Thursday 27 October 2016

Labour are far too down on themselves, their ministers have been courageous and selfless

Published 26/04/2014 | 02:30

Ruairi Quinn met a frosty reception at teachers' conferences earlier this week but Labour TDs should not be so hard on themselves, says Liz O'Donnell
Ruairi Quinn met a frosty reception at teachers' conferences earlier this week but Labour TDs should not be so hard on themselves, says Liz O'Donnell

The smiling faces gazing down in the sunshine this week plunged us instantly into election mode. The sudden arrival of posters transported me back to my first electoral outing. It is possibly the most bizarre aspect of crossing the bridge from private to public life.

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To have one's face proliferated and in some cases strewn around streets, lamp posts and bridges is part of the discomfort of being a candidate. Perhaps in these days of selfies and social media, it may be different but back then appearing on a giant poster in public places was quite a leap into notoriety for a private citizen.

Despite misgivings, I had been persuaded to run for Dublin City Council. With the help of experienced party canvassers, my campaign was organised with military precision. Absolved of the tedium of registers, street maps, and posters and leafleting, my job as candidate was to stay positive, energetic and healthy.

Knocking at doors is an intrusion and even at election time, it can be unwelcome. But once on the canvass, there is a momentum which drives through that discomfort barrier. Most people are friendly – the trick is not to get stuck in a doorstep row. Such engagements never produce results for either side and it is best to agree to differ. Often such skirmishes are deliberately designed to delay the candidate and undermine the positivity of the team.

I expect these May elections will be transformative. With so many first time candidates and female ones in particular, long-serving party incumbents will be unseated and independents are also set to do well.

Sinn Fein are ambitiously fielding an army of 350 candidates to maximise the potential of their poll ratings. Fianna Fail could make a comeback in Dublin – admittedly from a very low base. Fine Gael are quietly confident, while the Labour party, who are languishing in the polls, will be relieved to avoid decimation.

In fairness to the smaller coalition party, the low poll ratings are undeserved in my view. Labour ministers have performed with exceptional courage, defending public service and welfare cuts and reforms which are anathema to their traditional voters.

Presiding over property tax and water charges are painful for their party members. Indeed the unseemly furore at the teachers' conference is as much about cuts in pay and pensions required by Croke Park and increased casualisation of the teaching profession, than it is about education reforms.

The truth is Labour has been selflessly shedding votes to opposition parties because of the austerity measures required for our national recovery.

The fallout from the penalty points scandal and the related Garda mismanagement allegations which culminated in the resignation of the Commissioner Martin Callinan seem to have left Fine Gael relatively unscathed, with the smaller party taking the brunt of the hit.

Foolishly in my view, Labour appear reluctant to "blow their own trumpet" even when they win. But any fair analysis of the protracted government crisis involving Minister Shatter, whistle-blowers, penalty points and tape recording in Garda stations, shows that the Labour party emerged the real winners by delivering the Garda Authority.

But they made very little of this policy achievement. In a low-key Dail speech on the setting up of the Fennelly Commission of Investigation, Eamon Gilmore said: "Since 2000, the Labour Party has argued the case for a Garda Authority, a Policing Board if you will, which will exercise many of the powers and carry many of the responsibilities currently vested in the Government. My colleagues Brendan Howlin and Pat Rabbitte have both articulated the case for a Garda Authority on innumerable occasions over the last decade and more. It is with some satisfaction that we welcome the decision of the Government to set up an Authority. It is a pity that the decision was resisted by others for so long. But better late than not at all."

By parking the Garda mismanagement scandals in the remit of the Fennelly Commission of Investigation the Government has ensured some temporary respite. Nevertheless, its wide remit may well harbour significant legacy trouble for the establishment parties in the future – and their former appointees before long.

Whatever comes of those investigations, the Labour party deserves credit for delivering an independent Garda Authority, a reform which has been obstructed for decades by the Department of Justice.

For the first three years the two coalition parties were tethered together by troika demands and constraints. There was little wiggle room for ideology. But now Labour must be "radical or redundant" when it comes to policy.

Ruairi Quinn's and Alex White's current battles with teachers and GPs respectively are instructive. Both groups have been indulged in the past and allowed to call the shots. Consultation is all well and good but the bottom line is democratically elected ministers have executive power to make policy changes and ought not to cede that power to vested interests.

Irish Independent

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