A political wake on the plinth for departing Ruairí Quinn
‘I’m immensely grateful for the career that I’ve had and the opportunities I’ve been given’
On the plinth at Leinster House yesterday announcing his intention to retire Ruairí Quinn on the Leinster House plinth with colleagues yesterday
Stages in a career: Ruairí Quinn with Brendan Howlin at a Labour party conference in 1987
Campaigning as party leader in 2002
As Minister for Education last year
At midday in the sunshine, with uniformed ushers standing by and the crowd in place, Ruairí Quinn’s supporters marched him down from Leinster House and along the flower-lined plinth for the ceremonial laying out of his distinguished career.
All that was missing from this well-planned political wake was an adviser standing by with a crate of stout to lubricate the fond memories of their invited media guests. Although in Ruairí’s case, a few bottles of claret would have been more apt.
The outgoing Minister said he was doing the selfless thing by bringing down the curtain on his 40-year career. “I want to ensure that the new leader of my party, whomever that may be, has the opportunity to create their own team on their own terms,” he said with touching humility.
In the background, the walls of Leinster House shook as the two leadership contenders closeted within heaved great sighs of relief at having been done such a great favour by Quinn.
Tearful BurtonThere had been unconfirmed reports of a tearful and guilt-ridden Joan Burton wandering the corridors, utterly distracted at the thought of having to give elder statesman Ruairí the order of the boot. But, considerate to the last, Quinn lifted that awful burden from her shoulders.
We haven’t mentioned Alex White because Ruairí left him out of the reckoning when revealing the names of the political heavyweights he consulted over his decision.
“I spoke to the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach and I also spoke to Joan Burton,” he said
That must have been like a knife through the heart for White’s leadership ambitions. But it was a grand political wake all the same.
And not without emotion, as might be expected. Quinn has served his country, and his party, with distinction over the decades. A politician of substance, with ideas and ideals, he has long been a cut above the parish-pump mediocrity that so often diminishes national politics. If – as it did more than once – his voice wavered while he delivered his brief speech, this was very understandable.
A reforming Minister, he notched up many achievements while serving in government, not least when he was minister for finance.
He took the opportunity to remind the journalists of this, in case it slipped their minds when recording the highlights of his career for posterity.
Of course, Ruairí will also be remembered for his sartorial flair. He owned the corduroy look and his extensive wardrobe of technicolour ties was a boon to colour writers anxious to inject some gender balance into their copy. But for his valedictory performance yesterday, he returned to his Labour roots and sported a bright red one.
Opinion was divided on whether he was right to make his announcement just before next week’s reshuffle. TV3’s Ursula Halligan steamed in immediately with the question on everyone’s mind – was his decision to stand down just a display of “petulance” in advance of being sacked by Joan Burton?
Ruairí appeared taken aback, although heaven knows why. He is clearly jumping before being pushed and was putting a very nice gloss on his circumstances by saying he was withdrawing to make things easier for the new leader.
Petulance“I don’t think I’m noted for my petulance,” he smiled, before adding that he had taken “a considered decision” to let the younger generation have its day. However, the fact he repeated that it had “come a bit sooner than I might have liked” told its own story.
Was Pat Rabbitte, who was very busy on the airwaves declaring he has no wish to retire, gnashing his teeth somewhere and regretting he didn’t organise a nice wake of his own?
Indeed there are some still saying that Rabbitte might yet escape a total wipeout. That seems unlikely, but the guessing game is fascinating.
Meanwhile, Ruairí’s very public annoyance at the way Eamon Gilmore was pushed into resignation by the younger faction in the Labour Party made more sense yesterday: one departure hastened the other.
For many who have worked down through the years with the urbane Quinn, his bowing out was an emotional affair. He thanked them, he thanked his family and he thanked the voters. “I’m immensely grateful for the career that I’ve had and the opportunities I’ve been given,” he said as his team looked on wistfully.
With the retrospective nicely in train, somebody asked “Regrets? Do you have a few?”
Ruairí sighed. ”Have you got an orchestra?”
That’s the way of politics.
Back in Leinster House, the band played on. And Labour will have a new leader tomorrow.