Politics

Tuesday 29 July 2014

All tight smiles, but Phil and Brendan soon holding hands

Nicola Anderson

Published 29/04/2014|02:30

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Phil Prendergast MEP and Minister Brendan Howlin
Phil Prendergast MEP and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin

TO the "elephant cantering around the room breaking things", Phil Prendergast decided to add a cat let out of the bag that even the dogs on the street already knew about.

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And while the whirlwind of chaos raged all around, all was calm in the eye of the storm.

As the Labour MEP met with Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin at Carlow College for a visit that had been fixed a long time previously, it was all tight smiles at their first encounter before the cameras.

Both were sticking firmly to their positions. Prendergast refusing to row back on her words, the minister toeing the party line and saying she had been "wrong to call for Mr Gilmore's resignation".

A private pow-wow behind closed doors and an encounter over some fierce 1798 rebellion pikes and a mellow lunch seemed to go some way towards mending fences, however, and by the time one final photoshoot came along, the pair were actually holding hands as they strolled across the magnificently lush lawns of Carlow College.

"Be happy," Howlin reminded, sotto voce, for the cameras. "We are!" Prendergast rather over-heartily agreed, though with the shaky confidence of a cabin boy facing the prospect of going down with the ship.

It had apparently been intended that they would go out canvassing together in Carlow in the afternoon but that plan was quietly dropped and Prendergast left the town immediately following the lunch.

Taken as an X-ray of Labour's internal working organs, this hot and cold encounter between the pair should have been illuminating – but to outsiders it was far too puzzling to understand, merely mirroring the impossible tensions and contradictions of a party in crisis.

But in finding herself in a diplomatically sticky situation, Prendergast (54) is showing the unruffled pluck of her midwifery training in breaching difficult frontiers.

"You have to say it like it is," she declared yesterday. "If it smells like smoke and you see the flames, it's a fire."

Has she spoken with Eamon Gilmore since her earlier statement when she called for his resignation, likening him to an elephant "cantering around the room breaking things"?

"No," Prendergast winced. "He hasn't spoken to me. I'm in the bold corner," she conceded.

She has "the highest regard" for Brendan Howlin and she "likes" Eamon Gilmore as a person, she revealed.

"We have an excellent relationship personally," she said. "If you saw us together ... " she trailed off.

But she thinks he needs a new job. He has spent too long in a position where he has been working "too far away from the people".

"He needs to come back," she added.

She doesn't "really mind" a situation where people on the doorstep were handing back leaflets. But sometimes it gets to you, she admitted.

A lot of people are "very upset and unhappy" because they've had to leave the country, or their children have emigrated, or because they have no money. "That's hard for people," she said.

Labour's situation as the "minor party" in the Government is a problem and she is frustrated that the work it has done "is not being acknowledged".

'The whole thing about Labour is that they go out with a manifesto and then they go into coalition and you get dilution," she declared.

"It's a compromise and you're compromising people's positions."

She rattles off the party line with a list of government achievements – the restoration of the minimum wage, the creation of 61,000 jobs and the unemployment figure down from 15.3pc to 11.8pc.

She categorically denied making her controversial comments as a publicity stunt.

"I genuinely didn't say it for that reason," she said.

"The tipping point happened because everybody is writing us off."

Labour has continuously been sliding in the polls – and Fine Gael has been moving in the opposite direction.

"They had the Alan Shatter controversy but they're still rising," she said, frustration clear in her voice.

"People want a whipping boy," Prendergast believes.

The phones have been "hopping" with supporters and people saying "Phil you were right, you said it out", she revealed.

"I had no idea it would unleash this interest," she claimed.

May 23 will bring "crisis" – or "we will have got our message out there", she says.

In the meantime, she intends to "slog on and keep flying the flag", she said, as she headed off to Clonmel to hit the trail once more.

Irish Independent

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