Labour dissidents are eager for change, and fuelling rumours of a leadership heave, says Maeve Sheehan
Former minister Roisin Shortall taunted the Labour Party leadership last week with hints of a coup. There was so much grassroots anger at broken promises and how things were being run that she refused to rule out a heave against leader and Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore.
"I am aware of a lot of dissatisfaction from within the party but we haven't got to the point of a heave just yet," Shortall told the Northside People. "I'm not ruling anything out. Anything's possible at this stage. . . I would expect to see a lot more of a change of direction from within the Labour Party in the new year and that people will start looking at alternatives.
"We will work from within the party to see this change. This move has only really been devised in recent months, I guess since I resigned as minister in September."
Since stepping down as junior health minister last September in protest at James Reilly's "stroke politics" in locating primary care centres in his constituency, Shortall has become a lightning rod for change for those uneasy with Labour's direction. Her interview hinted at something more formal, however. A "move" that was "devised" to "change" the party, by which presumably she meant the party leadership.
It was interesting then that before the Budget, Dublin TD Eric Byrne, a Labour Party veteran, said he was canvassed by one the party's young
bucks, councillor Henry Upton, to vote against the Budget. Upton is a nephew of former Labour TD Mary Upton and son of the late Pat Upton, the party's former justice spokesman.
Mary Upton, who retired at the last election, is a good friend of Roisin Shortall and wasn't the only one contacted by the councillor.
Labour TD Michael Conaghan, Byrne's constituency colleague, confirmed that he also received a text message from Upton, urging him to vote against the Budget.
Byrne and Conaghan were not persuaded, however.
Upton did not respond to messages left on his mobile phone last week. But his attempt to lobby his local TDs clearly reflects the "move" for "change" within the party as identified by Shortall.
Shortall was not the only Labour TD to step into the wilderness when she resigned in September, but she is the most senior.
She is one of five Labour TDs who broke ranks with the party as a result of unpopular decisions and cuts made by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition. Tommy Broughan, Patrick Nulty, Willie Penrose and most recently Colm Keaveney, the chairman of the Labour Party who voted against the Social Welfare bill last month, broke from the party whip.
Penrose has reportedly applied to rejoin the parliamentary party, leaving an influential Dublin quartet of dissidents – Shortall, Broughan and Nulty in Dublin and Keaveney in Galway – as figureheads for the apparent disaffection in the ranks.
Labour MEP Nessa Childers joined in from the sidelines, appearing with Broughan and Nulty, to propose an "alternative Labour budget" in October.
There is no doubt that Labour is encountering what commentators have called the most serious division to beset the party in decades.
But it takes more than a group of disaffected TDs to galvanise a mood of disquiet into a heave, however.
The party leadership regards such talk as wishful thinking from a politician cast out in the cold. According to party loyalists, the tide is turning. The glimmer of good tidings for 2013, from stabilising property prices to rising tax revenues, means the pain has been worth it. Labour backbenchers, who made no secret of their difficulties with the budget cuts, have been whipped into line.
Eamonn Maloney and Michael Conaghan – who were granted 11th-hour audiences with Joan Burton and Gilmore to voice their concerns about the Budget – are singing from the same hymn sheet as their leaders.
"What people have to decide is that this is not about individual TDs. This is about the country. It is becoming more apparent each day that the rationale behind these decisions was the right one," said Conaghan. "That the country is beginning to turn the corner."
Penrose said: "I think some people wanted to elevate themselves to a position," he said. "I don't believe there is any substance [to the comments] and I am around a good long time."
Byrne added: "The public do not want a bitchy, bitchy Labour Party. If people like Roisin are [talking about] doing a purge of the Labour Party, she is doing herself more harm than good."
First off, he said, "nobody but nobody" in the Labour Party is happy at having to make fiscal adjustments but the "vast majority of the parliamentary party are happy that we can restore the economy".
He added: "What we are doing is very unromantic from a socialist point of view. . . but we are adamant that the serious state of the economy has to be addressed."
Gilmore has repeatedly derided his critics for not having the stomach to take tough decisions required of a government that lost its fiscal sovereignty. "That is a very shallow view," said Broughan.
"It's very simple. You do what you said you would do and it you can't do it, you get out of that government."
Senator James Heffernan, who also voted against the social welfare bill, claimed that "members at grassroots level are leaving in their droves". He said he voted against the bill only after the members of his local party in Limerick agreed.
A small number of councillors have left the party, including Paul O'Shea, in protest at the health cuts. "There are stirrings. I would have contact with former [party] colleagues nationwide. I would say you will see a lot more people jumping overboard," said O'Shea.
According to one Labour Party veteran, part of the dissatisfaction is driven by political concerns. "I can certainly agree that there is a need for renewal within the Labour Party. . . I think there would be quite a number of people who clearly have dissatisfaction in the party. A lot of the concern is political. It is fairly obvious that the Labour Party will be very badly hit come the next general election," she said.
"The die is cast in terms of the perception of the Labour Party now."
Despite claims of 'green shoots', there will be more frontline health cuts, the property tax will kick in and the €3.1bn promissory note for the former Anglo Irish Bank due – that Pat Rabbitte has insists will not be paid – looms in April. Labour's leadership should strap itself in for a volatile year.