Sunday 22 April 2018

Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton halt hostilities in Christmas truce

CHRISTMAS TRUCE: Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton have put on a united front
CHRISTMAS TRUCE: Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton have put on a united front
Michael Brennan

Michael Brennan

A CHRISTMAS truce has broken out in the Labour Party between Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton. Just two months ago, the rivalry between the two most senior figures in the party was threatening to boil over.

There were awkward questions about why Joan had stored the 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' posters in her garden shed during the General Election instead of putting them on the lamp posts. With the party's poll numbers dropping below 10 per cent, and a tough Budget to put through, it seemed that further conflict between the leader and deputy leader was inevitable.

But it has been noted in Labour that Joan Burton has been a model of good behaviour over the past two months. There have been no controversial interviews and no more loaded remarks about how good a job Gilmore is doing for the country abroad in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Burton could have decided to fully back the grassroots candidate in the contest for the chair of the Labour Party.

Former general secretary Ray Kavanagh has a long track record of being independent-minded and it is therefore thought he will be more difficult for Gilmore to handle than the alternative candidate, Siptu official Lorraine Mulligan, who struggled to deal with a mini-walkout during the opening of the party conference in Killarney.

But instead of becoming a public supporter of Kavanagh, Burton agreed with Gilmore that both of them would avoid backing either candidate.

True to form, Burton could not resist appealing to the party faithful at Labour's annual conference in Kerry by calling for a rise in wages. Gilmore has been talking about potential tax cuts. But that is as far as it went.

"There hasn't been a whisper about leadership issues," said one Labour junior minister, while one of Gilmore's back-room team said that Burton was taking "a very constructive approach".

So why is Burton now lining up beside Gilmore rather than undermining him?

Some in the party attribute it to the growing annoyance among some of the Gilmore loyalists about Burton's comments after the publication of The Price of Power – Inside Ireland's Crisis Coalition by Pat Leahy last September, which contained plenty of detail about their troubled relationship.

At one parliamentary party meeting, Labour TD Kevin Humphreys said that he was fed up with people causing problems for the party and that if they continued, he would "take them out". He mentioned no names but it was understood to be a reference to Burton.

Joan Burton is not one who is afraid of a political battle. But even though many Labour members are still unhappy about some of the party's actions in Government, there is still a strong pro-Gilmore group in the parliamentary party. No definable group of TDs and senators has emerged to push the cause of Joan Burton.

There are three rebel Labour senators – John Whelan, John Kelly and Denis Landy – who the party feels it can no longer rely on to support every vote in the Seanad.

They are known in some quarters as the "Three Amigos" and have not shied away from criticising government policies on wind farms and overhead pylons. But they are seen as a marauding rebel band who are not loyal to any individual – and certainly not to Burton.

But the conditions for stirring up dissent have deteriorated in the past two months. The Budget went remarkably well for Labour, with Burton herself getting credit in Government for reducing social welfare cutbacks and steering other cuts through successfully.

Two other key factors are jobs and poll numbers. After years of soaring unemployment, the number of people on the live register is below 400,000 for the first time since May 2009 and the number of people at work is up by over 33,000 over the past 12 months. Labour backbenchers such as Michael McNamara say that despite the hardship people are still experiencing, the situation has stabilised and things are looking up. That in itself is significant because the Clare TD is one of the backbench first-timers that Burton would need to get on board to have any chance of deposing Gilmore.

And even though Labour has been falling in the opinion polls for the past six months, it got a boost last week when its rating rose from 9 per cent to 12 per cent. That reversal makes it possible for Gilmore to argue with a little more conviction that better times lie ahead. And even though he remains the country's most unpopular leader in the opinion polls, Gilmore has been making efforts to up his game.

He was stung by calls from backbenchers to move from the Department of Foreign Affairs to become more visible at home. So, while remaining in the ministry, he has got out of Iveagh House as much as possible and started cropping up at jobs announcements around the capital.

He was often criticised by Fianna Fail for being "Mr Angry" in Opposition. But one Labour insider said that Gilmore was now much happier being out and about meeting people in his more public role.

He has also become more vocal, with mixed results. He got agreement from Taoiseach Enda Kenny on a gay marriage referendum but when he took on the Revenue over payment methods for the property tax, he got very little in return.

The next flashpoint is the local and European elections in May. Labour TDs fear that their number of MEPs could go from three to zero. The local elections have the potential to be even more destabilising if there are large losses of councillors.

That will worry TDs – because the results in their local areas are likely to be replicated in the General Election.

So even though there is more unity on the surface, the potential is still there for the Gilmore-Burton Christmas truce to be like the famous one on the trenches in the First World War. A temporary ceasefire rather than a permanent one.

Sunday Independent

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