Subscriber OnlyPoliticsInterview

Brendan Howlin on the ‘proudest period’ of his career: ‘We were fighting a war on three fronts’

Former Labour Party leader says he has no intention of attempting to follow Mary Robinson and Michael D Higgins to presidency

In early 2011, Brendan Howlin stepped out of briefings on the “frightening” scale of Ireland’s economic problems as his party, Labour, was working to form a Government with Fine Gael.

“I do remember walking down Baggot Street, just clearing my head and saying ‘if people only knew the crisis we’re facing. We may not get through this’,” he recalls.

Howlin describes his time as the first minister for public expenditure – when he played a key role in the Government that restored Ireland’s economic sovereignty after the 2008 crash – as the “proudest period” of his career, not least because of the huge challenge the country faced.

He describes the 2008 crash as “unprecedented” and says when Labour entered the Coalition with Fine Gael Ireland was in the hands of the bailout Troika to survive. “We had no access to pay our way other than the money that they were giving us under strict conditions.”


He says there were three simultaneous crises – mass unemployment, a huge fiscal crisis, and a banking crisis. These three issues “would have beggared most governments but we had to map our way through”.

Howlin’s powerful role at the new Department of Public Expenditure meant he was a member of the Economic Management Council (EMC) which, during the early part of that government also included then taoiseach Enda Kenny, tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and minister for finance Michael Noonan.

Howlin said Labour entered government to create a large Dáil majority that would allow the new administration to “put the needs of our country first”.

“Bluntly”, the approach Labour would insist on taking, he says, “would be a lot more socially progressive than Fine Gael alone”, and he argues his party achieved a fairer balance of tax increases and spending cuts than would otherwise have been the case.

On Friday, 15 years after the 2008 crash, Howlin announced he will not contest the next general election after 41 years in national politics.

The 67-year-old Wexford TD says he loved his time as a public representative but “I have achieved everything that I’m going to achieve in politics”.

On the budgets of the recession era he acknowledges “a lot of the pain that was felt – and there’s no escaping that. But we did our very, very best to mitigate that as best we could.”

Without the cuts in areas like social protection, he insists, “there wouldn’t have been the capacity in the final budgets I brought in to start restoring social benefits.”

Howlin recalls some moments of high risk to Ireland during those years. “Amazingly things got worse when there was a period of time when it looked like the Euro itself could collapse.”

He remembers high-level discussions here on plans to freeze bank withdrawals and replace the currency.

Howlin retires, Budget run-in, Starmer pours water on reunification

Listen | 37:23

‘Most risky moment’

Howlin identifies the “most risky moment” as the point when preparations were being made to liquidate the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) and the “the ripping up” of a “disastrous” and “unaffordable” promissory note without the prior agreement of the European Central Bank (ECB).

Of the post-crash government, he says: “I think history will have a better perspective on it than people who unfortunately had to live through it. It was an existential crisis that could have brought down our economy and our country, the very viability of Ireland.

“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 ... We managed to rebuild a banking system, get most people back to work ... and have a balanced budget.”

“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’.”

Labour was savaged in the 2016 election nevertheless, going from 37 seats in 2011 to just seven, and Howlin admits the party has not yet recovered. He assumed the leadership from Joan Burton in 2016 but Labour fared no better in the 2020 election, taking six seats.

He regrets, he says now, that Labour was not more public in the sometimes “ferocious” internal rows it had with Fine Gael in government. The “most tetchy” of the EMC meetings, he recalls, was over the ill-fated plan to bring in deeply unpopular water charges when Labour sought a delay for a number of years but lost that battle.

He wryly notes of the current Government: “The Greens have learned to have their rows more publicly.”

Howlin is “absolutely confident” Labour can restore its fortunes “because there has to be a space for a social democratic party”.

Asked if he could foresee a future merger with the Social Democrats, he says: “Yes I do. Simple as.

“We need critical mass – both of us ... If we are ad idem on policies and our only difficulties is history, I think we could get over that.”

Early activism

Howlin began his career as a primary schoolteacher and, in the late 1970s, was part of the campaign opposing plans to build a nuclear power station at Carnsore Point. This early activism would continue and Labour leader Ivana Bacik credits Howlin with “campaigning on progressive issues like marriage equality [and] abortion rights, long before they were popular”.

Howlin first sought election to the Dáil in 1982 but was unsuccessful. But he was appointed to the Seanad, where he shared an office with future presidents Mary Robinson and Michael D Higgins. He won a Dáil seat in 1987 and served as minister for health in the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition of the early 1990s.

He is proud of what he did in that role, including bringing in the first national health strategy, a campaign to raise awareness of Aids, and scrapping restrictions on the sale of condoms.

Legislation he developed on information relating to abortion led to children’s coffins being brought to his home and signs posted around Wexford saying “Howlin murders babies”.

During his time as minister for public expenditure, he says, there were incidents where he was physically threatened and was followed from his department. There was one occasion where a crowd surrounded him in a restaurant “and screamed at me and threatened me to the point that the management moved myself and my colleague to a basement”.

Labour Party colleagues were also targeted at the time and he describes the 2014 Jobstown protest at which then tánaiste Joan Burton and a colleague, stuck in a car, were subjected to abuse as “shocking”.

Such incidents show the current concerns over protests and threats to politicians are nothing new. However, Howlin says the “vitriol” on social media is a “game-changer”, describing it as “a jungle in essence”.

The result, he suggests, is that “it is proving harder to get the people to walk into the space of politics, which is a true worry”.

Does he, like his former office-mates in the Seanad, fancy a tilt at Áras an Uachtaráin in 2025? “No – it’s not something I’m contemplating,” Howlin replies.

He says he is a close friend of President Michael D Higgins and “I’m not sure I could bring the same to the office as he has brought with enormous distinction to the country”.

Howlin does not have specific plans for the future but spoke on southeast Radio on Friday of perhaps working on democratic reforms in Africa.

He says he will 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.”