Gay-marriage focus will cost Labour again
The new year is upon us and already the political parties have been busy setting out their stalls for the year ahead. But with the country striving to build on our painful recovery and hoping that the so-called 'green shoots' will be enough to stop our young people from continuing to emigrate in droves, what is the top priority for Labour leader Eamon Gilmore? Gay marriage.
Yes, Gilmore said that same sex marriage was the "civil rights issue of our generation", and that achieving its passing in Ireland was probably the top priority for his party in Government. This is an extraordinary claim, given that the country is struggling to get back on its feet to provide jobs and a decent living for its people, including, and especially, Labour voters.
Of course, gay marriage is a live issue, both here and internationally, and securing it is a major priority for the gay community and those who wish to see a more progressive and modern society -- but to frame it as a burning priority for the Government, at this challenging time, is ridiculous.
No wonder Enda Kenny said that gay marriage was definitely not the most important issue for him and his Fine Gael party, thus keeping a sense of proportion, but also gratefully sending a discreet signal to the Fine Gael grassroots who would be uneasy about the issue.
Only recently, former FG minister Nora Owen described gay marriage as 'a step too far', while Fidelma Healy Eames of FG's rebel Reform Alliance wrote that Labour was driving a whole social engineering project for Irish society (gay rights, abortion) while FG was doing nothing to stop that.
"Don't get me wrong," said Enda Kenny, stressing he would support the measure and canvass for it.
But for him, "the single-biggest issue is jobs and employment: this is what politics is about.
"That is where the country thrives, and that is where our economy will thrive. For me, my politics, the big thing is to get this country back to work.
"Everything flows from that," he said, and he is absolutely right.
And so Gilmore makes it look like it is Fine Gael that is focused on heroically turning the economy around while Labour is a reluctant partner, happier if this hard financial stuff was all finished so they could get back to their policies of social activism. And talking about gay marriage in hectoring terms, at a time of such economic hardship, will just get people's backs up.
Labour projects such issues to make them look 'distinct' from FG, of course, but is this really the distinction they want?
Have they not learned from the 2013 Meath East by-election when they made gay marriage an issue, and came fifth?
And have they not learned from the 1990s when the party put all its energies into the so-called 'social issues', such as divorce and abortion and the very necessary liberal advances of Mary Robinson, only to find that the electorate -- overwhelmingly concerned with economic issues -- kicked them out at the next election?
Same sex marriage is fine, but these are secondary liberal issues, and Labour needs to get focused on the big economic situation, and talk up their own achievements which are, afterall, considerable.
Afterall, not only did Labour help rescue our public finances but they protected their traditional areas with the two public sector pay deals and core welfare rates. No mean achievement in the teeth of stringent austerity demands.
Labour should say that yes, there have been cuts and austerity and taxes, but these were always on the agenda, with the bailout, no matter what party was in power. And wasn't it better that FG didn't implement these measures on their own?
So the Labour party should talk up its achievements but also tell us more about where the jobs and growth are going to come from -- instead of seemingly distancing itself from the continuing task at hand, and its consequences, by giving top priority to controversial issues that simply do not resonate with a broader electorate.