In the South Wexford baronies of Forth and Bargy, isolated communities living in mountain villages which were part of the first wave of Norman settlement in Ireland after the invasion of 1169 continued, until at least the 1840s, to speak an archaic form of Middle English, known as Yola, an antique Germanic language which linguists regard as being one of the last to resemble the English spoken by Strongbow and his cohorts when they arrived in Ireland on Diarmait Mac Murchada's infamous invitation. The physical isolation of these communities was such that the introduction of Modern English by 17th Century colonists passed them by and until the mid-19th Century, their language survived as a living museum piece before assimilation eventually killed it off. To Labour's new leader, Brendan Howlin, it might almost seem that Wexford is now home to another near extinct-species, namely the poll-topping Labour TD. Indeed, as the earthquake which struck the party in February claimed every seat in Labour's traditional strongholds of South County Dublin, Dublin, Cork and Galway Cities and Kildare and left only seven scattered survivors in Fingal, the Midlands and the South, only the mildest of aftershock tremors could be felt in the stronghold that Howlin has nursed since his first run in 1982. At almost 15%, Howlin's personal vote was actually marginally higher than his 2011 total - albeit that this time he had no running mate.
Unlike the Yola speakers of Forth and Bargy, Howlin is insufficiently isolated from national trends to be unaware of just how anomalous his own position is. As a former schoolteacher, he is, presumably, also aware, that his native county's southern neighbour of Waterford returned as its MP, Captain William Archer Redmond, one of only six Irish Parliamentary Party MPs to be elected during the Sinn Fein landslide election of 1918. Mr. Howlin will be hoping that the South East has not, in giving him a commanding endorsement, simply continued its historic habit of being the last place in the country to move with the times. Rather, he will be hoping that his trend-bucking performance is the ember which will keep the fire burning long enough to allow him and his bedraggled parliamentary party to gather more fuel. Only time will tell, but having reached the summit of his party's hierarchy (after two failed attempts in 1997 and 2002), his reward has been another mountain to climb - and a steeper one than any of his predecessors bar the party's founder, James Connolly, ever faced.
In his negotiation of this unforgiving terrain, Howlin has only one piece of history on his side, namely that his rise has been largely unheralded and the expectations for his leadership are low. It is interesting to note that since Frank Cluskey's defeat in 1981, the Labour leaders who were elected from a position of optimism and high expectation (Michael O'Leary, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and Joan Burton) turned out to be disappointing or (in the case of O'Leary) disastrous. Meanwhile, the two leaders elected before a backdrop of pessimism, adversity and low expectation (Dick Spring and Eamon Gilmore) grabbed the opportunities presented by the political tailwinds that history blew their way and enjoyed unexpected successes. Perhaps Spring and Gilmore's successes were, in some sense, functions of the low expectations surrounding their leaderships. If so, Howlin may take some comfort. But only a little: most of history's winds are blowing away from his party's social democratic ideology and there's not much he can do to influence them.
Ultimately, Howlin's central political problem will be the dissolution of social democracy's historic mission. The attempts by the likes of Eamon Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn and Aodhan O'Riordan to turn the philosophy into a vehicle for fashionable middle class virtue signalling by focussing policy on politically correct postures like declaring war on denominational education, gendered pronouns and direct provision has been a spectacular electoral failure, with the party now not having a single seat in the South Dublin suburbs in which this agenda is most popular. The attempt to define Labour's philosophy around "social" policy having failed, Howlin must grasp the nettle of defining the party's ideology around the good old fashioned steak and spuds of economics, as Fine Gael to his right and Sinn Fein to his left have been far more adept at doing. In so doing, however, he has to face an elephant in the room, namely the question of what role is left for traditional social democracy in the buzzsaw of a long term epoch of fiscal austerity which is with us for at least a generation.
Since stagflation and labour unrest took the sheen off social democracy in the 1970s, traditional middle of the road leftism has had an essentially negative historic mission. After 1979, the idea that the welfare state was an aspirational institution which would lift society onto a higher plain died a death and, in an atmosphere in which all of the new "ideas" and "reforms" were coming from the right, social democracy's mission was to leverage pessimism in a changing world and prevent the logic of markets and personal freedom from expanding out of the industrial and commercial sphere to threaten the welfare state itself. In this atmosphere, social democracy gained its relevance from the danger that the public might willingly vote to dismantle the welfare state. However, after three decades of cheap credit, consumer debt, asset bubbles and the outsourcing of western industry to Asia, the public has hardened in its support for the welfare state, even as it has also become more jaundiced and less enthusiastic about its inefficiency and vulnerability to freeloaders. This has left social democracy defending a front which is no longer under attack but without the wherewithal to advance into enemy territory.
In a pro-welfare state consensus and a world of drowning debt and demographic decline, there are a number of obvious political niches to be filled. If welfare states are sacrosanct, then they must be closed to the huddled third world migrant masses whose numbers and needs would overwhelm it. This creates an obvious niche for conservative nationalist parties like UKIP, AfD and the Sweden Democrats. At the same time, the weight of unrealistic expectation threatens to make the delivery of everything from eldercare to special needs education so cripplingly expensive as to bankrupt the welfare state itself. Guarding against this phenomenon creates an obvious political niche for starchy, unsympathetic conservative parties which will keep the budgets capped. Even the socialist and hard left parties of the "anti-austerity" movement serve the arguable function of providing an electoral outlet to people who might otherwise start rioting or planting bombs. Within the rubric of this grim resource war, it becomes increasingly hard to see who's going to buy what Mr. Howlin has to sell.