News Analysis

Saturday 23 August 2014

Christmas break a relief as Labour pays price for sins of election past

Published 17/12/2012 | 17:00

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AND then, to their great relief, it was almost Christmas. In his early days heading a ramshackle minority coalition, Bertie Ahern first strove to survive to the Halloween break, then until Christmas, from January until Easter, and thence to the summer break. In part, by such small and concentrated chunks of just getting by, Mr Ahern served a full five years in his first government and went on to 11 years as Taoiseach, setting a modern political record with three consecutive general election wins.

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By Wednesday lunchtime each week a sense of guarded relief descended upon the Ahern inmates of Government Buildings. The Christmas break came as a major release.

It is strange that we need to remind ourselves that this is the Government with the largest overall majority in the State's history. Surely there can be no doubt about its survival over its full five-year term?

That question is no longer rhetorical. The answer lies with Labour – and also with how much of a break their senior partners, Fine Gael are prepared to give them.

It was a very tough week for Labour leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore. Yesterday he came out fighting on RTE radio, where he did not say much that was new, but he provided a strong showing which was badly needed to steady the party.

Mr Gilmore reiterated the party's message that it is in Government to fix the economy and thereafter to tackle other policy priorities. He again argued that it was about his parliamentary colleagues keeping their collective nerve through adversity.

The Christmas holidays beckon, but it is not entirely over for Mr Gilmore and his senior Labour colleagues. There may very well be additional Labour Budget trauma in the Seanad this week, which will compound the leader's suffering.

A rebellious stand by some Labour senators can delay, but not derail, the Budget. The would-be rebels' trump card is the potential to inflict yet more embarrassment on the leadership.

Limerick Labour Senator James Heffernan – the latest would-be rebel to put his head above the parapet – is very far from being a household political name. But his story does in some ways summate the party's current dilemma.

Senator Heffernan, aged 33 and from the far south of the county in Kilfinane, polled almost 8,000 votes in the general election in rural Limerick which, since the dawn of time, has very rarely elected even one Labour councillor. Labour candidates in three other constituencies across the country struggled into Dail seats in February 2011 with fewer first preferences than James Heffernan had.

All things being half-equal, he should have high hopes of a Dail seat next time out. But, like so many others, James Heffernan can expect to be campaigning into a fierce anti-Labour gale. His hour of Dail opportunity appears to have come and gone.

On one level, when you stand back and analyse things, Labour's position appears so unfair in their predictably permanent position of junior coalition partner. Why should voters blame Labour for failing to deliver full protection for the vulnerable, when those same voters did not give the party a strong enough mandate to deliver that goal?

After all, Labour has just five ministers to Fine Gael's 10. In the February 2011 general election, Labour got 19pc of the vote and took 37 Dail seats.

By contrast Fine Gael got 36pc and returned 76 TDs. If enough of the punters were all that concerned about vulnerable welfare recipients, surely the positions would have been reversed? Well, that is another question which, to some extent, answers itself.

Or, more correctly, the Irish voters already answered it. But there are other factors which tell us that this issue is not all that simple for Labour.

The reality is that the second half of the last election campaign saw Labour floundering, fearing Fine Gael was on course for an overall majority, and playing the populist social card. Hence those take-offs of the Tesco advertisement which came back to horribly haunt it over the past week in particular.

Labour is now paying dearly for a political strategy which paid it electoral dividends in February 2011. But we know all that – the bigger question is whether it has a remedy for its current ills.

The short answer is that Labour just might eventually have something resembling a remedy. This is it in summary: the coming year is set to bring some EU relief on the infamous Anglo Irish Bank promissory note and year's end should, all going well, see the departure of the notorious European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund troika.

Both of these developments offer morale boosts more than anything. But the Irish people will take them if they get them. Then everything depends on international economic developments which do not look too hopeful in the short to medium term.

Labour also knows that Fine Gael needs to offer some 'sweeties' to the voters in the budget next year. All political parties are now gearing themselves for local elections in June 2014.

These would-be remedies are from the long-range and very hopeful department. But right now they are all Eamon Gilmore has to offer his troops.

That and short concentrated chunks of survival – on the Bertie Ahern model.

Irish Independent

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