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Thursday 2 October 2014

Pressure on Gilmore over election disaster

Michael Brennan, Fionnan Sheahan and Fiach Kelly

Published 29/03/2013 | 05:00

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New Meath East Fine Gael TD Helen McEntee with her mother Kathleen (left), sister Sally (centre) and brother Vincent (back) at the count centre in Ashbourne

LABOUR TDs are warning Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore to overhaul his leadership style and push the party's policies in government in the wake of a calamitous by-election result.

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The junior coalition partner is reeling from an embarrassing fifth-place finish in the Meath East by-election, which was won by Helen McEntee of Fine Gael.

The humiliating outcome marked a new low in Mr Gilmore's time as leader of the Labour Party.

It bore the brunt of voter anger over the taxes and cuts being implemented by the Government, with TDs believing they take the blame for everything and fearful they are now being seen as merely propping up Fine Gael policy.

Labour backbenchers are calling for the Tanaiste to be more assertive in his coalition dealings with Fine Gael and to sharpen up the way he explains the party's message to the public.

But even this awful result exceeded the party's worst expectations, with one TD saying members were shocked.

Another backbencher admitted the electorate had given the party a "bitter pill to swallow".

Labour candidate Eoin Holmes secured less than 5pc support, losing significant ground to a resurgent Fianna Fail as its candidate, Thomas Byrne, came second.

Ms McEntee was ahead from the start with 38.5pc of first preference votes.

No blame for the by-election deb-acle is being attached to Mr Holmes, who party members viewed as "the right man in the wrong place".

He lost his election deposit after failing to get the required quarter of the quota. The TV producer and businessman left the count centre in Ashbourne without making any comment, while Mr Gilmore did not turn up at all.

Labour sources say there is no immediate threat to Mr Gilmore's position because the most likely replacement, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, has displayed no interest at the moment. "She doesn't want it now – she wants it when things get better," one TD said.

In contrast to the Labour drubbing, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was able to send a triumphant message from the count centre in Ashbourne.

He hailed the manner in which an emotional Ms McEntee (26) topped the poll to take the seat previously held by her late father, former junior minister Shane McEntee who died tragically at Christmas time.

Mr Kenny refused to be drawn on the drastic difference in Fine Gael and Labour support.

But within Labour a painful post-mortem begins this morning. There are now internal complaints that too much focus was put on "liberal social issues" including the issue of gay marriage in Labour's by-election campaign, at a time when people are worried about their jobs and their incomes.

Party TDs are complaining that Labour is not "asserting its values" and that Fine Gael is exclusively driving the economic policy of the Government – despite the presence of Mr Gilmore and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin in the "war Cabinet".

Labour is still haunted by its 'Every Little Hurts' general election advert, which promised to stop child benefit cuts and water charges.

"Fine Gael are only doing what they said they would do (but these are the things) we said we would stop," one Labour TD said.

A Labour TD who was campaigning in the by-election said that voters kept bringing up the fact that Labour had broken its promises on not cutting child benefit or increasing college fees.

But he said they could not name a single achievement by Labour – such as restoring the minimum wage or exempting people from the Universal Social Charge. He said that the party's communications strategy needed to improve.

"We are getting blamed for everything," he said.

And a colleague said that the party needed to start pushing polices which have been left for dead – such as the 3pc tax rise on those earning over €100,000 which was shot down by Fine Gael.

"The public need to see Labour punching above its weight. It needs to show its teeth in Government," he said.

Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said that the Programme for Government would be renegotiated. He said it was normal, mid-way through a government's term in office.

Implications

And he insisted that his party's poor showing in the Meath East by-election will have no implications for the leadership of Mr Gilmore.

"Eamon Gilmore won more seats for the Labour Party than at any time in its 100-year history. Eamon Gilmore won the first by-election in this parliament and Eamon Gilmore won the presidential election," he said.

And the Taoiseach also tried to take the pressure off Mr Gilmore by referring to these victories.

"We have had two by-elections and a presidential election in the period of this administration, and the government parties have won all three," he said.

Irish Independent

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