Kelly expected to set out thinking on future coalition at first conference as Labour leader

Byelection victory lifted party morale, but securing wider electoral success a major challenge

  Alan Kelly: he must map  out the future in a credible way that articulates and then creates a central role for Labour in Irish politics

Alan Kelly: he must map out the future in a credible way that articulates and then creates a central role for Labour in Irish politics

 

Alan Kelly faces his first party conference as leader of the Labour party this weekend. The party is still buoyed by its spectacular byelection victory in Dublin Bay South during the summer even if it knows everyone has moved on, but Kelly faces the considerable challenge of getting noticed by the public in a crowded field, rallying his troops, setting out a path to power and a reason for getting it. So, no pressure then.

Kelly had a reputation as an impatient and sometimes abrasive minister during the second phase Fine Gael-Labour government from 2014-16.

After electoral disaster in 2016 he sought the leadership, but his colleagues in a shell-shocked party declined to back him, preferring the safe pair of hands of Brendan Howlin.

When Howlin stepped down after last year’s election, Kelly relied on his popularity and preparations among the nationwide party organisation to comfortably defeat Dublin Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin for the leadership.

However, trying to carve out a distinctive identity and make an impact is hard for the leader of a small opposition party in Ireland’s fractured political landscape. During Covid it was harder still.

Kelly had some success in defining an approach that was less relentlessly confrontational than Sinn Féin, but it has been tough going; a struggle. The byelection was a fillip. But it was not achieved on the back of national successes, or a rising profile for the Labour brand; rather it was a perfect candidate in the perfect place at an opportune time.

Maturity

Observers also noticed that Kelly was not exactly prominent during the campaign, though party sources give him credit for that. He got out of Ivana Bacik’s way, precisely the right thing to do.

Even those formerly suspicious of Kelly in the party accept that he has displayed some maturity and judgment since becoming leader. One points out that this is the first conference anyone can remember at which nobody is trying to undermine the leader.

There is a fair degree of collegiality around the parliamentary party, at least by the standards of Leinster House, TDs attest.

But the real challenges for Kelly do not lie in managing his own TDs; after all there’s not that many of them. It is in mapping out the future in a credible way that articulates and then creates a central role for Labour in Irish politics.

Inevitably this will require decisions about the party’s attitude to future participation in government, and with whom that might be.

Party sources say that Kelly will spell out his thinking on this subject in his televised address to delegates on Saturday evening. But they were unable to say if he would be ruling anyone in, or ruling them out. It would be rather early to be doing that, but it will be carefully watched all the same.

This question revolves principally around Sinn Féin. However, it doesn’t take the form of asking “would you be involved in a government with Sinn Fein?” Everyone’s answer to that will be “it depends”.

Rather the question will be “will be you be part of a government that would make the achievement of a united Ireland as soon as possible one of its central priorities?”

Doubtful

That is a government that many people in the Labour party do not think it should join. Can a government run a nationalist agenda and a social democratic one at the same time? Kelly is said to be doubtful.

But others say they cannot rule Sinn Féin out. “The question to us will be: are you part of the FF-FG establishment or are you a party of change?” says one senior party figure. When you put it like that . . .

The party will have a session on Northern Ireland on Friday with British Labour shadow secretary of state Louise Haigh, SDLP MP Claire Hanna, Siptu’s Owen Reidy and Kelly.

Those medium-term questions aside, the conference – which will be part online, part in-person – is an opportunity for the party to wave its flag, get noticed and say hello to itself again. And, like all such events, to renew the faith.

All was upbeat this week. “We have a new logo,” says a party official, hopefully. “And a new website.”

“It’s not a logo,” corrects one TD, tongue-in-cheek. “It’s a visual identity.”

The “Labour” in it is tilting forward. Is it falling over? “Oh no. It suggests movement. We’re going places.”

Really?

“We’ll see.”