'Irish people are fair and they’re not stupid. They won’t reward opportunists or destroyers'
Brendan Howlin optimistic about Labour’s electoral prospects
Brendan Howlin: the Minister for Public Expenditure holds out hope that voters won’t punish the party for its austere fiscal policy in Government. Photograph: PA
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who had the unappealing task last year of cutting public service pay, insists voters will be receptive to the party’s record in office.
“In politics, as in life, you can only do your best. If you do your best and if you’re honest and open with people you can do no more. People make their own value judgments then,” he says.
“My experience over 30 years in politics is the Irish people are fair and they’re not stupid. They won’t reward either opportunists or the destroyers. They will, I believe and I hope, acknowledge and ultimately reward those who worked hard in their interest.”
We can expect to hear lots more of the same on the hustings. Yet isn’t there always the danger that voters would astonish the Government with ingratitude? “We’ll see,” Howlin says.
Although Labour had a wretched byelection in Meath East last March, he insists such contests are notoriously bad indicators of public opinion.
“In a byelection one contender normally leads the field and the rest fade,” he says.
‘Most challenging year’
The Minister is in combative mode, saying 2013 “was the most the most challenging year of the three we’ve done” as a Coalition. “Since 2011 we’ve cut public expenditure by €2.8 billion and we’ve downsized the public service by a further 15,000 while at the same time providing more services for more people.”
The pay talks took six months with a few bumps on the way before the Haddington Road deal was done, but Howlin says there is further scope for change. He wants bonuses for good performance in the Civil Service and penalties – or “sanctions” as he puts it – for senior people who don’t do the business as required.
“What I’m saying is that there should be much more clarity about the level of performance, obviously above a certain grade. We’re not going to hold a clerical officer to account for everything they do but where you have lines of responsibility there should be an accountability as well.”
Like everyone else on Merrion Street he takes no little pride in the bailout exit.
“I think that has been, I suppose, the focus of the Government since our election. We said that the ignominy of being beholden to external supervisors in the way we were, and tied into a programme in the way we were, a bad programme negotiated by our predecessor government, that we would get ourselves out of that.”
Yet politics is always a forward-looking enterprise. While the year to come heralds the prospect of a Cabinet reshuffle, Howlin won’t entertain the question of whether he expects to remain in his portfolio.
Alongside Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, Howlin is member of the powerful Economic Management Council. This places him close to the apex of Cabinet.
“I serve at the pleasure of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste,” he says. “I have no view beyond that. I was challenged but greatly honoured to be given this new role and I will serve here for as long as the Tánaiste wishes me to.”
Though he keeps his options open in the end, he is similarly reluctant to discuss whether he would have another tilt at the Labour leadership whenever Gilmore vacates the post.
“That issue won’t arise,” he insists. But it will arise at some future point? “Well it won’t arise this side of a general election in any event.” Whenever it does arise? “Ah, God knows what will happen into the future.”
As for chatter about the prospect of either Kenny or Gilmore moving on to a big job in Brussels, he says “I genuinely don’t know” and says it a second time too.
“I haven’t heard any discussion at Cabinet level anyway about it and I don’t know.”
So what is his instinctive reflection?
“I don’t know what the Taoiseach’s intentions are. I’d be very surprised if his intention isn’t to lead his own party into the next general election with the objective of being Taoiseach afterwards,” he says.
And what of the Tánaiste?
“I’d say exactly the same objective. He’d like to be Taoiseach too.”