History will be kind to pragmatic Gilmore
Published 27/05/2014 | 02:30
For evidence of the fickleness of political life, look no further than Eamon Gilmore.
This time four years ago he was the most popular politician in the State, the no-nonsense, 'call it as it is', real leader of the opposition. This was confirmed in a June 2010 opinion poll showing Labour in first place for the first time ever. There was heady talk of 'Gilmore for Taoiseach'.
Not only did he not make it to the job of Taoiseach but, despite leading his party in 2011 to its best electoral performance, he won't even be Tanaiste beyond July 4 next.
Before Friday, those around Gilmore were dismissing all suggestions his leadership was under threat. Having done his apprenticeship in the tough world of Workers' Party politics, Gilmore would face down any challenge and was "going nowhere", they said.
However, clearly the scale of the electoral carnage changed that. Gilmore became the third leader of a political party – after Brian Cowen and John Gormley – to fall victim to the era of austerity.
In reality his fate was sealed once he took his party into coalition with Fine Gael.
It's true that Gilmore never took to government in quite the same way that he dominated from the opposition benches. The Coalition's mishandling of issues such as water charges, medical cards and the various controversies involving the gardai also contributed to Labour's woes.
There is also merit in the argument Labour was at times too passive and reasonable in its dealings with Fine Gael in a way Dick Spring would never have tolerated.
But Spring never had to stand over the kind of cutbacks that Gilmore had to endorse. There was no choice: the Budget deficit had to be dramatically reduced or the State would run out of money.
There was no painless way to do that and Labour voters were always going to be a lot more unforgiving of austerity than their Fine Gael counterparts.
However, sympathy for Gilmore's position has to be tempered by the knowledge that, to some degree, he has reaped what he sowed.
In opposition, the party shamelessly opposed each cutback and tax increase and indulged every interest group. Fine Gael did too, but not to the same extent. The long queue of Labour TDs waiting to mount a lorry outside Leinster House to address angry pensioners, after pretty moderate restrictions on their medical cards in 2008, set the tone of what was to follow.
Part of Gilmore's success in opposition was built on seducing the electorate into believing there was an easier way. That went into overdrive during the final days of the 2011 election campaign when it seemed as if Fine Gael would win an overall majority.
Labour panicked. The now infamous 'Every little bit hurts' ad was rolled out. Even then they must have known they couldn't live up to the claims of the advert.
As they must surely have realised, the bondholders couldn't be burned – it was an open secret that the ECB had vetoed Brian Lenihan's efforts to do so. Yet Gilmore thundered it would be "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way". The comment would haunt his tenure in government.
As he pondered his future over the weekend, the Tanaiste must have wondered what might have been if Labour hadn't gone for broke in those final days of the general election campaign.
If Fine Gael had succeeded in winning an overall majority, Labour would have been the main opposition party with a strong base of 30-plus seats. Given the inevitability that the new government would have to deliver horrendous medicine, along with the weakness of Fianna Fail, Labour would have made huge gains by staying in opposition.
In that scenario, last Friday would undoubtedly have seen Labour emerge as the number one political force in the country and well placed to lead the next government.
Instead, they are now struggling for survival and Gilmore has fallen on his sword. History will undoubtedly be kinder to him than the electorate were.
Yes, mistakes were made, not least in managing expectations before getting into government. Gilmore's Workers' Party background – with its tradition of democratic centralism and sticking by decisions regardless of the pressure – may also have been a factor in him not being bolshie enough with Fine Gael.
But that stubbornness also helped him stand over the tough decisions undoubtedly required to turn around the economy. And it stands in sharp contrast to Labour's dithering in government in similar circumstances in the mid-1980s.
Gilmore was brilliantly and blatantly populist in opposition. But, to his credit, he left that populism behind on entering government. That will be to the long-term benefit of the country. But in the short term it has cost him and the Labour Party dearly.
Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM.