Minister whose job was to prove Labour can hold the purse strings


SMOOTH, intelligent, ambitious and extremely hard working, Ruairi Quinn could be anybody's favourite uncle. But the bland exterior of the first Labour Party Minister for Finance should not deceive. He isn't a softie there is a crafty, cutting edge beneath the urbane veneer.

His grandfather, father and uncle prospered in the grocery trade; his immediate family are high achievers; he himself is quintessentially middle class and, in Dublin South East, he distributes red roses to constituents at election time. Mr Quinn is the moderate, pragmatic and professional face of the Irish Labour Party.

It has been a long, bumpy road from his 1960s sit in days as a student radical in UCD. Even then, Mr Quinn generated political suspicion - students regarded him either as a pseudo revolutionary or as a dangerous extremist. Later, within the Labour Party, he was always somehow detached. Not for him extremist rhetoric and the sudden dawn of a new order change would be incremental and Mr Quinn would be a Minister. He planned ahead.

An architect by profession, he is a committed conservationist. Divorced and remarried, he unabashedly enjoys fine wines, good cooking and great art, not to mention his colourful ties and sartorial style, which makes him an unlikely champion of the working class. His relations with the media have cooled in recent years, becoming more selective and businesslike.

In government with Fine Gael from 1982-87, he was regarded by Left wingers as a semi detached Labour Minister and the same criticisms emerged when power was shared with Fianna Fail in 1992. His desire for power was so palpable it generated distrust.

ENERGETIC and aggressive, he played a major role in the reorganisation of Dublin constituencies the late 1980s. And when Labour gained 10 Dail seats there, he became a local hero. But as the first Minister for Employment and Enterprise in the ensuing Fianna Fail/Labour Party government, he failed to impress. As that government crumbled, he was the man who came to Albert Reynolds "looking for a head".

Mr Quinn became Finance Minister in 1994 at a time of rapid economic growth. His job prove to the financial markets and to the middle class that Labour could be trusted with the purse strings.

Mr Quinn's first two Budgets were designed to help the lowest paid, the marginalised and small business. Money was pumped into education and the health services. Then, last January, with an election looming, he moved to mollify the wider PAYE sector. Caution and prudent management have been the hallmarks of his tenancy at Merrion Street. And his reputation was enhanced when he negotiated a Stability Pact for the EMU.

Judgment and good luck in finance, coupled with "green" credentials and a rare ability to plan ahead, make him a likely successor to Mr Spring.