It is nothing if not ironic that the man that the Labour Party will most likely chose to save the day in the face of the relentless and inexorable electoral onslaught of Sinn Féin is someone who delights in his own nomme de guerre, AK47.
Alan Kelly not only likes his soubriquet but relishes in his characterisation of someone who shoots from the hip, takes no prisoners and gets things done.
Certainly Kelly is brash and doesn’t stand on ceremony, while detractors would use a somewhat different and less complimentary description of the Tipp man.
In Dublin yesterday a Labour Party grandee told me they’d be afraid to let Alan Kelly near the leadership as “he’d pull the whole thing down around him.”
The preference among the liberal wing of the party seems to favour the more considered and conciliatory style of the highly credible Ged Nash.
Nash has come through the cauldron that is Louth politics so it’s not that he’s squeamish either and he has those valued trade union connections and credentials.
“Ged would be a reformer and not a wrecking ball,” is the wry observation and thinly veiled swipe at Kelly from an influential figure within the capital.
This faction also know that whatever about Ged Nash, the Party’s other newly re-elected TD Aodháin O’ Riordán would have little chance in a straight head-to-head contest with Kelly.
The two are poles apart and polarise opinion within the wounded Party which badly needs to recuperate, reform and recover. Ged Nash might offer that less divisive middle ground.
And yet Alan Kelly remains the housewife’s favourite to be the next leader of Labour. Kelly believes it’s his destiny and that his hour has come.
But he thought that in 2016 as well when the Party was on its knees and looked as if things couldn’t possibly get any worse, until they did.
It is undeniable that Alan Kelly was blocked from a legitimate shot at the leadership in the aftermath of the collapse of Labour from 37 seats to 7. This has incensed many of the rank and file and as a result the Party’s membership base is since badly depleted. This in turn will have a significant bearing on any leadership contest in the coming weeks as to just who is registered and eligible to vote.
While Kelly may well have been the preferred choice of the broader membership around the country to take over as leader in 2016 from John Burton, he was denied the opportunity to force a vote as he could not secure a seconder from even one of his colleagues to facilitate a leadership contest.
It is known that Kelly put a great deal of pressure on other parliamentary colleagues such as Willie Penrose and Joan Burton at the time but neither would endorse his candidature and Brendan Howlin assumed the leadership position without a vote.
It is worth remembering that Joan Burton herself had only been elected two year’s earlier in an open contest when Eamon Gilmore stepped down due to a wipe-out in the 2014 local elections. Voter anger had crystallised around the outcry over austerity, broken election promises and the reviled water charges. The loss of over 120 council seats was merely to foreshadow worse things to come in the subsequent general election.
It is not clear whether Brendan Howlin was the vastly experienced safe pair of hands the Labour Party badly need to steady the ship in 2016 or was he merely fulfilling a life-long ambition, after two previously failed attempts to become leader. Either way he didn’t live up to the task or expectations.
Brendan Howlin has a proud record and legacy of public and political service for his beloved Wexford and not least as Minister for Public Expenditure from 2011 to 2016, when his calm and capable approach was central to the recovery of the country from economic ruin.
However, his term as Labour Party leader will not be one of the stand-out moments of his illustrious career. In fact it has been nothing short of a disaster for the Party.
Howlin committed to reinvigorating and rebuilding the Party. He didn’t. He barely stirred outside Dublin or Wexford and in four years he failed to land a glove on a calamitous Fine Gael led minority government with its feeble and flailing efforts around housing and health.
These two twin failings of the Varadkar government on housing and health should have been a bread and butter opportunity for the Labour Party to re-engage and re-emerge as a political force. It didn’t as others, not for the first time, stole its clothes and took the political initiative. In the four years of Howlin’s leadership he failed to move the dial on Labour’s 4% poll ratings and in last weekend’s election the crows came home to roost.
Neither was there any strategic succession planning or any meaningful generational change which is vital in all successful organisations and particularly modern political machines.
The Labour brand is badly damaged. That the Party could not even field a candidate in the Kerry 5-seater says it all about the failure to rebuild and reorganise. As recently as 2011 to 2016 the Party had a hard working TD and Senator there in Arthur Spring and Marie Moloney. Labour’s woes in this regard are also reflected in the Clare 4-seater, where the former Labour TD, Michael Mc Namara, who lost his seat in 2016 was re-elected last Sunday, but on this occasion as an Independent.
Howlin had no choice but to step aside, some would say four years too late and Labour have no choice but to stay well away from government to see if it can stabilise its decline and reassert its political relevance.
All this time the only light at the end of a long tunnel has been the brash political bruiser that is Alan Kelly who became the public face of the Labour Party for his trenchant and robust performance as Health spokesman, not least on the cervical test scandal and the cost over-runs on the children’s’ hospital.
There are those Labour loyalists who console themselves that the Party has been here before and seen worse days and recovered. That’s deluded. Sinn Féin did not have 37 TDs in the Dáil back in 1987 and 1989 when it turned to the charismatic leadership of Dick Spring to restore their fortunes and return 33 TDs in 1992, after earlier masterminding the election of President Mary Robinson in 1990 and a hugely successful local elections in 1991.
That’s the kind of inspiring leadership that Labour are now looking for and yet they don’t even have a candidate much less a TD in the Spring stronghold of Kerry.
Instead there are talks of merging with the Social Democrats with the Soc Dems earning a parity of esteem equalling Labour’s return of six Dáil deputies. One observer has already named any such merger as the LSD Party, and who knows what you might need to cope with so many leaders in the one room.
For now Labour’s fortunes seem to hang on Alan Kelly’s broad shoulders, but is he any Dick Spring?
“Well, we have one last chance before we are gobbled completely by the Shinners and Kelly will either make or break us,” says one seasoned Labour activist, with few if any willing to go on the record or show their hand as the contest for who will lead Labour in to the new decade gets underway in earnest when nominations open tomorrow (Monday).
The question is, will that leader be a new dawn or the death knell of Labour.
This article was originally commissioned and published in today’s Sunday Independent.