Friday 28 October 2016

Burton can recover the ground lost by Labour

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

TODAY'S Sunday Independent/ MillwardBrown poll shows a slight preference for a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition. Before foolish members of the Fianna Fail front bench float away on a fantasy of fumes from the ministerial Mercedes, they should reflect on three reasons why Micheal Martin is right to rule out coalition with Sinn Fein.

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First, the poll merely means that public anger has not yet abated. But the country has not swung permanently to Sinn Fein or Independents. I predict both groups will suffer severe setbacks at the next General Election unless the Independents form a cohesive political alliance.

Second, if Fianna Fail moves too close to Sinn Fein it will confirm Middle Ireland's suspicion that it is still a redneck republican party. Even if it succeeded in doing a squalid deal, it would not last two years – and only Sinn Fein would walk away alive from the coalition crash.

Finally, a Joan Burton victory offers some prospect of a Fianna Fail alliance with a revived Labour Party and cohesive Independents. Meantime, Labour voters must choose between a leader like Burton, who will not do business with Sinn Fein, and Alex White, who will. That choice was starkly pointed up by the servile and stupid decision of eight Dublin City Labour councillors to put a Sinn Fein lord mayor in office for 2016.

But if Burton wants to build a fighting party she first has to deal with the Democratic Left faction, which supports White. The role of Pat Rabbitte requires particular attention. As Labour leader, Rabbitte added White to the ticket in Dublin South when his favourite failed to secure a nomination for the 2007 General Election. He also brokered the deal with Sinn Fein which put White in the Seanad.

As one of Rabbitte's chief critics in relation to his covert backseat role in White's leadership bid, I was not surprised when he got down and dirty with me on RTE last Sunday after Marian Finucane asked an apparently simple question. "Were you surprised that Eamon Gilmore resigned? You go back a long way, as Eoghan Harris was reminding us this morning."

Rabbitte's predictable first response was to try to cause friction between my colleagues and myself. "Well, Eoghan Harris's fingerprints are all over the Sunday Independent analyses." Actually, my fingerprints are only over my own analysis. The rest of the paper shows a wide range of opinion on the merits of Burton and White.

But then Rabbitte took my breath away. Having asked aloud why I had an alleged "animus" against him, from some cute corner of his mind he came up with an answer so brazen as to make me doubt my ears for a moment: "I understand that he believes that I was responsible for intervening with the Taoiseach to stop his reappointment to the Seanad."

At first, I thought everybody could see the two flaws in this fantasy. Why on earth would a Fine Gael Taoiseach want to reappoint a Fianna Fail appointee? Why, if I had such a sordid and self-serving agenda, did I not attack Rabbitte soon after the General Election of 2011 when he first began to make mistakes?

In fact, the record shows I gave Rabbitte a relatively soft ride for nearly two years after the General Election. But from 2013 onwards I began to criticise what I saw as his craven support for the Coalition on issues stretching from RTE to Kevin Cardiff to his support for Alan Shatter. Typical of my criticisms was this prophetic opening to my column of 2 June 2013.

"The only loser in the Shatter saga was the Labour Party. Led by Pat Rabbitte, the Pensionable Old Guard Stewards (POGS from now on) protected Fine Gael in advance of knowing the full facts. But the butcher's bill will be paid by backbenchers at the next general election."

But although I had sound political reasons for criticising Rabbitte, I found out after the show that his allegations had confused a few listeners. By and large I believe political columnists and politicians should not sue each other as long as they have public platforms. But this time I felt like consulting a libel lawyer.

Paul Tweed, having read the transcript of Rabbitte's remarks, told me I had a prima facie case for defamation. For a moment I was tempted, especially recalling how RTE had treated Alex White's politics in a recent radio programme on Section 31, which failed to include even one supporter of the law which kept the apologists for the murder of Jean McConville off the air.

Listening back to the Finucane show, however, I decided I would not bother Paul Tweed further, at least this time. Both Finucane and Michael O'Regan of the Irish Times seemed to share my published scepticism about Rabbitte's denial of backing White's bid for the Labour leadership. Puncturing that preposterous protestation was all that mattered to me.

Later last week, Michael O'Regan in the Irish Times reinforced my conviction about the central role of Rabbitte and former WP members in the White campaign.

"Sources in the White camp believe he will have a good chance of winning over to his side the old DL faction of the Labour Party, which includes Dublin South Central TD Eric Byrne and Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte."

* * *

The 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings reminds me that I had the honour of conversing at length with one of its legendary heroes, Sir John Gorman, who died a few weeks ago. Coming from a well-off farming family in County Tipperary, Gorman was born, reared and remained a Roman Catholic all his life. Brought up in Northern Ireland he also remained that rarity, a Catholic moderate unionist, respected by all sides.


Gorman had a good war. As a young lieutenant in the Irish Guards, he won the Military Cross after a titanic battle between 2,000 tanks at Caen which led to the breakout from Normandy after D-day. His personal triumph was to capture intact one of the German Tiger tanks, long coveted by British tank experts.

During the Provo campaign Gorman was an active agent in the battle against terrorism. But when I met him in 1999 he was a warrior for peace. He strongly supported David Trimble's struggle for a Yes vote in the referendum following the Good Friday Agreement and later became the much-loved Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

John Gorman spent his long life in the service of democracy and freedom, both in Normandy and Northern Ireland. To my mind he was a greater Irish patriot than any of the IRA gunmen who came out of Tipperary. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal.

* * **

Thinking about the Tuam tragedy, I mentally saluted my mother's memory. Back in the 1950s, while rearing 10 children in Cork, she employed a helper who I shall call Biddy. Although she had seen tough times in Bessborough Mother and Child home, Biddy was cheerfully stoic about her suffering.

Given the grim sexual mores of the times, some of our neighbours got sniffy about a Bessborough woman working around teenage boys. My mother's answer was to lean on our front garden wall, sharing a Woodbine with Biddy, and making fun of the sourpusses passing by. I can still hear them laugh, those long summers ago.

Sunday Independent

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