Thursday 24 October 2019

'I believe we deserve more of the credit for recovery'

Eamon Gilmore still says it was 'Labour's way, not Frankfurt's'

Former Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore, who announced that he will not run in the next
election, in Merrion Square park. Photo: Frank McGrath
Former Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore, who announced that he will not run in the next election, in Merrion Square park. Photo: Frank McGrath
John Downing

John Downing

Eamon Gilmore still believes it was in fact Labour's Way, and not Frankfurt's Way. The rest of the nation believes the European Central Bank in Frankfurt told us what to do through those bailout years.

Even supporters of the Labour Party's most successful ever leader believe they are still paying a political debt for his overdoing the election rhetoric on February 3, 2011.

His declaration that day - "It's Frankfurt's way or Labour's Way" - as he launched the party's economic programme, still burns as party stalwarts try to re-gear for a general election fightback.

But, even as he contemplates the end of 30 years in elected politics, Eamon Gilmore argues for things to be seen in context.

"People have to remember what that phrase was about - it was about renegotiating a very bad deal with the Troika. And that is what we did," he argues.

Gilmore argues that they renegotiated a bad bailout deal done by the Fianna Fáil-led government in November 2010. They got interest rates cut, reversed the cut in the minimum wage, got better debt terms generally, averted a big sell-off of national assets, and managed to put the emphasis on job creation.

"If you take all the elements of that, you will see that we did successfully renegotiate the bailout programme," he adds.

Labour's notorious Tesco-style election advertisements, including attacking Fine Gael on planned water charges, also continue to pose a problem more than four years on. Gilmore argues that Labour, with 20pc of the vote, fought for and secured fairer water charges.

"We got a very good election result. But we were still less than 20pc and with 20pc you cannot expect all your manifesto will be implemented," he says.

Some parties were suggesting water charges of some €700 per year. "Now the most anyone will pay is 46 cent per day and many people are exempt," he argues.

Gilmore himself concedes that in spring 2014 he wanted to postpone water charges until more homes had metres installed. At the time, it was projected that only 40pc of homes would have meters installed before charges kicked in.

But in the end, the Labour parliamentary party decided it was better to carry on because opponents had put exaggerated figures for water charges into the public domain.

"I think that probably was unwise," he says on reflection. It also contributed to huge losses in local and European Parliament elections.

Having led a record 37 TDs to Leinster House, and adding a Labour win in the presidential election, he was unceremoniously forced out of office after those disastrous local and European elections in May 2014. Gilmore's supporters believe his then-deputy leader and successor, Joan Burton, was disloyal to him all through his difficulties. Mind you, Burton supporters counter-argue that she was "done over" by Gilmore in the March 2011 Cabinet jobs share out.

But all questions about Ms Burton are off limits, for now at least. "I don't think it contributes to anything. I really don't want to revisit it," Gilmore says definitively.

Relations between Fine Gael and Labour were in the main good during his time in Cabinet - although there were fights.

"The problem for smaller coalition parties is that you do your fighting in private but your compromises are always public," he muses. His relationship with the Taoiseach was very good.

The "Cabinet within Cabinet", the so-called Economic Management Council (EMC), brought more equality to the relationship. It was just "two-opposite-two" with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, himself, Finance Minister Michael Noonan of Fine Gael, and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin of Labour.

For the bailout period, they made "all the decisions that counted" and he believes it brought joined-up government with better co-ordination between many tiers of the administration and not just Fine Gael and Labour. It was widely criticised as "undemocratic".

Did the tighter structure improve Government confidentiality?

"Well, we never had a leak from the EMC," he says a little puckishly.

What can he point to with pride from his 2007-2011 term as Tánaiste? "We exited the bailout cleanly without any extra precautionary programme, which was predicted by some people. The most significant of all was a jobs-led economic recovery," he says in a trice.

Gilmore says unemployment has gone from a 2012 high of 15pc to below 10pc. The targeted 100,000 new jobs by 2016 will be achieved this year - the target of full employment by 2020 will be met by 2018.

So, why can't Labour get some credit in voter popularity for even some of that? Some opinion polls put them as low as one third of their 19pc record vote in the last general election.

"Labour has taken a disproportionate share of the blame for the unpopular things the Government had to do. But it has not got a proportionate share of the credit," he says.

"The undue blame for the smaller coalition partner is an international phenomenon," he adds, pointing to the fate of the German Social Democrats in grand coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Despite this, he insists that Labour can pull things back in the coming general election. He points out that in the wake of the same-sex marriage referendum, one Red C opinion poll put them on 10pc, and up two points.

"That puts Labour in or about where Labour always was," he says. He argues that his own 2011 result and that achieved under Dick Spring in 1992 were exceptional.

"Labour can go on and build on that 10pc," he argues.

Gilmore also insists that this Coalition will be re-elected and Labour's support will improve for it to play a strong part.

He rejects the argument that voters who opt for continuity may just decide to vote Fine Gael and abandon Labour.

"If they do that, they will not be re-electing this Government. They would be electing a different government and a different agenda," he argues.

"I don't think there is a mood for single-party government for any party - and that includes Fine Gael."

Irish Independent

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