News John Downing

Tuesday 23 September 2014

With all the hot air, Labour will soon run out of breath

Published 26/07/2013 | 05:00

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Fianna Fail Leader Michael Martin TD pictured with new party member Meath County Council member Jenny McHugh

MAYBE some of it is down to the muggy weather. The 'rhetoricometer' is doing handstands and those Budget kites are climbing ever higher in the sky – and it's still only July. Could any of this be linked to Labour's ongoing tale of woe?

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For the past two days, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has been very publicly declaring that she will not cut €440m off the social welfare payments in the forthcoming Budget, due to be unveiled on October 15. The Labour Party deputy leader is happy to be clashing publicly with Fine Gael.

But there are, of course, ongoing tensions within Labour with the cabinet ministers getting it in the neck from all sides – not least from their own members and activists looking fretfully at next summer's local and European Parliament elections. There is a clue in the job title of Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin, whose job it is to cut the €1bn borrowed every month to fund services. Sometimes one has to struggle to remember that Mr Howlin is a party and cabinet colleague of Ms Burton's.

But Howlin has been engaged in his own version of histrionics with reports that he and Finance Minister Michael Noonan walked out of a meeting with the troika. We are told the troika wants Ireland to keep with the spending cuts and taxation programme.

Tanaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore is keen to argue that if Ireland sticks with the programme, and takes €3.1bn out of the economy in cuts and tax hikes, we would have reduced the national deficit to 4.3pc in 2014. That's a big chunk lower than the originally agreed target of 5.1pc – and causes much unnecessary hardship.

It all feeds into a national and international debate best summed up as the 'clamour to end counterproductive austerity'. But it also feeds into a more immediate local debate best summed up as 'what in the hell does Labour do now?'

Labour heavy-hitters had grounds for arguing that the party's East MEP Nessa Childers's high-profile departure this week was expected, as she was already semi-detached. Ms Childers, who has by turns been linked to Fianna Fail and the Green Party, excoriated Labour's 'immorality' as she resigned. But she will also be aware that her re-election chances to the European Parliament next summer are better as an Independent.

The leadership will not be as blase, however, since Meath councillor Jenny McHugh (pictured with Micheal Martin) announced she was joining Fianna Fail – after all, she polled a half-quota vote of over 5,400 votes for Labour in Meath West in the February 2011 general election.

And the party was less able to brush aside the departure of two Wicklow county council Labour stalwarts, Tom Fortune and Barry Nevin. Any councillor in any party will tell you that 'Dublin HQ', on its best day, cares little about them.

That is only partially true and risks missing the point, which is that all parties need local structures to thrive and councillors are a central part of the local party fabric.

Bertie Ahern summed this point up rather pithily. "If you don't have councillors – you won't have TDs."

He and Fianna Fail discovered that truth as the huge successive reduction in their councillor numbers in the 2004 and 2009 local elections presaged their Dail electoral meltdown in February 2011.

Addressing party activists in the wake of the June 2009 elections, Mr Gilmore hailed the outcome as a Labour landmark – as they had 132 city and county councillors and three MEPs. Gilmore knows he will be making no such speech next summer.

That, more than the muggy weather, surely accounts for hot air and high-flying balloons.

Irish Independent

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