News Lise Hand

Friday 29 August 2014

Daggers were drawn but he fell on his own sword

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Lise Hand

Published 27/05/2014 | 02:30

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Minister Joe Costello said it was a sad day. Picture:Arthur Carron
Minister Joe Costello said it was a sad day. Picture:Arthur Carron

There was something eerily familiar about the array of solemn-faced ministers gathered around their leader, as Eamon Gilmore announced that he was to step down for the good of his party and the country.

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Facing a hastily assembled posse of media who had scrambled into Iveagh House at short notice, the Tanaiste calmly read from a statement. "We must, and we will, continue to put the country and the needs of the Irish people first. And in doing so, we must hear, heed and act on the clear message we received last Friday," he said.

But there were stark differences between the abdication of Mr Gilmore yesterday and the tear-stained, self-serving exit of Bertie Ahern four years ago in a similar tableau enacted in Government Buildings (and the huffy recent flounce-out of a Justice Minister, while we're at it) – the Tanaiste had exited swiftly and with his dignity fully intact.

Everyone was a bit sluggish on the wet Monday after a wild weekend of counting votes, which resulted in a melange of cliff-hangers, landslide victories and shocking defeats.

There was some attention now focused on the three European election counts, which were slowly chuntering along in Dublin, Castlebar and Cork. There was the seesaw of fortunes between Nessa Childers, Brian Hayes and Eamon Ryan in Dublin for the remaining two seats, also the various ding-dong battles shaping up in both Ireland South and Midlands-North-West.

But attracting far more interest, speculation and analysis was how the Labour Party had woken up in the meltdown horrors. Right across the land, in towns, cities, villages and hinterlands, candidates had been decimated in the locals, and were facing total extinction in the Euros, with Emer Costello gone and Phil Prendergast poised to follow suit.

Reporters and pundits and party insiders were spending the morning waiting for electoral white smoke, while carefully poring over the entrails of the results, seeking portents of what might happen next as the tectonic plates of politics shifted under the Coalition, when out of nowhere, a flurry of daggers were unsheathed by seven Labour Musketeers.

Around 1.30pm, a septet of backbench deputies and one senator – Gilmore loyalists such as Jed Nash, Aodhan O Riordan and Derek Nolan – announced they were tabling a motion of no confidence in their party leader.

This was a genuine shock. It wasn't just the usual awkward squad fulminating in the background – these daggers were being brandished by the young Turks of the parliamentary party unblemished by any history of backroom muttering.

The news spread. The Taoiseach tried to ring Eamon, but couldn't reach him. There was a growing sense of crisis. Just over an hour later, the word went out from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Eamon would be making a statement at 4pm.

The room in Iveagh House filled up as the rain hammered down outside. The doors opened and in trooped a doleful crew – all the ministers, Brendan Howlin, Joan Burton, Pat Rabbitte, Ruairi Quinn, Jan O'Sullivan, Sean Sherlock, Alan Kelly, Kathleen Lynch, Joe Costello, chief whip Emmet Stagg, parliamentary party chairman Jack Wall.

Eamon looked pale. He delivered his statement in a measured voice, though it was clear that a welter of emotions were churning not too far beneath his composed exterior, and he struggled a bit as he spoke of how he regretted the loss of so many Labour soldiers in the bloodbath.

He took a few questions afterwards. He had "agonised" over his decision. He said that he had made up his mind to walk the plank late the previous evening, and had informed the party's general secretary at 10.30am yesterday.

There had been a bit of delay as he had wanted to break the news to one of his children who is abroad.

"I take responsibility for what happened on Friday," he said. "We had a very bad day on Friday and we got a very loud message."

Eamon became almost philosophical, a little reflective. He explained that the broken party needed "renewal".

The tectonic plates groaned, and the Coalition wobbled. Would he lead the tattered party out of Government in a last fling of defiance? Eamon was adamant. Such a retreat would be "irresponsible", he insisted.

Then they all filed out silently. On his way out of Iveagh House, junior minister Joe Costello (who's having a very bad 48 hours, what with his wife Emer losing her MEP seat, and now the exit of the boss who appointed him to the junior benches), agreed it was "a sad day", but he had "no comment" to make about who may be the next leader.

Some of the Musketeers were quietly aghast, insisting they wouldn't have launched the rebellion had they known Eamon was about to fall on his own dagger.

Meanwhile, within an hour of the announcement, one potential candidate was already on the phone, making soundings.

The Gilmore Gale has gone with the wind. A sort of peace will descend on Labour now. But it's only a brief respite – they're firmly in the eye of the storm.

Irish Independent

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