Tuesday 30 August 2016

When Labour lost its way, and its leader

What matters from here on in is not so much the future of the party as that of the Government

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore (right), the Labour Party chief and Foreign Affairs Minister in the coalition government announces his resignation as the leader of the Labour party in front of his ministerial colleagues at the department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. PA
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore (right), the Labour Party chief and Foreign Affairs Minister in the coalition government announces his resignation as the leader of the Labour party in front of his ministerial colleagues at the department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. PA
Former Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore with party colleagues before last week's disastrous elections for the party

Lest we forget, history was made at the tail end of what was a tumultuous week in domestic politics, and it was this – Pat Rabbitte passed a television camera for the first time without stopping to talk. Well, almost...

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The Minister for Communications was on his way into Iveagh House to hear the resignation speech of his leader Eamon Gilmore when it happened. As he scurried past waiting reporters, he was asked for a comment, but he kept going, head down as though the matter at hand – the resignation of his leader – was too grave an event for him to be bothered talking to the media at that moment.

Almost, because he paused a few metres on to make an arrangement: he would be available to talk when the grave matter at hand, the fall of a second minister in a month, had come to pass.

At around the same time, news broke that seven Labour TDs and a senator, a few hours beforehand, had tabled a motion stating that they did not retain confidence in the leader. Apparently they had all met for plunged coffee and biscuits in Ciara Conway's apartment at 4pm the day before, at which meeting Dominic Hannigan would seem to have been particularly cross.

The motion was tabled by TDs Conway, Hannigan, Michael McNamara, Ged Nash, Derek Nolan, Aodhan O Riordain and Arthur Spring and Senator John Gilroy.

Until that moment, many of these were among the most loyal to Eamon Gilmore – who had prepared himself for an attack from Joan Burton; so when he saw their names he would have known immediately the game was up.

The announcement of his resignation, while spruced up by the splendour of his surroundings, had the hurried air of deadline about it.

At the press conference, Rabbitte stood two rows behind to Gilmore's right. He looked suitably sombre. On Rabbitte's right, slightly to his front was Alex White, Minister of State for Primary Care, who had replaced Roisin Shortall and more recently had a hand in the medical cards fiasco.

It was a fascinating photograph, really: you can almost imagine that several in the Iveagh House portrait had a simultaneous thought in that moment – who will replace the leader?

We know from TV footage that Joan Burton was last into the room. She stood to the extreme right of Eamon Gilmore, in the front row, while the first to publicly declare an interest in the leadership, Alan Kelly, stood at Gilmore's left shoulder.

As expected, Kelly was to later revise downward his ambition, at least for now: he wants to be deputy leader to Joan Burton, but his success is not certain, even should she eventually win.

As it also happens, Kelly was director of elections in the campaign of Phil Prendergast, marked by an extraordinary event: when the polls showed that Nessa Childers was going down a storm, Prendergast cut loose on the elephant in the room – the leadership of Eamon Gilmore.

Like Roisin Shortall, Nessa Childers had left the party in protest at the way things are done, but not before she was softened up in a row over of the appointment of Kevin Cardiff to the European Court of Auditors.

Afterwards, as she rushed to get away from Iveagh House, an outflanked Joan Burton paid tribute to Gilmore while sitting in her State car, where it seemed she wondered whether she should get out again to pay tribute but decided that she should not.

It was not until later that Ruairi Quinn got to express his rage at the eight who had put their names to the motion: "It is not the Labour Way," Quinn declared, himself a former leader, whose political career is almost certainly at an end.

On all of the news bulletins last week, which were closely followed, Pat Rabbitte was not heard to express such outrage.

Although he was heard to say that, yes, in the circumstances, Eamon Gilmore had done the right thing to resign – the circumstances being either the confidence motion or the election result, he did not say which.

Rabbitte also said that, it being the Taoiseach's and Tanaiste's prerogative, of course, he would like to see out his maximum final two years in Cabinet.

It was not until the senator among the eight went on RTE News that evening that the public-at-large came to realise the obvious – Alex White was the man they wanted to be leader.

A dapper man, Alex White first entered the Oireachtas in a voting arrangement with the now Sinn Fein finance spokesman, Pearse Doherty, when they were both elected to Seanad Eireann in 2007.

The other initial frontrunner in the family portrait, Brendan Howlin, stood three places to the right of Eamon Gilmore, as the Tanaiste read from a prepared statement to such effect that some people said afterwards he had done the State some service.

From the outcome of the elections, however, it would seem the people will take some time to be so convinced – perhaps as long as it has taken for the return of Fianna Fail.

It was truly a tumultuous week. From the outset, it was apparent that Brendan Howlin would not again seek the leadership he could never win, but he still played the shrewdest hand of all last week and will be retained no matter who wins the leadership of Labour.

In the days that followed the resignation, Labour TDs and senators vented their spleen across the airwaves, before we got back to what immediately matters from here on – which is not the future of Labour, but the future of the Government.

As an added bonus, we will also come to know whether we are really bearing witness to the end of Pat Rabbitte's political career.

In real-time it emerged that the communications minister had chosen sides – as if there were any doubt: Alex White, his Student Prince, will spare him from oblivion: the Cabinet still beckons, but who knows what other baubles are in sight – the next EU Commissioner, perhaps?

In the real world, meanwhile, the future of Labour remains bound up in failure to be true to its word and prevent the perpetration of a form of social vandalism, if not treason on the country – but that's a debate for another day. Right now, we can only try to enjoy the month-long spectacle.

Labour needs to salvage something from the wreckage before the inevitable fall of the Government and another decade in Opposition.

So all of this week, and for a month, Labour will drone on about what Labour needs.

The more Labour talks, the more it will become clear that Labour needs too much to win back support lost to Sinn Fein and the 'Ming' Zeitgeist. In the end, it will come down to this – at what point will Enda Kenny decide to pull the plug?

It is inevitable that that point will be when Labour needs too much.

Sunday Independent

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