The weight of expectation on the new leader is great, partly because she did so much to generate it

These are the moments in the tough world of politics when public and private collide


Joan Burton has done it. Yesterday, she became the first woman to lead the Irish Labour Party since its foundation in 1912. Her story is now history.

Years of passion and perseverance finally paid off for the scholarship girl from Dublin’s inner city when she was cheered into the Mansion House with her family by her side, ready to take on the greatest challenge of her political career.

Joan wanted this job.

In recent years, she didn’t disguise her ambition. Now she has her wish.

The weight of expectation on the new leader is great, partly because she did so much to generate it.

When she stole into the Lord Mayor’s parlour in the Mansion House yesterday afternoon to speak to the Taoiseach, Joan Burton didn’t emerge as an accidental Tánaiste. She has worked and networked hard over the years to reach this milestone.

When Enda Kenny formally appointed her over the phone, he was merely rubberstamping the inevitable.

First speech

In her first speech, Tánaiste Burton set her coalition compass decisively with a quote from Michael D Higgins: “We governed perhaps too much with the head and not enough with the heart.”

Luckily for Joan, she has the luxury of some latitude when it comes to easing off on the economic throttle.

Her predecessor had no such luck. As he made his way into the Mansion House to hand over the mantle of leadership, Eamon Gilmore said he was delighted to note headlines indicating economic recovery.

“All of which shows that our hard work over the last three years is paying off for the Irish people.”

But not fast enough for Gilmore, who gave way to the new leader with grace and dignity in an emotional handover under the starry dome of the Round Room.

He wouldn’t comment on speculation that he may be getting the European commissioner’s job. “This is Joan Burton’s day,” he said.

And he was right.

Whatever about heads ruling hearts on the economic front, yesterday, for Joan Burton and her family, was all about heart.

The result of the leadership election was never really in doubt.

When the boxes were opened and the ballots sorted, it was clear within a matter of minutes that Joan Burton was sweeping into office. Her opponent, Alex White, congratulated his new boss and promised her all his best wishes and support.

The speeches from the stage were emotional and magnanimous.

This was a poignant moment for Eamon Gilmore and his team after seven years as leader. His voice wobbled a little when he thanked them for their support.

Then he turned to the Tánaiste – both of them had tears in their eyes.

“So Joan, comhghairdeachas, a chroí, ar aghaidh leis an obair.”

They he lifted her arm aloft and they faced the cheering crowd.

In the hall, Joan’s husband, Pat Carroll, and daughter, Aoife, looked on with pride.

Paul Burton, in floods of tears, hugged the new leader of the Labour Party and then he hugged her again.

When he finally let her go, he looked up at the misty-eyed supporters surrounding his older sister and struggled for something to say. “Up the Dubs!” he croaked, and they all started crying again.

These are the moments in the tough world of politics when the public and the private collide.

Alan Kelly – a straight talking, no-nonsense Tipperary man – won through to become deputy leader.


Kelly is from a staunch old Labour background and he doesn’t seem to mind stepping on toes. He should be good value for money when he becomes a minister.

On the walk around to the College of Physicians in Kildare Street for the first press conference, the brother filled us in on life with Joan. Paul now lives in Galway, but he came down to savour Joan’s big day.

“The Ma and Da would have loved today. They would have been so proud of her. Johnny and Bridie – I said a prayer for her this morning. Da lived until he was 90 – only died recently, but Joan had to look after me after Ma died when I was only young.”

The younger brother said he had no doubts but that Joan would be well able to look after herself as party leader and to keep her troops in line.

“I remember one day, when I was 17, going into my bedroom and finding a note pinned to me pillow. It said: ’Clean your room or get out.’ I cleaned me room.”

The new leader’s first press conference went without a hitch. Joan looked great – these things are important, no matter how much people might complain about such trivial matters – wearing a crisp white linen dress offset by a crimson red water-silk bolero top.

She set out her stall – a softer, more socially centred approach to the economy.

She answered questions – nimble, well-briefed and with a hint of humour.

She will meet the Taoiseach on Monday.

Tánaiste Burton. Go for it, Joan.