Profile: Joan Burton
Joan Burton’s independent streak has never been as obvious since she failed to win the finance portfolio. Could her resulting raised profile position her as credible alternative to Eamon Gilmore? Rónán Duffy reports.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s oft-repeated ill-advised exclamation of ‘Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’ 14 months ago has been transformed from a campaign pledge to a stick used to thrash the party by its opponents. The phrase was indeed an ironic refrain of the demonstrators who made headlines following Labour’s annual conference in Galway last month.
It seems appropriate to reference this because, although the pledge was made in the heat of an election campaign, perhaps the only example of a Labour cabinet member publicly challenging the troika came recently from Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton.
Burton’s call on the EU to restructure the €31bn Anglo promissory notes before the fiscal compact referendum as a gesture of solidarity with the Irish people, flew in the face of Government insistence that both issues were being treated separately. There was little in the way of ambiguity in her comments which were no doubt widely read in Brussels and Frankfurt after they were published in the Financial Times.
The renegade streak Burton displayed in that interview was again on show several weeks later in a speech to the Dáil following publication of the Mahon report. Burton noted the unease surrounding the appearance of Denis O’Brien at various public events and, though she defended the Taoiseach’s presence alongside O’Brien, she advised the Government in which she serves “to reflect on how it interacts with those against whom adverse findings have been made by tribunals”. Burton was indeed present in New York when the Taoiseach was pictured alongside O’Brien but kept her distance from the event itself.
Speculation as to the cause behind Burton’s increasing outspokenness has been varied but delegates at the party conference were united in the view that her statements are motivated entirely by a strong sense of personal conviction.
The high regard in which she is held in Labour has developed as a result of the varying roles she has had within the party, most recently being named as Labour’s director of elections for the fiscal compact referendum. Joan Burton grew up in Stoneybatter on Dublin’s northside in a working class family in which her adoptive father was an iron moulder at the CIE foundry in Inchicore.
She was educated at St Joseph’s Sisters of Charity secondary school, near the site of the proposed DIT campus in Grangegorman, and is one of the few Dublin ministers who did not attend a fee-paying school. Even today, Burton stands impressively next to some of her male colleagues. But she has recalled fondly how, as a tall child, she was always asked to carry the flag in the school’s annual May Procession.
Burton is a chartered accountant by profession and became one of the first female fellows of the Institute of Chartered Accountants following a commerce degree in UCD. After a stint with PriceWaterhouse, Burton became a senior lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology. Her husband of almost 35 years, with whom she has one daughter, is also currently a lecturer in DIT.
Burton has spoken openly about her adoption in the past and the complicated and often emotional process of tracing her biological parents, a process she began around the time of her marriage. Her birth mother had died a number of years before she eventually managed to trace her to the area in Cavan where she was born.
Burton was involved in political activism for a considerable period before running for office, having joined the Labour party in the late 1970s. She served on the executive of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and was its honorary secretary for a period also.
The movement drew its support base from a diverse range of sources and Burton observed the interactions that occurred within the coalition, one which was influenced greatly by the trade union movement as well as civil rights activists. With her husband and young daughter, Burton then moved to Tanzania for three years during the 1980s as part of a development project for Irish Aid in which she lectured at University of Dar es Salaam.
Upon returning to Ireland, Burton unsuccessfully contested her first general election with a tilt at the Fianna Fáil/Bertie Ahern-dominated four-seater in Dublin central. After being heavily involved in securing Labour the presidency for the first time, with the election of Mary Robinson, Burton moved to the Dublin West constituency where she was first elected to Dublin City Council in 1991.
The following year in Labour’s ‘Spring Tide’ of 1992, she was elected to the Dáil after topping the poll ahead of defeated presidential candidates Brian Lenihan Snr and Austin Currie as well as the other sitting Fianna Fáil deputy, Liam Lawlor.
"She took a leading role in opposing bad and corrupt development in the Dublin West area and it's one of the things that helped her get elected in the first place in 1992,” according to John Walsh, current secretary of Labour’s Dublin West branch and two-time election agent to Burton. "One of the things that she stood on consistently was an anti-corruption platform and I think that's one of the things that she was able to win support on and helped to drive her forward."
On her first day in the Dáil in 1992, Burton was appointed minister of state in the department of social welfare. As part of the transition to the Rainbow Coalition in 1994, Burton moved to familiar territory in foreign affairs after being made minister of state for development cooperation and overseas aid where she he initiated a dramatic expansion of Ireland’s aid programme in Africa.
When Labour’s tide went out in 1997, Burton faced a tougher challenge than most of her peers when her constituency was reduced from a four to a three-seater. She narrowly lost out on the final seat to regular foe Joe Higgins. She regained it in 2002 and has been ever present since.
The constituency rivalry between one-time party colleagues Burton and Higgins in a highly-competitive electoral area has been one of the most intriguing electoral duels in recent polls. Their appearance together on the Tonight with Vincent Browne show in the run-up to the 2011 general election was perhaps one the most memorable moment of that campaign. Browne’s goading of Burton and her subsequent accusation of sexism against the broadcaster garnered much of the media attention, but the manner in which she lost her composure and directed her frustration at Higgins left her facing charges of brashness among commentators and indeed the viewing public.
At the time, Burton was arguably the most vocal member of the entire opposition, having been Labour’s finance spokesperson for several years. She became deputy leader of the Labour Party in 2007 and was named by Magill as TD of the Year in 2007 and 2008. Following the economic collapse, when there was unprecedented public interest and knowledge in the financial affairs of the country, her stinging criticism of the Fianna Fáil increased her profile exponentially. This was no doubt helped by the heave within her current coalition partners when Fine Gael’s then finance spokesperson Richard Bruton was demoted following his unsuccessful leadership challenge.
While much lampooned by satirists on radio and television, Burton was in a position of undoubted strength heading into the 2011 election. She received almost 23% of the vote and was in fact the first TD elected to the current Dáil.
Pre-election speculation was that in a FG/Labour coalition, Labour would be angling for the finance portfolio with Burton offered the chance to become Ireland’s first female minister for finance, in reality neither happened. Labour’s numbers didn’t quite stack up and in the split department which followed there was considerable surprise when Burton was passed over in favour of Brendan Howlin.
Suspicion had it that Burton’s brashness may have scuppered her chances, but Walsh says that in his past dealings with her, the approach has been more of a quality than a hindrance, "I regard her directness as helpful and as a major asset,” he says. “There may be people in politics, particularly older politicians, who are maybe uncomfortable with public representatives who are direct. But I find Joan very constructive, I think you always know where you stand and she's very clear in what she wants to achieve.”
Burton has made no secret of her disappointment in not being offered the finance position and her recent independence in questioning the collective Government wisdom is perhaps a result of this frustration.
Some cynics may argue it is an attempt to distract from the difficult decisions she has had to make in social welfare, or indeed is an attempt to position herself as the credible alternative to the Gilmore-led direction of the party.
In the infamous Vincent Browne appearance however, she described herself as an independent thinker and this is likely the most likely reason, for now at least.