Miriam Lord: Labour pretender’s floored ambition steals show

Whodunnit? It was Alan Kelly. He done himself in. And everyone was very sad about it

Brendan Howlin is the new leader of the Labour Party. Pat Leahy Deputy Political Editor of The Irish Times reports on the challenges facing the Wexford TD. Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

There was a full house in the old library for Howlin’s soliloquy. “Labour doesn’t involve itself in theatrics,” declaimed the Prince of Labour after a dramatic pause, clearly not up to speed with the plot.

In the spotlight to his left, a pair of men’s brogues, soles up, poke out from behind the heavy drapes. They are hard to ignore, just like their owner had been. When no one was looking, unseen hands quietly lugged the guts of Alan Kelly’s ambition off the stage. Spoiler alert: it is far from dead.

In the final act, before the curtain came down, the six remaining cast members stood frozen in the limelight, each holding a silver candlestick. So who did for Kelly? Because when the weapons were dusted for prints, all were clean.

Whodunnit? It was Alan. Impetuous Alan. He done himself in. And everyone, not least the candlestick wielders, was very, very sad about it.

But there was one last twist. For a party that doesn’t do theatrics, the show climaxed with “noises off” from Kelly and a rather dubious happy ending for all concerned.

Yesterday’s long-awaited first performance as Labour Party leader from Brendan Howlin drew a big crowd to the library of the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin. Over 30 years of waiting, to be precise, while he enjoyed an extended run as supporting actor to a changing list of leading men and one leading lady.

Loose cannon

He sort of fell into the role. Which is what all the old thespians say when asked how they landed their most famous part. Labour’s latest drama began two years ago: party gains new leader and new deputy leader, who proves something of a loose cannon.

Leader loses general election, with no small thanks to her careering cannon. She goes, he wants her job so much that he goes on the Late Late Show to showcase his brilliance, but deeply annoys the six Labour TDs who have the power to grant him the job.

Kelly craves the drug of power. It is one of his biggest flaws. When he attempts to score the leadership, the people who can facilitate him turn away. He fights as only a man nicknamed AK47 can. But the six stick to their guns. And they don’t include an AK47.

Howlin, reluctant leader, accepts the crown. Kelly’s supporters cry foul and let slip the wrath of a few grassroots. They want a contest. But rules is rules. They forget that the same party constitution saw Eamon Gilmore take over the leadership in a similar fashion. They weren’t roaring then and Brendan is standing firmly by that constitution now.

After much soul-searching by the six, Kelly is dispatched. And when Howlin sets out from Leinster House for his first press conference in charge of the party, Alan is missing. But while he may not have been there in person, his name and his thwarted ambition (not to mention his feet sticking out from under the curtain) wrest star billing from Brendan just as he is ready for his close-up.

Oh, the drama. Howlin takes the stage surrounded by his Dáil colleagues – including former leader Joan Burton and incoming Labour Senators. They don’t take up much space.

There is dead air before the proceedings begin. It’s awkwardly silent. Brendan looks up and admires the lovely ceiling and somebody jokes about mobile phones and everyone ignores Alan’s presence.

“Friends . . .” begins the new leader, addressing his fellow Romans and countrymen and setting an immediate conciliatory tone. Because he wants to bring people back to the party, people who were once members and people who might be dithering on the fringes.

Yes, even “reaching out” to Róisín Shortall and Tommy Broughan. And, most of all, impetuous Alan. Brendan had the kindest of words for the man who wanted his job. Couldn’t speak highly enough of him and his “value” to the party. After Howlin’s soliloquy, others among the six wanted to speak of Alan.

Jan O’Sullivan, seen as the person most likely to assist Kelly in his battle to find a seconder so he could challenge for the leadership, gave Howlin a ringing endorsement as “the best leader that we could possibly have”. But, she reminded everybody, Alan “is a very valued part of our team”.

Joan, meanwhile, said that during the “incredibly exhausting” process that led to AK47 being dynamited out of the leadership discussions “people were valuing Alan hugely”.

What with the age of most of Labour’s TDs and all the talk of valuations, it was like stumbling into a mad episode of the Antiques Roadshow.

But back to Howlin, the Prince of Labour, and his beautifully delivered speech. If it wasn’t for Michael D Higgins he would have had the poshest speaking voice in Labour. It’ll probably get posher – a la Michael D, now that he’s been elevated. It sounded like that already yesterday.

Introspection

“Today is not a day for introspection,” he said repeatedly as people asked about Kelly’s whereabouts and the reason why he was off sulking somewhere. Had Brendan been in touch with him? Yes, texted him early in the morning. And did Alan reply? “He did not.”

“Does anyone know where he is?” “No.” But enough about AK47. He isn’t the only one with Labour DNA.

“I am immersed in Labour politics,” cried Brendan, rising to his tippy toes at the lectern and explaining how he learned from his late father and, many years ago, from the former Labour leader, Brendan Corish. The new leader wanted to talk about the future. He took a pop at Sinn Féin and the Trotskyites and fringe groups for “trading on false hope” with their populist politics.

Almost all the questions after Howlin’s soliloquy were about Kelly. The leader and his five colleagues fell over themselves praising him. “Alan’s heart is in the Labour Party,” sniffed Howlin, omitting to add that they also had his head on a plate. “And the family is open to him always.”

The TDs and Senators showed remarkable restraint when asked what they felt about reports that AK47 was threatening to leave Labour. That would be awful, so it would, they agreed, managing not to burst into a round of “Cheerio, Cheerio, Cheerio!” As the final curtain neared, Howlin read a text message.

Might that be Alan, finally replying? “Actually, it is.” The new party leader read it out. “If you let my name go forward now, that will be the end of it. I will not hold it against you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you . . . and I will kill you.”

Sorry. No. That wasn’t it. Kelly was sending his best wishes and good luck to his new leader. He’ll come around in time for the next bout of Labour theatrics.

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