Brendan Howlin: Former Labour leader and minister will not contest next election

Wexford TD (67) says he has ‘achieved everything that I’m going to achieve in politics’

Former minister and Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin has announced he will not contest the next general election.

After 41 years in national politics, the Wexford TD (67) said he has loved his time as a public representative but “I have achieved everything that I’m going to achieve in politics”.

Mr Howlin used an interview with South East Radio’s Alan Corcoran to break the news to his constituents on what the Labour politician described as an “emotional day”

“This is my life in many ways – that phase of it is a closing chapter.”


Mr Howlin expressed an interest in using his skills to perhaps work to improve democracy in Africa but added: “who knows what I’ll end up doing.”

Labour leader Ms Bacik paid tribute to Mr Howlin on the programme describing him as her “dear friend, colleague and indeed mentor” on the programme.

She said he represented Wexford “with such energy and tenacity over the last four decades”.

Ms Bacik also said: “He played a crucial role in steering the State back from bankruptcy, and he’s just been at the heart of so many changes in Irish life and society over the years he’s been in public service.

“I’m thinking of his campaigning on progressive issues like marriage equality, abortion rights, long before they were popular.”

He told The Irish Times: “I’ve served in government three times. I’ve had demanding and challenging ministries. I’ve been leader of the party.

“So I don’t think there’s anything more than I need to fulfil for myself and I think that it’s time to make way for somebody else.”

Mr Howlin’s career spans more than four decades of massive social change in Ireland as well as turbulent economic times.

From a staunch Labour Party family – Mr Howlin was named after the late party leader and local TD Brendan Corish – he first sought election to the Dáil in 1982.

After he was unsuccessful in that attempt, Mr Howlin was appointed to the Seanad as a taoiseach’s nominee before winning a Dáil seat in 1987.

He served as minister for health in the Fianna Fáil-Labour Coalition of the early 1990s and later as minister for the environment in the rainbow government of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left.

After a number of unsuccessful leadership bids Mr Howlin was appointed minister for public expenditure under then-party leader and tánaiste Eamon Gilmore as part of the Fine Gael-Labour government that took power in 2011 in the wake of the economic crash.

Although that government regained Ireland’s economic sovereignty in late 2013 after the Troika bailout, and reversed high unemployment rates, it has also been criticised for tough austerity budgets.

Mr Howlin said: “I think history will have a better perspective on it than people who unfortunately had to live through it. But it was an existential crisis that could have brought down our economy and our country, the very viability of Ireland.

“I think that we charted our way through that – with all sorts of mistakes on the way I have no doubt – but we were making decisions in real-time basically fighting a war on three fronts.

“And we managed to rebuild a banking system, get most people back to work by the end of our five years and have a balanced budget,” Mr Howlin said.

“If you had said to me that that was possible when we walked in the doors of Government Buildings I would have said – very, very unlikely.”

The Labour Party suffered a big electoral defeat at the end of that government in the 2016 election, returning with seven TDs – down from the 37 in 2011 – and Mr Howlin assumed the leadership from Joan Burton at that time.

He remained in place until the 2020 election but stood down after the party won just six seats.

Mr Howlin said he is “absolutely confident” the party will restore its fortunes and says the current leader Ivana Bacik is “an extraordinary asset” who has “always been a champion of progressive politics”.

He said his decision to retire at the next election is not related to the recent Electoral Commission boundary review that created a smaller, four-seat constituency in south Wexford.

“I’m very confident that we will hold the seat even in the new defined Wexford constituency,” he said.

There will be a selection convention to choose a candidate, and Mr Howlin said most people in Labour would assume that long-time councillor George Lawlor, his parliamentary assistant, will seek to be the candidate for the next general election.

Mr Howlin thanked his local party organisation for their support throughout his career and said he is “hugely indebted to the people of Wexford, who have re-elected me again and again, in very emphatic manners”.

He said he does not have specific plans for the future other than to continue “to work to the best of my ability” until the end of the Dáil term.

“Then I’m going to work very hard to ensure that Labour holds the seat in Wexford.”

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times