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Alan Kelly on why there's no 'utopian consensus' in the opposition and why Sinn Féin 'isn't a left party'

Kelly is ending his first calendar year as leader of the Labour party.

Image: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

THIS YEAR COULDN’T really be classified as a good year for many people, but Alan Kelly is one person who can take some satisfaction from 2020. 

Kelly achieved his long-stated ambition of becoming leader of the Labour party in April and since that has managed to marshal a smaller but nimble parliamentary team in the Dáil. 

He spoke to TheJournal.ie on the last day the Dáil sat before the Christmas break, just a few minutes after challenging Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on the ongoing Seámus Woulfe saga. 

The latest angle on the controversy related to the timeline of the controversial appointment to the Supreme Court of the former Attorney General.

Kelly questioned Varadkar on a newly-revealed memo that was sent to Cabinet proposing Woulfe’s appointment on 6 July, a week before Justice Minister Helen McEntee has said she spoke to the party leaders about it. 

As we’ve written here before, the opposition has been like a dog with a bone when it comes to the Woulfe affair, something Kelly acknowledges, but he’s also keen to point out that it’s not down to some “utopian consensus” on the opposition benches. 

Indeed, while many have said the Dáil is closer than it ever has been to having a clear left-right divide, the Tipperary TD is less convinced. 

“There is no situation where you can just put Labour, the Social Democrats, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and say there’s going to be utopian consensus on the left to take on this government,” he says.

“Because we’re all very different parties, I wouldn’t dare tell one of those parties where they should go about anything. I wouldn’t tolerate them telling me or my party the same thing.

I would like to see a consolidation on the left/right but, as far as I’m concerned, we as a party will have to lead that.

Sixteen months ago when we spoke to Kelly’s predecessor Brendan Howlin, he said he’d describe his party as “the practical party of the left”.  

Aske the same question, Kelly said his role is to ensure Labour is “the main left party in Ireland”. 

I don’t consider Sinn Féin to be a left party, I don’t consider the Greens to be a left party. The Greens have a lot of traits that I admire and like, but they’re a vertical party. It’s a party that’s based around a belief system and when it comes to horizontal issues they’re not very good at making decisions. They’ve various different people who are very much in the green agenda but when it comes to other issues they can range across a whole different set of views. 

Much of the conversation is about the spaces being occupied by Fine Gael and Sinn Féin in the political landscape and focus on that. 

Kelly says much of this is driven by social media and the media too, adding that those who gauge public opinion on Twitter “need to get a life”. 

He says it’s in the interests of the two parties to make the conversation about them but that it’s not an accurate picture. He also believes the polarisation won’t last because “I believe hopefully that Ireland doesn’t like extremes”. 

I believe in left/right but it’s your primary ideology that dictates that, the primary ideology of Sinn Féin is nationalism. Nationalism is not on the left/right spectrum, it doesn’t have any economic theory, it’s about one thing in this country for them and that’s a 26 county country becoming a 32 county one.I’m a republican, I’m a nationalist but I’m a social democrat before I’m either of those, I worry more about ensuring there’s bread in the table, about ensuring that in the years to come women will be treated equally in society.

“The problem I think is that you have situation now where you bring forward very positive things and the government adopts them, then there is a complete full-on attack and revisionism, whether it is from Sinn Fein’s zillion bots or all the other left wing bots come to take away your credibility. Or whether it’s the Fine Gael revisionism about being the most progressive party socially when they were the most conservative.”

The theme of revisionism is one that’s a hot topic at the minute. The Taoiseach was forced to walk back on a statement he made claiming that the banks weren’t bailed out under Fianna Fáil’s watch. 

And of course there’s Brian Stanley controversy, emblematic as it was about the debate over Sinn Féin’s view of the past. 

Kelly took some glee in responding to Mary Lou McDonald over the 2008 bank guarantee but he denies that the austerity years that followed means the issue a bit of a sticky wicket for Labour. 

“I’ve seen everything that can be written about me, I’ve seen everything that can be written about my party. We’ve never been revisionist, anybody who’s trying to push that out I’d ask for examples. We’re the most direct, straight talking party left, we’re the, I suppose, main party who has substance I believe, that actually admits its mistakes.”

Fine Gael too, he says, is guilty of revisionism. 

“I remember a day when Leo Varadkar said that he didn’t believe in gay marriage. Two years later, he was up on a podium, but it was the Labour Party who delivered on repealing the Eighth, gay marriage and all of the other social changes when it was unpopular.”

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“There’s plenty of Fine Gael revisionism about being the most progressive party socially when they were the most conservative.”

Polls

There was little secret around Kelly wanting to lead Labour in 2016 and he was essentially blocked from running for the post by his parliamentary colleagues. 

In the years that followed he was not shy to criticise Howlin when the party struggled to make an impact in the polls. 

Under the first eight months of his leadership, Kelly may have earned some plaudits but the party’s support is still hovering in the low to mid single-digits

He says he’d be lying if he said he didn’t pay attention to polling. 

Every TD or party leader, whoever talks to a journalist and says ‘the only poll that matters is the poll on election day’, they’re telling you lies. So I won’t say that. All leaders worry about polls, all TDs worry about polls, if they didn’t there wouldn’t be heaves. But I will say this, I don’t believe we’re in a normal polling territory, because I think normal politics is suspended by Covid.

“Let’s see where we are once everybody is safe and the vaccine is rolled out.”

Kelly says he thinks the party that “reacts to the issues post Covid” is the one that will see electoral success.  

“I’d have huge admiration for people who make their voting decisions on their politics, even if they’re right wing, based on their economic beliefs, their social beliefs, rather how they’re parents voted or their history or anything like that, everyone for themselves.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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