Monday 24 October 2016

John Drennan: Labour's Macbeth, haunted by past glories and foes

John Drennan on how Eamon Gilmore went from an Aras victory to being less popular than Gerry Adams

Published 24/11/2013 | 01:00

INVISIBLE MAN: Some Labour backbenchers have 'pleaded with Eamon Gilmore to take a domestic post'
INVISIBLE MAN: Some Labour backbenchers have 'pleaded with Eamon Gilmore to take a domestic post'

One of the more unfortunate features of that unique political creature known as the Irish Labour Party is how its name attracts negative headlines about 'hard Labour' or 'Labour pains' or the 'Laborious party' or even 'Labour's love lost'.

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As we enter the run-up to Labour's annual conference next week, all these lines will be disinterred when it comes to the eternal sick man of Irish politics and its struggling leader.

On one level, it might, however, be more accurate to suggest that Mr Gilmore is suffering from a bad case of George Best syndrome.

At a first glance, the tale of a hotel bed covered in cash, a beautiful woman and a distressed porter might not appear to be compatible with the woes of Mr-Pink-but-Invisible.

But, just as the hotel porter famously asked: "Where did it all go wrong, George?", every-one in politics has been asking the same question about Mr Gilmore for a long time.

Mr Gilmore has not unfortunately been caught on a bed surrounded by blondes, bubbly or cash and it is unlikely, alas, that he ever will.

But, in a week where Michael D announced his historic visit to the UK, it is worth recalling that there was a time when Mr Gilmore basked in the sunlight of being the leader of the largest Labour Party in the history of the State who had just wiped Dear Leader Enda's eye in the presidential campaign with the election of Michael D.

Today it's all gone wrong for Eamon to such an extent he is less popular, astonishingly, than Gerry Adams, let alone Brian Cowen.

In fact it's gone so wrong Mr Gilmore is now being given cheek over pylons by lowly senators, while those of his TDs who are in the teaching profession type up their CVs and scan the jobs pages of the newspapers.

Such now is the scale of love that has been lost by the Labour leader, the contest for the apparent bauble of the party chairpersonship is acquiring the sinister hue of a type of confidence vote.

Given that the union flat caps are supporting the current vice-chair, Siptu's Lorraine Mulligan, who quickstepped into the gap left by the departure of that turbulent priest Colm Keaveney, the leader's candidate should be a shoo-in.

Of course, Eamon says he is not backing one or other of the candidates. But seeing as Ms Mulligan's rival, Ray Kavanagh, an affable ghost from the warring Labour Party of the Eighties, is engaging in what some would regard as treasonable sentiments about the desirability of the leadership listening to the flatfoots, the battle-lines are clear. Mr Kavanagh, it should be said, has no bad intentions when it comes to the future of the Tanaiste, but, should he defeat the power of the union chiefs, he will have secured the status of Mr Gilmore's political Banquo.

Mr Kavanagh will have, in that regard, to join a long queue, for Mr Gilmore is surrounded by a galaxy of political spectres.

Conventional theory on war is that you should avoid battling on two fronts but Sinn Fein is slicing and dicing Labour's soft, working-class underbelly.

Meanwhile, as Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and a colourful crew of Independents carve up the more electorally attractive body parts of the sick man of Irish politics, Labour resembles a naked man with a cut finger who has fallen into a river full of piranhas.

Mr Gilmore's inability to change the current negative Labour narrative, which continues to be about what they allegedly have stopped others from doing, is not going to staunch the bleeding either.

It has instead left Labour looking like a hollow party with no purpose or role while confidence has also not been enhanced by the spectacle of the Labour leader drowning rather than waving on issues such as his ungainly attempt to seize the initiative on the property tax non-story.

This debacle, the spin over the €2.5bn budget cuts and all that fancy pre-election talk about Frankfurt, has shredded Gilmore's reputation as a straight-talking political express train.

Instead, political onlookers now dismiss Gilmore as being a waffler.

Sadly, this quality is having an increasingly minimal effect upon a set of punters who look at Mr Gilmore and see a leader who, despite all of the talking, has in a country of young and distressed citizens, become an Invisible Man.

Such is the strength of Mr Gilmore's reputation as the absentee Tanaiste, Labour's eternally woebegone back-benchers have even engaged in a poignant political variant of Lassie Come Home as they plead with the most unloved political leader in Ireland to take a domestic post in the hope that this might improve the popularity of the party.

It is, to put it mildly, a bit of a stretch to understand how bringing Labour's homegrown Biffo back will improve things.

Apparently, though, the belief is that Mr Gilmore will secure the love of the citizens by gazumping poor Richard Bruton and becoming the new Minister for Jobs.

Seeing as Richard spends most of his time peeking out from behind Dear Leader Enda at job announcements, trying to persuade the Taoiseach to stop standing on his shoes, it is difficult to see how this might raise Mr Gilmore's profile.

Such is the nature of our invisible Tanaiste's unpopularity it is more likely such a move would be the catalyst

for an outbreak of condemnation by the voters of Mr Gilmore for his cheek in taking Richard's job.

Something, however, will have to be done to end the scenario where Labour and Mr Gilmore are fatally hogtied by the single cruel, defining sentence of 'Ah Labour, the party that broke all your promises'.

In fairness, Mr Gilmore has been wise enough to show little enthusiasm for the view that a cabinet reshuffle might save our Labour leader.

The Tanaiste is instead pinning his hopes on the even bigger gamble where if he simply endures for long enough an economic recovery might grow out of nowhere.

As strategies go, it is probably as good as any, for when it comes to the damning 'broke all your promises' tale of Labour in government, economic recovery is the only thing that can change that Grimm story into a fairytale of recovery and 'promises kept'.

It is difficult, given the promise of years of austerity to come, to see how such a miracle will occur.

Desperate times tend, however, to narrow one's options and like the punter in Cheltenham with empty pockets gambling the price of his fare home on the last race, Mr Gilmore has been reduced to hoping that the fiscal tooth fairy of accidental prosperity will lift Labour off the political rocks.

Of course, the last crew that took a similar bet on the nose was Biffo's Fianna Fail but that will not deter Mr Gilmore from asking his party to risk all on a final throw of the economic dice.

But, even that may not be enough, for successful politicians tend to fit into a fixed series of soothing archetypes.

In Germany, Angela Merkel is the national mum, while in Ireland Michael Noonan has unexpectedly evolved into a form of national grandfather.

In contrast, as the Gilmore gale is replaced by an all-encompassing Gilmore gloom, too often the chronically invisible Labour leader reminds us of the eerie poem by William Hughes Mearns about how "yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today, I wish, I wish he'd go away".

When it comes to our former Mr-Pink-but-Perfect politician, we already know the voters' view.

Labour's conference will, when it comes to the hidden war for the chairpersonship of the party, cast a very cold light on whether this desire is shared by his party.

Sunday Independent

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