Miriam Lord: Resignation black the new red for Labour’s Joan
Emotional occasion marked by tears for first woman leader of venerable Labour Party
Joan Burton announces her departure as Labour leader. Photograph: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
The familiar red jacket had been decommissioned.
In its place, a different statement piece.
The colour was resignation black and Joan Burton was stepping down.
It was a tough day for her.
In the summer of 2014, Joan made history by becoming the first female leader of the Labour party. There were emotional scenes in Dublin’s Mansion House when she was elected.
Yesterday, the tears weren’t far away either, but for a different reason.
Labour’s disastrous election performance signalled the end of Joan’s brief tenure in charge. She knew, everyone knew, she had to go. Yet for a time, rumours persisted that she was considering a campaign to stay and fight on as leader.
That’s what happens when people are given too much time to think.
Her predecessors, Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte, were given a swift heave-ho after abysmal local and general election results. Final figures were barely in before they were handed their hats by hungry parliamentary parties and ushered out the door.
But Joan Burton, still Tánaiste until the new Government came into being, was forced to wait in the departures lounge for more than two months while Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and a large cast of Independents tried to cobble together a working arrangement.
Right up to yesterday, when Burton announced her resignation, some people were saying she was going to throw her hat into the ring for the second time. No chance.
“I have been coming to terms with this decision over a rather more protracted period than anticipated,” she said in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Ely Place, a favourite Labour venue for big events. The party’s head office used to be a few doors away.
More time to reflect didn’t make it any easier. “Yes, it has been difficult,” admitted Joan of her decision.
It was about the only personal admission she made during her speech and the press conference which followed. Reporters tried, tried and tried again to coax her thoughts on what Joan Burton the person, as opposed to Joan Burton the Labour politician, felt she could have done better during her time in power. With hindsight, did she thing she got anything wrong?
But the overwhelming message that Joan wanted to deliver was the Labour party simply ran out of time. That, repeatedly, came across as her biggest regret.
It had been “undoubtedly difficult” for her leadership, taking over when two-thirds of the Dáil term was already gone.
“I wish there had been more time, we certainly tried our best to turn it around in terms of communications,” she said.
As for “one single thing” which she regretted, it was the Greek crisis and the euro zone crisis and “the key issue was the time factor”.
It was only a pity, Joan mused, that she hadn’t have 48 hours in each day because there was such an awful lot to do.
And it didn’t help that there was a “level of very raw politics in terms of some people projecting for political reasons and political benefit, a very negative image on the Labour party,” she continued.
But then, politics can be a vicious business.
As she spoke, there was a sense that Joan is still fighting the battle. That she feels very hard done by.
She instanced a recent academic paper which shows that the Labour Party managed to implement more than 60 per cent of its election promises, despite being a junior coalition party to a Fine Gael partner with a handsome numerical advantage.
“When the heat of the battle has died down . . . it will allow people to be more reflective,” she remarked.
Joan says she will now stand back and let the process too find a new leader get under way.
There was a slightly wistful tone to her comments about recent party meetings where there was much debate and discussion about the future and “where we’ve had to reach a consensus”.
That consensus amounted to Joan Burton handing in her resignation yesterday.
It was a sad occasion. Party staff and advisers, many already working in new jobs in the private sector, gathered to see her off.
Some could scarcely contain the tears.
Their departing leader made the short walk from Leinster House to Ely Place with her shrunken parliamentary party beside her.
They didn’t take up too much room on the footpath, and when they stood behind her at the top of the conference room, they took up the width of three slim posters.
In the foyer of the gallery, on their way in, the politicians will have passed two large pictures on the far wall – both of guns.
Joan’s is the second Labour leadership career to have ended in the RHA – Pat Rabbitte bowed out there too.
After the formalities, the journalists fanned out to interview the possible successors.
And as the crowd drifted off, we got to thinking that there was once a time we felt old because the policemen were looking younger.
Now, you know you’re old when you have to start counting the number of Labour leaders you have known on the fingers of your second hand.