News Analysis

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Eamon Gilmore: from people's hero to dead man walking

Where did it all go wrong for the Labour chief who is fighting to save his job?

Published 25/05/2014 | 02:30

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Can Gilmore see off a leadership heave?
Can Gilmore see off a leadership heave?
TESTING TIMES: Labour Party leader, Eamon Gilmore, casting his vote in the local and European elections in Shankill, Co Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Environment Minister Phil Hogan introduced water charges. Picture: Tom Burke
Environment Minister Phil Hogan introduced water charges

How do you go from being the most popular political leader in the country by far to the least, who is now fighting to save his job?

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How do you go from being the voice of the people to being as unpopular as Brian Cowen was in the weeks before his disgraced administration fell?

Well, you could say that the troubles for Eamon Gilmore began on the day Labour went into government on March 9, 2011.

Actually, it happened midway through the campaign when a panicked reversal of strategy was forced upon Gilmore and his team, when it appeared he would not become Taoiseach.

But he and Labour arrived into Leinster House that day and went into office with 19 per cent of the vote and 37 seats, almost double the amount they had before the General Election.

It should have been a day of unbridled triumph and celebration for the party, but it quickly descended into farce and recrimination over Gilmore's appointment of ministers.

Procedures in the Dail had to be delayed because of a series of mini-wobblies by Labour grandees including Joan Burton, Ruairi Quinn and Willie Penrose, which served to weaken the leader's standing.

Firstly, Gilmore's decision not to appoint Burton, his deputy leader, to one of the two ministries for finance was allowed to become an alleged sexist row. The woman, Joan, was shut out by the men, was how it went and her unhappiness at not getting her treasured post was clear for all to see.

Then it emerged Ruairi Quinn forced his way into Cabinet causing Gilmore to amend his plans. Why Gilmore, who was in a strong position, didn't tell him where to go surprised many.

Penrose was outraged at only being offered a super junior ministry, despite this meaning he would sit at the Cabinet table.

After a soothing chat, Penrose reluctantly accepted.

Others who failed to make the Cabinet, particularly Roisin Shortall, were furious not to have received the call.

Then Gilmore's own choice to become Foreign Affairs Minister surprised many and would come back to haunt him.

Throughout 2011, with the Troika breathing down their neck, Labour had to swallow hard on many unpalatable measures and found themselves outgunned and out-muscled by Fine Gael in government.

That October, Labour's Michael D Higgins was elected President and Patrick Nulty won the Dublin West by-election on the same day. The party appeared to be in rude health.

"We'll never be this popular again so why not celebrate it," said one Labour figure to me at a party in the Mansion House that night.

The party's painful hangover kicked in quickly. Just two weeks later, the wheels began to come off as Penrose resigned as a minister of state over the decision to close Columb Barracks in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.

Six weeks later, Patrick Nulty resigned in protest at the party's support for austerity measures in the Budget. Tommy Broughan, who had opposed the party's entry into government, lost the party whip for opposing a one-year extension to the controversial bank guarantee.

Gilmore and the party were reeling and their decline in the opinion polls from their election high took hold. The party was now seen to be breaking a series of promises made to the electorate before polling in 2011.

Cuts to disability carers, home helps and winter fuel allowances, along with the wider Government's failure to impose losses on bank bondholders, wounded the Labour Party badly.

Throughout 2012, the narrative of an absent Eamon Gilmore because of his Foreign Affairs duties was to establish itself.

There was also a constant feeling that Joan Burton was acting in defiance of Gilmore's inner circle like chief of staff Mark Garrett and economic adviser Colm O'Reardon, with whom she has endured a turbulent relationship.

Gilmore was also in open conflict with his own party chairman, Colm Keaveney, who was a vocal critic of the party's perceived passivity and acquiescence to the more dominant Fine Gael within government.

In September 2012, Roisin Shortall resigned as junior minister for health, over what she described as a "lack of support for the reforms in the Programme for Government and the values which underpin it". Shortall set her sights on damaging Gilmore by also resigning the Labour Party whip. She has since become an ardent critic of Labour's role in government and of Gilmore's leadership.

It was that December, when, as the Sunday Independent reported, the Government came close to collapse over the Budget. A Labour walkout over Fine Gael demands was only averted by a meeting between Gilmore and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

But in that Budget, Labour's greatest own goal was scored, when the party agreed to a €10 cut to child benefit rates, having stated clearly that no such cuts would be tolerated by them in government.

The decline in Labour's fortunes were highlighted by the party's disastrous showing in the Meath East by-election in early 2013, where its candidate Cllr Eoin Holmes received just 4.6 per cent of the vote, coming home in fifth place. The party was now in crisis but there would be no let-up.

Months of internal wrangling and rancour followed and in June 2013 Labour chairman Colm Keaveney, who had stood in defiance of Gilmore for over a year, resigned in protest.

He said he could no longer go along with what he said was "increasingly like a political charade".

He said Labour promises one thing, then does another and blames it on someone else.

A month later, MEP Nessa Childers resigned from the party and accused Gilmore of speaking about her in an "unseemly" fashion and being "very offensive" towards her, both before and since her resignation.

Gilmore had by this stage lost six members of his parliamentary party and calls for him to get the hell out of Foreign Affairs escalated.

But the party did receive a sizeable boost in the polls after the country's exit from the Troika bailout last December and it looked well placed to face into the local and European elections with a chance of retaining their 2009 seats.

But once again, in recent months, the Labour Party has paid a heavy price for the mistakes of three Fine Gael ministries.

They have been punished for Phil Hogan's poor handling of the water charges and have received no thanks for their prolonged protests.

Nor have they received any thanks for securing the abolition of the standing charge. They too have paid the price for Alan Shatter's botched handling of several justice and garda-related scandals which resulted in his resignation and that of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

But they also are bearing the brunt of James Reilly's continued mishandling of the health sector, which is now focused on the cruel withdrawal of discretionary medical cards.

With recent polls showing the party as low as 6 per cent, MEP Phil Prendergast was the first senior party figure to call on Gilmore to go.

She further embarrassed her leader at a party event by insisting she stood by her calls for him to go, as she stood side by side with him. All eyes are turning to Joan Burton and what she will do.

In his defence, Gilmore, when let or when he allows himself to be, can be a very effective and convincing orator and political leader.

In Opposition, he took down a Ceann Comhairle, John O'Donoghue, and he landed a devastating blow on Brian Cowen when he branded him an economic traitor.

But in government he has not been anywhere near that convincing. His victories have been sparse and minor compared with the many hits he has taken.

Critics of Labour would do well to remember that it remains the best bulwark against the rise of Sinn Fein, whose commitment to democratic politics is questionable.

The party has taken an unfair share of the burden for being in government, but whining about it is not a solution.

Partly because of his own failures and partly because of events outside his control, Eamon Gilmore is on borrowed time.

Sunday Independent

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