Friday 31 October 2014

Don't underestimate survivor Gilmore, but May elections' big winner will be Sinn Fein

Published 29/04/2014 | 02:30

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Caoimhghin  O Caolain arrive for the unveiling  of the Sinn Fein billboards, advertising and new posters across Dublin  for the Euro and Local elections at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Caoimhghin O Caolain arrive for the unveiling of the Sinn Fein billboards, advertising and new posters across Dublin for the Euro and Local elections at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke

THERE are few things more unseemly than a political party imploding. All pretence about shared goals and ideologies go out the window. Panic sets in. It's every man and woman for themselves.

The Labour Party has not reached that point yet. But the weekend's extraordinary attack on Eamon Gilmore by Phil Prendergast suggests it might not be far off.

For now, Gilmore can, and will, shrug it off. The MEP's case is certainly diminished given her comments came so soon after a poll showing her at 4pc. This is also a politician who came sixth in a three-seat constituency in Tipperary South on the day of Labour's greatest electoral performance.

Furthermore, politicians' instinct for self-preservation not withstanding, TDs and (most) senators will hang together until after the forthcoming Euro, local and by-elections. That is just the way things are done.

However, barring a huge and improbable turnaround in Labour's fortunes before May 23, Prendergast's call for Gilmore's resignation is just a taster for what is to come.

Labour hasn't a prayer of winning either by-election, while retaining any of its European seats looks a long shot. If the party also ends up in single-figure territory in the local elections, some form of challenge to Gilmore's leadership would seem inevitable. Nothing personal, as Prendergast put it yesterday, just business.

The reality, of course, is Labour's problems have little to do with its leader. It is true Gilmore seemed more at ease in opposition than in government. And choosing the Department of Foreign Affairs was not the best move. But those points are largely incidental.

The party is paying the price – as the Greens did before it – for introducing necessary, but extremely tough, medicine. The rash of promises in the run-up to polling day three years ago, designed to stop a Fine Gael overall majority, certainly haven't helped. But its standing in the polls is mainly down to the fact that the public – particularly those who vote for left-wing parties – don't like austerity.

It would have been the same if the darling of the Labour grassroots, Joan Burton, had been leader for the past three years.

However, the fact is she wasn't and, through clever positioning by herself, has largely remained untainted by the unpopular decisions.

There are many in the party who feel that with her at the helm, Labour could woo back disaffected voters from Sinn Fein and various Independents. Given the importance of perception and image in politics, they have a point.

Gilmore, though, should not be underestimated. Anybody whose political schooling came in the ranks of the Workers' Party knows a thing or two about the art of survival.

If and when challenged, he will adopt his best 'have a go if you think you're hard enough' pose and fight to the bitter end. It remains to be seen if those who would succeed Gilmore have the same appetite for the fray. A successful challenge also requires the backing of a two-thirds majority of Labour's Central Council, a very high bar.

So for all the talk of crisis, the odds still favour Gilmore hanging in there.

As they do Micheal Martin. The Fianna Fail leader is a somewhat isolated figure in the parliamentary party and is burdened by recent economic history. But talk of his fate hanging on winning a seat in Dublin in the Euros is overstated.

The local, not the Euro, elections are key. If he hits or surpasses the party's 25pc performance of five years ago – a pretty big ask given Fianna Fail got just 17pc in the 2011 meltdown – he will be safe. Come up short and then his leadership will come under scrutiny.

The bar for a successful challenge is nowhere near as high as it is in the Labour Party. But, unlike Gilmore, Martin is blessed by a lack of an obvious successor. He should lead Fianna Fail into the next election, though it is not a sure thing.

The 'Independent'/Millward Brown polls also gave Fine Gael much to ponder. Mairead McGuinness, Brian Hayes and Sean Kelly will ultimately probably all end up winning seats. But the polls do confirm what Labour and Fianna Fail politicians say they have been picking up at the doorsteps – that the electorate is not happy with Fine Gael, and the main government party is under pressure.

The mishandling of various controversies in recent months is a factor, but really it is largely down to austerity. The impact of the economic crisis on the three mainstream parties has been extraordinary. Yesterday's Irish Independent poll shows FG, FF and Labour struggling to get more than 50pc of the vote between them. In the 2007 General Election, they got 80pc. In, 1982, it was 94pc.

The big winners from the crisis have been Sinn Fein. Free from the burdens of office and difficult decisions, it has been steadily building its support. The performance of its three unknown candidates in the Euro constituencies shows the strength of its brand.

Questions remain about its ability to translate opinion poll support into hard votes, but there is no doubt the party is going to have a very strong local and European election result. Right now, it is the only party that can say that.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of 'The Sunday Show' on Newstalk 106-108FM.

Irish Independent

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