Miriam Lord: Joan Burton tries not to raise her voice

Tánaiste had clearly been voice-trained to within an inch of her bubbly personality

Ireland awoke to reassuring news from Killarney yesterday morning: Labour is keeping an eye on The National Carrier.

Their Skibbereen Eagle moment.

The party, we heard in the breakfast headlines, was going to discuss the sale of Aer Lingus before the annual conference wrapped up at lunchtime. Needless to say, this came as a huge relief to a worried populace.

A group of Labour TDs, with nothing in common save a burning desire not to upset some of their airline worker constituents had banded together to stick their oar into the proposed sale of the airline.


Introducing an emergency motion, they asked their colleagues to keep the red flagship airline flying.

In recent days these brave deputies have fearlessly thrown themselves in the way of group photographs with no thought to the safety of their own election prospects.

Given that it was the bleary morning after the keynote night before, the hall wasn’t exactly packed when the motion was moved, but delegates voted overwhelmingly to reject IAG’s bid to buy the Government’s 25 per cent stake in the business. That’s that, so.

Or at least it would be if the Government had the power to block the IAG takeover attempt, which it doesn’t. Ireland sold most of Aer Lingus years ago. If the company were a horse, we’d own a leg.

Still, unless IAG delivers a wish-list of cast-iron guarantees on jobs and other issues Labour seems happy to be lumbered with it.

Negotiating table

All weekend the air was heavy with hints that IAG boss

Willie Walsh

is prepared to return to the negotiating table.

So maybe the Aviation Eight are playing a clever game – backbench wrens to IAG’s eagle, hiding in Walsh’s plumage and waiting for the deal to take off. And when it flies they will flutter out and above it, and claim they won the fabled day. If it happens those photos will look good on the literature.

In reality, the ownership of the airline was not a major talking point at the conference. It certainly didn't trouble Joan Burton during her conference speech on Saturday night.

Killarney may have been full of blueshirts, but that’s only because the Dubs were playing a match in town.

This was her first leader’s address, and she had to deliver it with the party languishing in opinion polls, Sinn Féin snapping at its heels and three former party leaders sitting in the seats behind her.

The main event was a very professional production. The auditorium in Killarney’s INEC was dominated by a curved panoramic screen, wrapping delegates in the warmth of an orange tinted landscape, with an old plough silhouetted against the horizon and its namesake constellation glittering in the sky above it.

But was it dawn or was it dusk? Oh, definitely the dawn. That was the message for delegates. “Opportunity 2016” was the conference theme.

After the years of economic turbulence, recovery is now on the way. As Brendan Howlin remarked earlier in the day: "Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of the surreal world Ireland was in . . . We need to know where we came from, but we also need to know where we are going." There isn't much you can say to that.

Back in the auditorium deputy leader Alan Kelly was in charge of the warm-up. It included a speech from Maíría Cahill, who was given the James Larkin Thirst for Justice Award. Not to be confused with the Conference Delegate Thirst for Gargle award, which was hotly contested later.

While Cahill’s story of her rape at the hands of an IRA man and subsequent quest for answers over the handling of her situation by Sinn Féin is undeniably compelling, her appearance on Saturday was a little unsettling.

Both she and the Labour Party vehemently rejected suggestions that her situation was being used “as a political football” but her high-profile presence raised the very question they were so eager to dismiss.

As it happened, Cahill came out, unintentionally, with one of the funniest lines of the night. “When I first met Joan Burton I nearly talked her to death.”

In which case both women are lucky to be alive.

Kelly, meanwhile, cemented his image as the hardman of the party with a robust performance through the weekend.

“In the next year we will take the fight to our political enemies, and, trust me, we will,” he told the faithful. “Everyone in this room must lead us into battle.”

There was much praise over the weekend for the former party leader who stepped down last year. Kelly spoke of the crisis facing the country when “the Labour Party went into Government under the enormous leadership of Eamon Gilmore”.

Eamon, in the front row, looked enormously embarrassed.

Finally, it was time for Burton’s maiden voyage to the microphone, which was in the centre of the hall. The music swelled and words slowly rose from the dusky/dawny backdrop. “From the plough . . . to the stars.” Not bad for a girl from Stoneybatter.


Early in her speech it became clear that Joan had been voice-trained to within an inch of her bubbly personality. As a result her dull, monotone delivery verged on the soporific. At one stage we feared that

Pat Rabbitte

, lolling in his seat, had lost consciousness. But that might have been for show.

The content of her speech was good. The emphasis was on Labour’s role in the recovery, with its implied staying hand on majority party Fine Gael, and pledges of more income relief for low- and middle-income earners.

But Joan didn’t do much emphasising. It was obvious that the handlers were afraid to let her raise her voice – no matter how much she might have wanted to hammer home her points.

Why? Afterwards people were pointing to a fear that the press would inevitably make comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunate and unfair, but probably true.

It must have been very difficult for the Labour leader to get through that half hour with this on her mind. When she finished and the applause began, the huge smile of relief spreading across her face said it all.

And the delegates rose in genuine appreciation as Kelly and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin raised their leader’s arm aloft, fighting a private battle for custody of her hand.

They have a year to regain lost ground. The upbeat mood to this weekend’s conference shows that Labour haven’t given up the fight. For them it’s not dusk but dawn.