Abrasive style and record in government hobbled Kelly as Labour leader

Alan Kelly’s nickname AK-47 was not earned for nothing. Capable of moving from placid to rambunctiousness without warning, his bristly and bruising personality and undisguised ambition got him noticed.

Sometimes, however, the AK-47 blew up in his hands.

His brash style, perhaps, overlooked other qualities: he is acutely media-savvy, has huge energy, a good grasp of issues and an ability to delve deeply into complicated issues.

When he became Labour leader, he consciously turned down the volume and made a marked effort at being reasonable in debate rather than shouty. It worked most of the time, but not always.

The notable exception was a vicious and bad-tempered row in the Dáil with Micheál Martin last November over whether teachers were exempt from Covid restrictions.

Denying that a conversation had allegedly taken place, Martin, coldly and through thin lips, told him: “I learned something about you yesterday and I will not forget and that will govern our relationship from here onwards.”

Kelly roared back: “If you want to call me a liar, call me a liar.” But such moments were fewer in leadership than they were before he took up the Labour reins two years ago.

His leadership got a huge fillip last year when Ivana Bacik won the Dublin Bay South byelection, the first bit of good news a beleaguered party had achieved for a decade, even if it had a lot to do with Bacik, and less to do with Kelly.


His performances during Covid were more measured and nuanced than the attack-at-all-costs approach of Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and the Social Democrats co-leaders. It won him plaudits, but nothing else.

Kelly comes from a family in Portroe, Co Tipperary, steeped in Labour history, just like his brother, Declan, who built up a huge New York consultancy business before running into his own troubles last year.

Aged 32, Alan Kelly was elected to the Seanad in 2007. Two years later, he pulled off a coup when – against the head – he became an MEP. Within 18 months he was a TD for Tipperary North.

Party leader Eamon Gilmore made him a minister of state. Following Gilmore’s resignation in 2014, Kelly successfully ran a high-profile campaign to win the deputy leadership.

The new leader, Joan Burton, appointed him minister for the environment and local government. His tenure was controversial. Housing and homelessness had by then become big issues.

He produced eye-catching solutions, including an emergency homelessness plan following the death of Jonathan Corrie in November 2014, but they failed to make a dent in the numbers.

He had also inherited the Irish Water charges row from his predecessor Phil Hogan, which became a nightmare for that government, with regular mass protests.

Abrasive style

Kelly’s style was abrasive, bordering on rude. Wearing his ambition on his sleeve did not sit well with colleagues, especially after his Sunday Independent “power is a drug . . . it suits me” interview.

In the Custom House, Kelly hauled officials in for a rollicking, sometimes bellowing his dissatisfaction. “The big stick is not the way to get things done,” a colleague warned privately at the time.

Equally, he was criticised for not listening to advice, or to other points of view because he always believed he was right. To be fair, he strongly disputed that assessment.

Following Labour’s meltdown in 2016, Kelly threw his hat into the ring. Under party rules he needed a seconder from among his TD colleagues. None would do so. Brendan Howlin was elected without a contest.

“He rose too far, too fast through sheer force of will,” said one Labour figure at the time. “He’s too ambitious to give up.” The comment was prescient, given the events of the last 48 hours.

Kelly quickly learned, and moved on, mellowing, to a degree. Over the next four years he was strong on health overspending and the Sgt Maurice McCabe controversy.

In 2020, after another poor result, Labour held six weeks of hustings after Howlin stood down. Throughout, Kelly was always more popular, better prepared, energetic. He won handily.

Despite poor opinion poll figures, nobody outside limited circles in the Labour Party saw yesterday’s resignation coming. His demise was unpredictable and dramatic, a typical AK-47 moment.

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