Monday 11 December 2017

Review: Leading Lights: People Who've Inspired Me by Eamon Gilmore

Liberties Press, €29.99, Hardback

Irish people like to feel comfortable with their political leaders. One of the reasons Bertie Ahern was elected three times as Taoiseach was because the electorate felt they 'knew' him (though, in reality, nobody knew him very well at all).

And one of current Taoiseach Brian Cowen's failings is that he has singularly failed to connect with the people on a personal level.

If a Taoiseach was elected by popular acclaim, as opposed to being leader of the party with the greatest number of seats in parliament, then the opinion polls are unequivocal that Labour's Eamon Gilmore would be the next head of government by quite some distance.

Therefore, inevitably the spotlight has been turned in the direction of both the man and the party he leads. Who is Eamon Gilmore, and what do he and his party stand for?

Eamon Gilmore's book, Leading Lights: People Who've Inspired Me, is part of the getting-to-know-me process. It's not a straightforward autobiography, but a dissertation on a diverse dozen people who have shaped the Labour leader's character and his philosophy, from his grandmother Eileen Gilmore to Martin Luther King Jnr to -- surprisingly -- Margaret Thatcher.

Why did Eamon choose this format? Well, he acknowledges in the introduction "the growing pressure on me to open up more about my background and my life", but explains that it is "a side of politics with which I have never been comfortable". He says he chose to write about his role models as a way of discussing "issues I care about, and values I hold dear". However, he also stresses that this book "is certainly not a biography or a political tract, and it's not a manifesto".

And indeed it's not a biography; details of his personal life are sparingly doled out and momentous events dealt with in a matter-of-fact rather than an emotional way, such as Eamon's description of the death of his father John when he was 14 months old.

"It was 8 June, 1956, a sunny morning. After his breakfast he played with me, then cycled off to work in the bog with a neighbour, John McHugh. As they were cycling along, my father suddenly fell off his bike. He had suffered a massive heart attack. He was just 36."

Likewise, Eamon's interesting political history -- beginning with his time in the Workers Party and the fraught split which led to the formation of Democratic Left, which subsequently merged with the Labour Party -- are glossed over in his chapter on Proinsias De Rossa.

However, this book is a personal manifesto of sorts, although he uses a distancing technique of laying out his political beliefs by discussion of how other figures conducted themselves.

Eamon devotes one chapter to the immensely influential Irish economist and former public servant TK Whitaker to expound on his views of the public sector and to take a swipe at his political opponents. "Fianna Fail have used the public service as a political pawn, such as in their botched decentralisation plan -- an idea that had a lot of merit but was handled very badly. Public servants were treated as if they were cattle who could be shipped off to 'Parlon Country'. It was vulgar."

But is a manifesto up to a point -- long on statements such as, "The public service does need to be reformed, and it is possible to produce meaningful reform," but short on details on how he would implement this reform if he finds himself in a position to do so (which may now happen much sooner rather than later, given recent upheavals).

The unexpected appearance of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher -- hard right-winger and ultra-free marketeer -- in his list is swiftly explained. "I include Mrs Thatcher for much the same reason that my favourite British newspaper is The Daily Telegraph: when I pick up the Telegraph, I know almost immediately what I'm up against," he said, adding, "it is sometimes useful to measure what you are for in terms of its polar opposite."

Here, he segues from Thatcher to her defeat of the Left in Britain, and how that country's Labour Party "had to modernise and broaden its appeal in order to connect with the public; it had to speak to Britain in the language of the times".

Which, of course, is precisely how Tony Blair brought Labour back from the dead in Britain, and it offers a clue as to how Eamon Gilmore now is Ireland's choice for Taoiseach, according to a slew of polls.

Like Blair he is a consummate communicator, a master at tapping instantly into the zeitgeist and is fond of painting in broad verbal brushstrokes rather than filling in the details.

And this book -- A Beginner's Guide to Eamon Gilmore -- is a reflection of this. It's interesting and simply written, it tells the reader what the Labour leader thinks -- but ultimately reveals little about what makes him tick.

Irish Independent

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