlin since he and I were young. I’ve known a lot of able and honourable politicians over the years, from all sides of Leinster House.

I’ve never known a more able, or more honourable, one than Brendan Howlin. Lest you think we’re the best of buddies, we’re not. We’ve had our rows and disagreements over the years, and I’ve never been part of his inner circle.

But he’s never done a job that he didn’t throw himself into with total commitment.

He’s left a positive mark on every department he’s run during his periods in government, in Health, Environment, and Public Expenditure. He’s been at the forefront of every debate in Ireland about the need for progressive change, going right back to the election of Mary Robinson.

And more to the point, perhaps, he’s a Labour man through and through. His parents were Labour — he is named after Brendan Corish, the party leader during all the years we were growing up — and his family is Labour. He has deep, unbreakable roots in the Labour Party — perhaps deeper than anyone I know.

He’s also immensely talented and politically astute. When he was chief whip of the party in the late 1980s in opposition, he single-handedly engineered a number ofdefeats for the then Haughey government in the Dáil, defeats that were instrumental, at least in part, for the ultimate demise of that government.

Now, as the party enjoys (suffers might be a better word) its annual think-in, a huge range of issues looms on which the it needs a united and coherent front. Brexit, the Budget, the coming to an end of the confidence and supply arrangement, cervical check, and many other issues demand close and strong attention.

But all I see is talk that the best way to secure the recovery of the Labour Party is toreplace Brendan Howlin as leader. It will have no such effect. It will only divide the party further, and leave it even more at the mercy of its political enemies.

The party needs to emerge united, and determined to fight the next general election with every bit of passion and self-belief at its disposal.

There is a huge, long-term rebuilding job to be done. I suspect that Brendan Howlinknows that it’s a job for younger people, and that he doesn’t see himself as being there forever. But the base for that job must be centred on holding the seats the party has, and with a fair wind adding a couple.

The job of recovery involves recognising the mistakes of the past. My party failed totell its story in the 2011-2016 period.

The day they entered government they realised there wasn’t enough money to pay nurses and teachers for more than a couple of months. They should have told us that then, in the starkest possible terms.

It was that fact, more than any other, which made the decisions of the next few years necessary. But they threw themselves into managing the situation they inherited, rather than making sure we all understood the harsh necessities.

There were other mistakes. They should have backed Roisín Shortall in the row over primary care centres. They should have been much more clearly on the sideof whistle blowers in An Garda Síochána during the McCabe controversy.

Both of those issues would have caused considerable tension with their partners in Government, Fine Gael, but it would have been a much healthier tension than the sight of Labour ministers apparently willing to go along with anything.

The homelessness crisis started on Labour’s watch in government. A major opportunity was lost then to demand direct house-building, and to insist on measures that are only now beginning to be taken, years later and after far too many children and families have had to endure the hardship of homelessness.

Rebuilding involves admitting what went wrong. But it also involves a huge amount of work on the ground. At a time when Labour faces the brilliant and disciplined organisation of Sinn Féin, and the less well organised but amazingly vitriolic enmity of the hard left, the ground war ahead will be the toughest ever, even if some of the thirst for revenge that existed in 2016 will have dissipated.

Brendan Howlin knows allthis, probably better than I do.For that reason he knows thatperhaps the only legacy he can leave Labour is a couple of tiny steps on the road to recovery.

I suspect though that someone who has given his entire life, from childhood to maturity, to the values and principles of the only party he ever joined, won’t give up without a fight.

He deserves to be supportednot sniped at. Whatever happens, members of the Labour Party know, in their heart of hearts, that he won’t ever let them down.

He’s been at the forefront of every debate in Ireland about the need for progressive change


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