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Labour working hard to get all kinds of political refugees into its big tent

I RECENTLY attended the annual Collins-Griffth Commemoration in Glasnevin and was impressed by the atmosphere and sense of unity built around this solemn event. This is what holds the Fine Gael party together, regardless of the pullings to left or right, or the heaves against the leader. Okay, the event opened with a decade of the rosary, which didn't exactly send a signal about the new pluralist, secular Ireland. But, in a strange retro way, that seemed to only add to the sense of age-old tradition. I almost expected to hear some heckled cries of Civil War vengeance, but then realised they were more likely to be heard down in Beal na mBlath.

The key thing here, however, is that if you're going to have a big tent party, as Fine Gael clearly is, you might as well have a big banner, in this case with the portraits of patriots Collins and Griffith upon it. It is their memory which will knit together and resolve all the other differences.

No wonder then that Eamon Gilmore was recently down in Moore Street promising to help save the shell of Plunkett's shop where the 1916 rebels, including Labour rebels, plotted the Easter Rising. These days Labour is soaking up votes from wherever it can get them, so why not the Republican legacy.

Personally, I think we have enough 1916 sites and memorials and would sooner see the shops around Plunkett's saved and reverted back to what they were, a thriving multi-ethnic old street of spice bazaars, halal butchers and African hair salons, before the Corporation evicted them all into a nearby underground mall, all soulless and empty. Restoring this aspect of Moore Street would be a great boost for the city and for our multicultural future. But Labour is not yet focused on that constituency. Gilmore sees that the 1916 centenary is coming up and he wants a slice of the commemorative pie.

This is just as well, for the fact is that Labour is another big tent party, which although paying homage to their own heroes on the banner -- James Connolly and Jim Larkin -- is in reality a modified version of the other two centrist, business-driven parties, albeit with a strong social democratic flavour. Otherwise, Labour's key difference is a legacy of secularism -- no rosaries here, thank you -- and not having fought in that nasty Civil War, like the other two.

Indeed, so flexible and big tent is the party that it can take in all sorts of refugees from other parts of the political culture. Such as Jerry Crowley, the former independent Mayo TD, and Nessa Childers MEP, formerly of the Greens. Just to show how ecumenical the party has become, it has also brought in Mae Sexton, formerly of the dreaded low tax, right wing PDs. Truly a 'big tent' party if ever there was one!

The reality is that Labour is an animal of many different elements,

with its origins in the trade unions, farm labourers and, more latterly, middle class liberalism. The high point for Labour was the Spring Tide of 1992, when the middle classes, fed up by Fianna Fail foot-dragging on social issues like divorce and family planning, embraced Labour as the party that might finally 'modernise' the Republic, and clean up 'FF sleaze', as they saw it.

However, the electorate is a selfish animal, and once these awkward issues were sorted, the same voters thought of their pockets and went back to Ahern's FF as the party of the boom. The Irish electorate simply do not have much appetite for the pure left, and in many rural areas, the Labour Party has virtually no presence at all.

Gilmore's job is to try and change this. Happily for him, it looks like the muddled and besieged middle classes are going back to Labour, not to sort out the church issues, this time, but -- once again -- as a protest at FF. Plus, they haven't warmed to Kenny and FG, although this may change especially if we look beyond Kenny to FG's younger metropolitan candidates. Either way, Labour and FG will probably be in government together -- it's just a question of who dominates.

The multi-faceted nature of the party means that being in such a coalition may not be as unstable as was thought. Indeed, the variety may make Labour flexible and almost interchangeable with FG, while broadly subscribing to the social democratic model. It's big tent but no Galway races tent.

Meanwhile, the party can blossom from the variety of its strong individuals and Labour has always had a tradition of such high profile personalities as David Thornley or Conor Cruise O'Brien and Barry Desmond, both of whom proved in Government to be just as tough as FG ministers when it came to cutbacks and taking on Northern paramilitaries. The problem with such personalities, however, is getting them to accept party discipline and share the limelight.

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On dissent, Gilmore won't tolerate any loose lips. Sean Sherlock was ticked off when he said some of the Government's cutbacks were correct (he was right), as was Dermot Lacey for admitting that a second property tax should apply to mobile homes (he was also right.) And Tommy Broughan was punished for disobeying the party's cynical u-turn on stag hunting. All of this suggests a centralist control almost worthy of Gilmore's old days in the Workers Party.

However, this is in marked contrast with imposing discipline on constituency selections, crucial if it is to avoid a repeat of 1992 when it didn't convert the high Spring Tide into actual seats. But this is not so easy to do in what is often a party of strong individuals as opposed to automatic team players.

In Kerry, the family tradition continues with the selection of Dick Spring's nephew. However, in Dublin South East, it has been more awkward. Here, Oisin Quinn was hoping to succeed his uncle Ruairi, except Ruairi, a veteran Labour bruiser, is not retiring just yet. Meanwhile, Councillor Kevin Humphreys, who represents the Ringsend part of the constituency, had also been pressing his case. The situation was further complicated by the desire of Ivana Bacik to stand there, although others, and presumably HQ, preferred her to run in Dun Laoghaire, where there is a big floating liberal vote. In fairness to Bacik, she has already stood for Labour, in Dublin Central, where she had to contend with a well-guarded Labour fiefdom in the shape of Joe Costelloe, who is said to be notoriously shy of running mates. (Unless, it's his wife Emer, maybe, the former Lord Mayor). Certainly, young councillor Aodhain O'Riordain was encouraged to move elsewhere, to Dublin North Central, where admittedly he's now blossoming.

Gilmore may talk about maximising the Labour vote and seats, but he has his work cut out in dealing with plucky individuals and their personal strongholds. But if he tackles this, there is no reason why Labour can't be in Government, unpalatable as this is to many of us. Labour is lucky in that most of the real cuts will have been made by the time of an election, so they, along with FG, can come in and tidy up. Just like in 1992 for Labour. A patriotic act, if you like.

No wonder Gilmore was down in Moore Street, looking for a 1916 Starry Plough banner maybe, and a few more political refugees.

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