Former deputy leader Brendan Howlin had been hotly tipped to take over from Ruairi Quinn, but in the first-ever vote by an Irish political party for the leadership, Pat Rabbitte emerged well ahead in the first count of Friday’s election.
Howlin conceded before the count was finished and then Liz McManus took the deputy’s job. With former Democratic Left leader Proinsias de Rossa already party president, it is a straight 1-2-3 for DL.
In the tradition of splits on the republican left, DL had a long and tortuous journey to Labour from Sinn Fein. It became “official” Sinn Fein after the split with the Provisionals, then Sinn Fein the Workers’ Party, then the Workers’ Party, then New Agenda. It finally metamorphosed into Democratic Left and joined the rainbow coalition led by John Bruton.
When Quinn proposed the merger to his party in November 1998, he said it was “an opportunity to unite the two dominant traditions of the Irish Left: Labor and radical republicanism.”
With the merger failing to bring any electoral gain to the merged parties, Rabbitte’s first major task will be to smooth ruffled feathers in “old” Labor and head off possible dissent and rebuild the party in the country and the Dail. His unique grass-roots endorsement by the party will help him with both.
Rabbitte had run for the leadership supported by Willie Penrose, a traditional rural Labor deputy from Westmeath, in an “understanding” that was seen as a dream ticket to unite both wings of the party. Penrose was defeated in his bid to become deputy.
Rabbitte, a graduate of student politics and trade union activism, is married and has three children.
He was first elected to the Dail in 1989 as a Workers Party TD. In the share-out of posts in the coalition bartering, he emerged as a super junior minister in the rainbow government with a seat at the cabinet table but no vote.
Witty, a media veteran and master of the soundbite, he has proved himself as a sharp performer in the Dail. His public profile increased enormously as a result of his role on the Oireachtas finance watchdog committee that probed the DIRT tax scandal.
In the splintered opposition following the general election, he will be a formidable opponent for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as he speaks unscripted in the Dail and his cutting comments will receive media attention.
The third biggest political party in the Dail, Labor is the longest established of all the political parties, having been founded before independence, in 1912.