Tuesday 27 September 2016

Labour should look to Gaelic games for political inspiration

Gerard O'Regan

Published 30/05/2015 | 02:30

Joan Burton
Joan Burton

Labour leader Joan Burton could do worse than peruse the sports pages of the newspapers these days - she just might stumble on an ideal game plan for the general election.

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In any case, it would be a bit of a respite for her from all that doom-filled analysis suggesting the party is scheduled for a 'wipeout'' as soon as voters get a chance to cast judgement.

However, she will notice the world of sport has its own concerns, far removed from the travails of Leinster House. And one of the biggest sources of angst as of now, is what is termed "the blanket defence'' controversy. Some of the purists warn this is bringing Gaelic football to new levels of degradation. They are even more worried that, despite its awfulness as a spectacle, on occasions it's still a very effective way of winning matches.

The whole idea is that you frustrate and wear down your opponents by keeping their scoring chances to an absolute minimum. Of course, they will relentlessly keep coming at you, trying to gain a foothold here and there. But if your defence holds firm there is a great chance they will simple wear themselves out.

It's vital that at all times you stop the opposition playing the game as they would like to. That's why maintaining your blanket defensive zone is so important. And although your team is deliberately holding back, it can still make the odd timely foray forward and notch up those all-important winning scores.

This might be just the kind of approach which would allow Burton and Labour to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat come hustings time. Conventional political wisdom tells us the party is in for one hell of a drubbing, and that its options are increasingly limited between now and the election.

There is historical precedent. We are continuously reminded that in elections the smaller party in a coalition traditionally gets most of the blame for what went wrong and least credit for what went right. Did the walloping the Liberal Democrats received in the UK only a matter of weeks ago prove this point? It's all very chilling for Burton and her TDs, especially when they also take into account the grim tidings for the party that are reflected in opinion polls.

Yet, despite this multiplicity of pressures, Burton has played a steady hand and has held her nerve since taking over the leadership. At times it must have been very tempting to just go and up the ante with her Fine Gael cohorts, provoking some sort of mini-crisis on a regular basis. She might have even, on the odd occasion, threatened to pull the plug on Government.

It would have got the headlines. Some would say it might have helped Labour distance themselves from Fine Gael and, by extension, some of the blame for allegedly not holding the line on certain issues. But, as the experience of previous administrations has shown, this is a strategy fraught with risk. It can lead to the unwitting collapse of a government - sometimes on some obscure point of principle.

Burton was at times an all too shrill firebrand in opposition, and her determination to unseat Eamon Gilmore was tawdry and self-seeking as his difficulties mounted towards the end of his leadership days. Joan saw her main chance and took it.

However, since becoming Tánaiste she has in general run a steady ship, determined to keep the thread of unity between both the Coalition partners. There are occasions when she could have lost her primary political focus, such as during those taunting tirades from Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald.

This week was another sticky period for the Labour leader, given all the hype and hassle generated by the projected Aer Lingus sell-off. It was one of those political occasions when an emotional knee-jerk reaction would have been all to​o​ easy. Yet, apart from one defection, the party seems to have held its nerve.

The much-touted Aer Lingus deal is both complex and simple. But one thing is sure - there is no easy one-size-fits-all option. An element of uncertainty as regards the company and its employees simply cannot be eliminated, ​for the simple reason ​nobody knows exactly what the future holds.

There is a considerably body of expert opinion that says that given the fluctuating fortunes of the international aviation industry, saying no to the Willie Walsh deal, would be seen as a huge missed opportunity. There is strong evidence that being part of a large conglomerate is the only way smaller airlines can protect themselves from possible collapse should matters go seriously askew.

On the other hand, the various guarantees offered to workers, with the best will in the world, are by definition also dependant on unforeseen events.

However, there are no easy answers to any of these questions. In reality, hard choices must be made by the airline, the employees, the government, and the Labour Party. The Burton response reflected the reality of this conundrum. Deputy Michael McNamara buckled and decided he would no longer stay with the game plan.

Overall, the political achievement of the week is that apart from the loss of this TD, Burton held her party together on an intrinsically emotive issue. In doing so, Labour was once again setting out its stall for the election, essentially as a party which eschews extremism. This could be intrinsic to a vote-getting approach which will especially help its candidates fighting the Sinn Féin threat.

Out on the wings, the attacks keep coming. As of now, fatigue seems to have hit Paul Murphy and the water charges brigade - but they will be back. And, of course, Clare Daly was playing the Aer Lingus football this week, booting it right into the Labour defensive line.

Still the Burton tactic of absorbing punishment until the attackers wear themselves out may have something going for it. The key strength of the packed defence approach is that you absorb what the opposition can throw at you - and then you decide when to launch your counter-attack.

Two initiatives this week will surely improve party fortunes. The public service pay deal should benefit Labour more than any other party - and provide a boon for its TDs in the coming months.

And it now seems subsidised after-school care and paid paternity leave is being considered by the government. Anything that would ease the burden on the broad middle and lower income sector on this front would be a sure vote winner. It would be a very sweet sell for Labour.

So, taking the analogy from the world of sport, Joan Burton might be well advised to consider a certain Gaelic football strategy currently in vogue. Wear down your opponents by keeping your defences tight and unyielding - and pick off some winning scores on the counter attack.

Irish Independent

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