IN a weekend of discontent, furious Labour TDs have declared the controversial cut to child benefit in the Budget a "red-line" issue and have rounded on their leader Eamon Gilmore.
Launching a scathing attack on Mr Gilmore and other ministers, the Labour senator John Whelan said: "This is a Cabinet of grey-haired old men who are detached from the lives of working families."
In a reference to the expected retirement of most of the Cabinet at the next election, Mr Whelan asked: "Who among them will have to face mothers at the next election to explain their actions?"
At the last general election, Labour vowed to protect child benefit, but the monthly rate was cut in the Budget by €10 per child to €130 for the first three children. The cut come into effect in January. A further cut of €10 is to be implemented for a fourth and subsequent children from January 2014.
The entire measure will cost many hard-pressed families up to €1,500 a year before other cuts and taxes are taken into account, such as changes to PRSI and the property tax.
Of the 45 members of Labour's parliamentary party, 12 TDs and senators have expressed varying degrees of concern, both publicly and privately, at the direction their party is taking in Government.
It has also also emerged that Labour's chairman, Colm Keaveney, has written to TDs and senators – in defiance of the party leadership – to ask for complaints, which he has said he will urgently take to Mr Gilmore. While Mr Gilmore and other Labour ministers are anxious to maintain control over internal dissent, Mr Keaveney wrote: "The last week has been a difficult one for us as a party.
"The Budget presented many challenges for us as we are in Government with a party that operates according to a very different set of values and objectives from our own.
"Email me with your thoughts and reflection on the Budget," he urged, "so that I may express them back to the party organisation and leadership and, in particular, at our next meeting of the executive board."
As Sinn Fein this weekend mounted protests outside the constituency offices of Labour TDs and senators nationwide, the feedback to Mr Gilmore and his colleagues was unequivocal.
Mr Whelan said: "I am the eldest of a family of seven. I grew up in a council estate in Monasterevin (Co Kildare). Like many families, I know first hand the importance of children's allowance to help make ends meet.
"This child benefit cut is hard to stomach as it impacts so hard on lower-income families who need it most.
"And now, thanks to this unfair cut, I have Brian Stanley and Sinn Fein protesting outside my office in Portlaoise today, making more noise, when I am trying to make a difference, change things and have these cutbacks on children reversed."
Another senior and widely respected Labour TD said: "Child benefit has to be protected. The moment I heard the Budget, I knew this was going to be the red-line issue.
"We have created a poverty trap for working Irish families who need child benefit, not as a luxury, but to live, to provide school lunches for the kids."
In a reference to current unease within Labour, Mr Whelan added: "Roisin Shorthall, who still carries real moral authority in the party, asked if the Budget had been poverty-proofed – and answer there was none."
Another rural TD told the Sunday Independent: "We're trying to explain why parents can't buy school dinners for their children and Gilmore is out in Foreign Affairs talking about saving the world.
"He is not where we want or need him to be. We are losing our entire moral and political platform."
Despite the outrage, however, the expectation as of now is that the Social Welfare Bill, which implements the cuts in child benefit, will be passed without change in January.
However, there is an expectation that several Labour TDs will either vote against the measure or abstain, thus losing the party whip and joining several former colleagues in opposition, including Ms Shortall.
A campaign to change some of what are regarded as the more severe Budget cuts is likely to be sustained and increased over Christmas and into the new year.
A senior Labour TD said last night: "We are going to be annihilated if we continue on like this. We have already abandoned several of the key promises we made during the election."
Also yesterday, several TDs expressed anger at the leadership's failure to secure a three per cent increase in the Universal Social Charge for people earning over €100,000.
There was also huge concern at the implication of PRSI changes, which will result in more reductions in the take-home pay of all workers, and hit low- and middle-income earners in particular.
However, other Labour Oireachtas members are still trying to focus attention on the opposition.
Donegal senator Jimmy Harte said it was "very difficult to justify these tough decisions" but that no credible alternatives had been put forward by either Sinn Fein or Fianna Fail.
He added: "I am very unhappy with a lot of what was in the Budget, the respite care cuts and child benefit. I would have liked to have seen a solidarity tax included."
Many Labour TDs and senators were scathing in private but unwilling to state publicly their true feelings.
Others spoke openly of how the cuts are difficult to stomach but stopped short of directly criticising Mr Gilmore and Labour ministers.
Meath East TD Dominic Hannigan said: "Nobody likes having to make these cuts. The best we can do is to ensure they are as fair as possible."
In a further sign of concern within the party, the Labour equivalent of the Fine Gael 'five-a-side' group of disenchanted – but so far loyal – first-time TDs has emerged.
Described as "hardcore Labour" and said to be concerned with maintaining the party's identity, some of the names believed to be involved include Ann Phelan (Carlow Kilkenny) and Dublin TDs Robert Dowds, Eamon Maloney and Michael Conaghan. Derek Nolan (Galway West) is said to be "loosely affiliated" to the group.
Mr Dowds said he held a meeting on Friday in his constituency to discuss the impact of the Budget.
"People realised it was a difficult Budget and that we have very little option at this stage – but it is difficult."
He felt that ministers Joan Burton and Ruairi Quinn had done a "brilliant job" in ensuring the cuts were limited.
At least seven other TDs, including Mr Keaveney, have also expressed a degree of concern about the party's direction. They include Michael McNamara (Clare); Brendan Ryan (Dublin North); Michael McCarthy (Cork South West); Joanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West); Ciara Conway (Waterford); and Mr Hannigan.
Senators John Kelly, John Gilroy, Denis Landy and James Heffernan are also openly disaffected with the "current direction of the party".
While the anger is palpable within Labour, some in the party described Mr Keaveney's actions as an open refutation of the party leadership, with whom he has endured a rocky relationship.