Howlin wants to build ‘progressive alliance’ before coalition talks

Interview: Labour Party leader would seek to work with left TDs to have ‘real influence’

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin TD canvassing in Dun Laoghaire with the party's candidate Juliette O'Connell.Photograph by Crispin Rodwell for the Irish Times

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin will seek to negotiate a common platform with the Green Party, the Social Democrats and like-minded independents in a bid to elbow his way into government formation calculations after the general election.

Mr Howlin will not form a government with Sinn Féin, but will seek to negotiate a programme for government with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, effectively playing the two parties off against one other to secure maximum policy concessions.

Before he does this, though, he will seek a “progressive alliance” with other parties and TDs of the left.

“We need to build progressive alliances,” he says, adding that he wants Labour voters to continue their preferences for Greens and Social Democrats candidates after voting for his party’s candidates.


'By and large, modern Ireland has been shaped by the Labour Party more than any other political party'

“I think we’ll have a critical mass of maybe 25 or more seats, maybe more, if we could nail down a policy platform, so that we’re not picked off by other parties ... If we have a clear policy platform that is progressive that says we can’t afford massive tax giveaways if we’re going to fix health, and housing and have a decent childcare system ... we can have a real influence,” he says in an interview with The Irish Times.

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin TD canvassing in Dún Laoghaire with the party’s candidate Juliette O’Connell. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

He says that this policy platform would have to be agreed immediately after the election before the “progressive alliance” opens negotiations with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

“If you want change, that’s the real change agenda,” he says.

Mr Howlin says he hoped “personal issues” with the Social Democrats could be overcome.

“I would certainly be willing to offer full co-operation on behalf of the Labour Party” he says.

The animating spirit of this campaign has been change. How does Labour relate to voters who want change?

“We’ve been the pathfinders for every social movement in this country,” he says, citing the party’s opposition to the eighth amendment in the 1980s. “When we finally repealed the eighth 30 years later a lot of people crowded onto that particular platform and we got crowded out.”

Isn’t that why the referendum was passed, though?

“That’s the point. But someone has to keep the flag ... and the same with marriage equality. Somebody has to be the agents of change. And we’ve always been the agents of change.”

“By and large,” he says, “modern Ireland has been shaped by the Labour Party more than any other political party”.

Labour has made much play of promising to stop the increase in the pension age – a move it supported and argued for in government. Howlin doesn’t deny that the demographics of pensions require the pension age to increase, but he says that 66 is a “reasonable age” for retirement now.

“We can be prudent but we don’t have to be excessively so,” he says, somewhat unconvincingly. “If we have to think about this in another decade, then we can think about it in another decade.”

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin TD canvassing in Dun Laoghaire with the party's candidate Juliette O'Connell.Photograph by Crispin Rodwell for the Irish Times


Childcare has been another mainstay of the Labour offering. His party has proposed a State-provided national childcare service – a huge and expensive undertaking he accepts will take years to construct and will certainly not be achieved in the lifetime of the next government. But the party has promised a pilot scheme to gauge the appetite for such a service, and to examine how it would work in practice.

“It’s not for the next five years because it can’t be afforded,” he says. But the pilot scheme will provide a “blueprint” for a new national service.

Health is also a centrepiece of the Labour pitch. Like other parties he cleaves to the Sláintecare plan to separate the public and private healthcare systems through massive investment in the public system. In the short-term, he acknowledges the pressing need for more GPs. Where do we get them? “We have to train them.”

The struggle to reassert the Labour Party's place on the national political stage remains on a knife-edge

Should they be obliged to stay and work in the Irish health system for a few years after graduation? “I think there is a growing argument that they should be incentivised to stay for at least three years,” he says. He suggests that their student loans could be subsidised. None of this is in the manifesto, but Howlin – a former health minister – is animated on the question.

Like all the small parties, Labour is struggling to get heard in this crowded, noisy election. Its focus is on a handful of constituencies where success would mean the party returning to perhaps double figures in seat numbers and being back in the government formation again – relevant again after years of irrelevancy.

Failure in those constituencies would consign Labour to – what? Four or five seats in total, maybe. Not just irrelevancy, but something near to invisibility. The struggle to reassert the Labour Party’s place on the national political stage remains on a knife-edge.