Alan Kelly profile: ‘He rose too far, too fast through sheer force of will’
Labour TD’s scrapes with officials have become the thing of legend in political circles
Alan Kelly “rose too far, too fast through sheer force of will,” said one Labour figure, adding: “He’s too ambitious to give up”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne /The Irish Times
Ordinarily, a party that has come through a near death experience would automatically look to a figure with high public recognition and ministerial experience to lead its depleted ranks.
The kind of person who gets invited onto Ryan Tubridy’s Late Late Show couch to discuss his political vision and beliefs and announce to the nation that he would like to lead his party from the mire.
The kind of person who is not afraid of sticking it to political opponents and standing up for the party’s achievements. The perfect type of guy unless, that is, the party is Labour and the individual is Alan Kelly.
Over four days this week, the remaining seven Labour TDs met for hours in tense sessions to discuss the leadership of their party. Six agreed that a consensus candidate should emerge from the parliamentary party, and that person should be Brendan Howlin.
Party rules stipulate that anyone wishing to be leader needs a proposer and seconder from the ranks of TDs. Kelly could propose himself but failed to get a seconder. Limerick TD Jan O’Sullivan came under particular pressure but held firm.
Kelly’s supporters claim that Howlin wanted a coronation and felt a contest was beneath him; that the Wexford TD, who lost out on leadership twice before, was afraid he would lose again.
They claimed the former environment minister’s strength is among the Labour rank and file but why did his parliamentary party colleagues – those who work closest with him – prevent Kelly from even going before members?
His ‘AK47’ nickname is not for nothing, and speaks to his quick temper and aggressive manner. His scrapes with officials have become the thing of legend in political and government circles, with tales of senior Labour figures having to intervene with Kelly and ask him to tone done down his engagements with civil servants. Supporters of Kelly dispute that such an intervention ever took place, while others are adamant it did. Various stories of expletives and profanity merge into each other.
One official who has dealt with Kelly says he has an “awful, abrasive style” while claiming the Tipperary TD was capable of undermining his most senior civil servants in front of others.
“But when you push him back on him, he can go quiet,” the source said. he same figure, however, says that Kelly could ring up and offer congratulations on a job well done, adding that he was best to deal with during his final months as a cabinet minister. Others recount phone calls of a different nature, when Kelly has bellowed down the line without even saying hello.
His supporters again argue that aggression, drive and determination are what Labour needs now, along with a willingness by the leader to travel the country rebuilding the party. If his worst offence is kicking a few civil servants around, so be it, they shrug. You don’t have to mollify civil servants in opposition.
His opponents in Labour say party members are unaware of his flaws. At the height of the water charges controversy, sources claim he often remarked that he had the hardest job in Ireland.
Other big issues he tackled during his time in the Custom House were the housing and homelessness crisis but here, too, his detractors maintain his skills were lacking. One source said he had a habit of “dragging the city and county managers in on a weekly basis” to give out to them and “in the process guaranteeing they would deliver hardly any housing”.
“The big stick is not the way to get things done,” the source added.
Another who has worked with Kelly said he “can’t accept that politics is, most of the time, about bringing people with you”.
“He’s the opposite of what we need to win back voters in the leafy suburbs - which is where we’ll win them back first. He’s a Fianna Fáiler who is in the party through accident of birth.”
Another said that Kelly does not listen.
“It’s not like Joan, who doesn’t listen because she has so much going on in her head. He doesn’t listen because he thinks he knows better.”
Yet few believe this will be the end of Kelly. Howlin will lead the party into the next election but it is unlikely he will remain at the helm for much longer thereafter.
It will then be for the next generation – such as Kelly, Sean Sherlock, Ged Nash and Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin – to fight it out. The parliamentary party is now talking about Labour’s constitution being out of date and in need of reform.
The rules governing leadership elections may be changed and, if Labour increases its number of TDs, Kelly will be likely to get a seconder next time out, in any event. For now, he will have to settle for a position below Howlin, and is likely to be brooding, bulky presence in a parliamentary party too small to pretend he isn’t there.
“He rose too far, too fast through sheer force of will,” said one Labour figure, while adding: “He’s too ambitious to give up.”
Kelly’s ambitions have been checked for now, but it will take more than this setback to stop him.