Thursday 18 January 2018

Downfall – step by step through the 24 hours that ousted Gilmore

Following a disastrous election, senior Labour Party members made their move to oust their leader

Alex White: new man in charge
Alex White: new man in charge
Eamon Gilmore: under pressure. Photo: Collins
Alex White confirmed he will contest the leadership of the Labour Party at a press briefing on the Rosie Hackett Bridge in Dublin. Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

EAMON Gilmore appeared on RTE's Six One News the day after the Labour Party was all but obliterated in local government by an angry electorate. "There is no question about my leadership," he boldly exclaimed. Less than 24 hours later he stepped down from the party he led for seven years as a political coup led to his downfall.

The electorate's condemnation of Labour's time in power was undoubtedly the final nail in Mr Gilmore's political coffin. But the emergence of a dissident faction can be traced back to the 2011 General Election.

Before the election the party was poised to take 32 per cent of the vote, but when the ballots were counted they came in at 19 per cent.

While rejoicing the party's historic election result, it was felt they did not reach their full potential, given the backlash against the politics of the centre/right.

There was also major discontent before the 2011 General Election when promises were made in the dying days about child benefit, college fees – the now infamous pastiche of the Tesco poster with the slogan, "Fine Gael, Every Little Hurts".

Labour figures thought "someone was panicking" before the most important election in the party's history.

Not long into Labour's first term in Government it was realised most of these commitments were not going to be met. Despite vocal support for the leadership, many parliamentarians felt disappointed and embarrassed.

There was a short reprieve when Patrick McNulty was elected in the Dublin West by-election and Michael D Higgins became president. But the excitement was short-lived.

Former junior health minister Roisin Shortall resigned over James Reilly and the primary care centre controversy; she was followed by others who could no longer stomach year after year of austerity budgets. Then came the disastrous Meath by-election, which focused minds as the party entered its second year in Government.

Gilmore individually called parliamentary party members to his office to discuss the drubbing in the polls. Those who attended the meetings say the main discussion point was the 'broken promises' and how the party would address its plummeting support.

However, it was felt nothing came of the meetings and confidence in the leadership continued to drop.

Gradually a group of dissidents emerged in the backbenches as it was perceived the Labour leadership was not listening to its concerns and not fulfilling promises.

Impromptu meetings were held in the corridors of the Leinster House and elsewhere and the view that a new leader was needed was growing in the minds of many TDs and senators.

The so-called 'group of eight' were the first to put their head above the parapet last week, but in the months leading up to the election there was almost double this amount discussing a leadership challenge. There was no consensus on a successor, but it was clear Mr Gilmore needed to step down.

In the weeks leading up to the recent election members came face-to-face with the electorate on the doorsteps. The anger was palpable.

What was notable for some Labour members was the discontent among their core voters about the leadership. "They were bringing up Gilmore before they mentioned water charges or medical cards," a source said.

The phone calls and meetings continued as the backlash continued on the election trail. A heave was ruled out before the election because it was felt people would see it as "blatant electioneering".

But by this stage Mr Gilmore's days at the helm of the party were numbered. Even though many braced themselves for the electoral hammering, it was still very hard to digest once the results started coming in.

On Saturday, May 24, with counting well under way, those involved in the heave discussions realised it was time to make a move. Texts messages and calls were exchanged as those at the centre of the plot gauged support. People were sounded out at every level of the party.

On Saturday, around midday, Mr Gilmore and his closest advisers, David Leech and Mark Garret, met for lunch at his home in Dun Laoghaire. They mulled over the early tally counts, which did not bode well for the party.

Resignation was discussed, but Gilmore was assured he could survive a potential leadership heave. His advisers had been preparing for this eventuality for months and believed they had the numbers to defend his leadership. They agreed he should go on the Six One News to "steady the ship".

But by this stage the ship was sailing dangerously close to the shore and mutiny was been organised by the crew. The first sign came when Kerry TD Arthur Spring called for the leadership to be addressed on Saturday afternoon. By the following morning it was clear the party was going to be wiped out.

Mr Gilmore arranged to meet his two advisers in Government Buildings at 2.30pm and they were joined by strategist Colm O'Riordan. During the meeting they learned Labour central council member Mick Sweeney tabled a no-confidence motion against Mr Gilmore but this was dismissed by the Tanaiste.

However, he was very down and depressed by the election results and his possible resignation was discussed once again.

Later that afternoon, Mr Gilmore met with his most loyal cabinet lieutenants Pat Rabbitte and Brendan Howlin. Gilmore told his colleagues he was considering resigning but it is understood they pledged their support for him.

Meanwhile, the rebels were taking account and plotting their next move. Clare Labour TD Michael McNamara went public with his call for Mr Gilmore and the entire frontbench to resign on Sunday evening. Meath East TD Dominic Hannigan and Senator John Gilroy spent most of the day ringing colleagues to find out where they stood.

So did other Labour parliamentarians, who later gathered to meet in Waterford TD Ciara Conway's apartment in Dublin's Rialto on Monday morning. These included TDs Ged Nash, Derek Nolan, Aodhan O Riordain, Michael McNamara and Senator John Gilroy. Mr Spring were also aligned with the group. Most of the group were first-time TDs and considered Gilmore loyalists.

The emergence of the dissidents was an open secret among the party on Sunday and even on Saturday. A senior Labour source said "anyone with a political snout" knew a coup was about take place. At least two senior ministers were called by the group and asked where they stood on Mr Gilmore's leadership. The group purposely kept Social Protection Minister Joan Burton out of the loop.

Junior Health Minister Alex White was asked if he would support a motion of no confidence. The former RTE producer said he would support it, but would not publicly call for Gilmore's head. Speaking to the Sunday Independent, White, admitted he had been considering a leadership bid for more than a year.

"It was very much in the context that if there was ever a vacancy I would love to run," he said. "It wasn't get someone out to get me in."

Close to 7pm, Meath East TD Dominic Hannigan called Labour's parliamentary chairman Jack Wall and asked if would accept a motion of no confidence if it was submitted. Mr Wall indicated that he would. Soon afterwards, at around 8pm, Gilmore informed his advisors he intended to step down. It is understood ministers Rabbitte and Howlin were also made aware of his decision at this time.

At 9.30am the next day, Mr Gilmore formally met with his advisers and they discussed the next move. A meeting of Labour ministers and junior ministers was also called for 3pm on Monday. White claims he planned to tell Gilmore of his intention to support the heave at this meeting.

At 10.30am, David Leech called Labour Party chief whip Emmet Stagg and Mr Wall and asked them to attend the meeting. Neither was told what the meeting was about but both presumed Gilmore's leadership would be on the agenda. At the same time, the Tanaiste informed the party's general secretary Ita McAuliffe of his decision to resign

Meanwhile, the rebels gathered at Ms Conway's apartment shortly after 11am to discuss their next move. The Monday newspapers reported emergency meetings between Gilmore and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. They would, it was reported, discuss renewing the programme for Government and a cabinet reshuffle in a bid to regain public confidence.

The rebels believed the headlines and Gilmore's comments on RTE News meant he would remain as leader and they needed to move quickly. They were convinced the ministerial meeting later that afternoon was called so he could rally support among his closest allies. They saw themselves as the "advance party" and believed others would follow once they came out.

The rebels made a pact not to talk to the leadership or his advisers as they believed they would be swayed with promises of ministerial posts in a scheduled reshuffle. Just after 1.30pm, Jack Wall received a call from Mr Hannigan. He formally put forward a motion of no confidence in Gilmore to be tabled at the parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday. Mr Wall accepted and news of the heave topped the news bulletins.

Senior party members were shocked by the names involved in the coup, as many were seen as diehard Gilmore loyalists. Phones started ringing in Ms Conway's apartment and senior Labour figures pleaded with the group to withdraw the motion. Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin then called the apartment and asked them to reconsider.

Junior Transport Minister Alan Kelly, who privately supported the idea of leadership change, also called and asked the group to call off their heave. But it was too late, it now looked like Mr Gilmore was ousted from his party by a group of young upstarts.

At 4pm, after meeting his ministerial colleagues, Gilmore held a press conference where he announced he would step down as leader. Surrounded by his cabinet colleagues, Gilmore said he took the decision himself and was not forced to leave office. However, he was clearly aware of the plot over the weekend. He would have possibly stepped down had this not happened but his camp were preparing for a heave before the election.

Those close to the Tanaiste were incensed by the coup and the undignified end of his career as Labour leader. But others wasted no time aligning themselves with future leaders or putting their name forward for the positions as soon as it became clear that Gilmore's crown had fallen.

Sunday Independent

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