John Downing: Time to play your only card, Labour – but be sure of your game plan first
SO THE time has come for Labour to play the 'renegotiate the Programme for Government card' which it has been holding in reserve for just such a dire circumstance as this.
Labour took an even more ferocious kicking than expected at the Meath East by-election polls. "It's a disaster for Labour – but little wonder," said Nessa Childers, the Labour MEP unloved by the party leadership.
We can assume that the 'small wonder' amounted to their candidate, Eoin Holmes, coming fifth instead of the fourth with an even more minuscule vote than everyone had predicted.
By contrast, the count in Ashbourne was a happy occasion with a touch of serendipity for Fine Gael. Last time Fine Gael in Government won a by-election was on November 12, 1975, when the honour went to one Enda Kenny who also took his late father's seat.
There were grounds for arguing that the popular win by Helen McEntee was a tribute to Fine Gael locally and nationally in all the circumstances. The one break on their untrammelled joy was the utterly parlous position in which their coalition partners now find themselves.
Fianna Fail's narrow enough loss by their candidate, Senator Thomas Byrne, allowed them claim local evidence for the opinion polls' national findings that they are well on their way back.
Sinn Fein could also claim progress but it is clear that it was expected to do much better than the 13pc it took on the first count.
But Labour's travails on the day were best summed up by being topped by Ben Gilroy flying the colours of the brand new and almost unheard of Direct Democracy Ireland.
Labour took it on the chin fielding their senior man, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, to say it was a bad day, the party was paying the price of dishing out bitter medicine to fix a broken economy, but it would not shirk its duty.
Then came the strong signal that Labour would be seeking an early re-visiting of the Programme for Government agreed with Fine Gael in early March 2011.
Politically, this is a very good idea for the Labour Party. But from Eamon Gilmore's point of view it makes even more sense.
If the Labour knives are not already actually out for Mr Gilmore – there is strong talk in the party ranks that "the leadership issue must be addressed". Outsiders will ask what Labour stalwarts would hope to gain by replacing Eamon Gilmore. But in a political crisis logic has only a limited role.
The renegotiating process would make work for idle hands and conspiratorial minds. It could well tie up key party people who might be seen as a rallying point for rebels.
There are objective grounds for arguing the merits of a big 'stock-take' approaching the mid-point in the government term. And there are political opportunities for the first time in ages to be seen to be 'sticking it' to Fine Gael. That is what their die-hard members really crave – and demands might even stretch to a Cabinet reshuffle against the Taoiseach's express wishes.
But there are downsides to this renegotiation idea, chief of which is the unrealistic expectations which it risks raising among Labour's own members and followers. Labour has already reaped a bitter harvest from over-promising while in opposition and especially while in full election campaign flight in February 2011.
Clearly Fine Gael will also take some convincing that this is the right thing to do at this time. There could well be foot-dragging at the very least. And, even if Fine Gael realises that Labour's crisis could terminate this Government really soon, it will not concede anything to its junior coalition partners for nothing.
But among the few advantages Eamon Gilmore & Co have right now is that limit on options. They must not delay conveying their message to Enda Kenny and his senior colleagues.
So, the time has indeed come for Labour to push for a renegotiation of its government agreement with Fine Gael. It remains to be seen how much time that move can buy the party – and what beneficial use it can make of that time.