Liz O’Donnell

Saturday 2 August 2014

Labour faces ruin as the cracks start to appear in Coalition's arranged marriage

Liz O'Donnell

Published 29/03/2014|02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore. Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore. Photo: Tom Burke

The daily challenge of the smaller party in coalition government is of constant effort to stay separate. The greatest electoral peril for the minor partner in such an arranged marriage is of being dominated by or perceived as too close to the bigger party. Relationship management is critical.

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Labour's experience of coalitions is not a happy one. Dick Spring going into government with Fianna Fail in 1993 was a disaster by any measure, from which they emerged bloodied and discredited. All the electoral gains were set at nought by the time the next election came in 1997, with the party retaining just 17 of its outgoing 33 seats, prompting the resignation of the party leader.

The Rainbow coalition cobbled together in 1994 with Democratic Left and Fine Gael was unpopular, accident prone and short-lived; many voters perceived it as an unprincipled holding on to power by Labour changing horses. So, despite Labour delivering a raft of liberal legislation on equality and divorce and decriminalising homosexuality, the party got short shrift when the people had an opportunity to pass judgment.

There is no other way of saying this. Labour does well in elections when it stays true to its anti-establishment instincts. Its natural constituency prefers the party to protest challenge and pontificate than to govern.

Being a party of ethical values and ideology, it attracts politicians of principle and integrity who are usually more temperamental than pragmatic.

The recently departed Patrick Nulty was only a wet week elected when he stormed out in high dudgeon over the first in a long line of austerity Budgets. Tommy Broughan, Roisin Shorthall and Willie Penrose departed citing irreconcilable differences with Labour Party policy, although Penrose has since returned.

Then Colm Keaveney, the smooth-talking chairman of the parliamentary party, had his hissy fit and hilariously joined Fianna Fail. It must be galling for Labour deputies to watch slack-jawed as Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Sinn Fein steal their thunder on this garda scandal. This is classic Labour territory.

Unlike normal coalitions where an agreed Programme for Government incorporates the objectives and values of two parties, this Crisis Coalition was like a shotgun marriage; a national government elected with a huge majority mandated to tidy up the remains of an economy left by the outgoing government. Pat Leahy's book is fascinating in depicting the jaw-dropping briefings that new ministers had with Finance officials on taking over the reins of Government in 2011. The scale of the mess was quickly apparent.

Leo Varadkar's pre-election declaration of "not one more red cent" and Gilmore's "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way" were soon rendered ludicrous. This was a marriage of two parties with a fundamentally inflexible pre-nup. The troika was calling the shots.

Labour, the party of the trade unions, found itself with minister Brendan Howlin presiding over the biggest culling of public service jobs, pay and pensions in the history of the State. Labour's Joan Burton had to ransack welfare benefits and medical card entitlement.

As a member of a FF/PD coalition, I recall our biggest rows and wobbles were rarely about policy. They were usually behaviour or governance issues such as eruptions about financial impropriety or strokes pulled.

Rumours of Bertie Ahern's financial woes were a constant source of mortification. These ultimately led to his political demise, but ironically also to our party's annihilation. Fianna Fail sailed on to survive another term in office, while the PDs sank without trace. A similar fate awaited the Greens in 2011. Small parties tend to be blamed for the sins of the government.

The current crisis is a failure of political judgment and relationship management. Fine Gael's Justice Minister has totally mishandled this garda affair; it has been like watching a car crash in slow motion. The "Blueshirt instinct" to stand up for the Garda Siochana as an institution, despite evidence of maladministration and worse, is misguided. Labour's instinct is quite different; inclined to trust whistleblowers and to champion individual human rights and civil liberties against the establishment. One imagines they are apoplectic this weekend.

This is a defining test of Labour's mettle, to demonstrate the party's reforming liberal credentials, by delivering a Patten-style transformation of policing as was required in Northern Ireland. If they fail to assert themselves, they face ruin at the next election.

Irish Independent

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