Tuesday 24 April 2018

'Joan asked me to resign as minister immediately'

The 2014 local and European elections were disastrous for the Labour Party. In an extract from his frank new memoir, Eamon Gilmore reveals how he saw the writing on the wall for his leadership

Former Labour Leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore at a special celebration to mark the 100 years of the foundation of the labour Party. Photo: Brian Gavin
Former Labour Leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore at a special celebration to mark the 100 years of the foundation of the labour Party. Photo: Brian Gavin

'Leading a political party is a lonely job. Friendships with colleagues grow cold as ministerial and other appointments are made and relationships change.

After seven years, there are very few parliamentary colleagues with whom you can, in confidence, discuss your own future.

I realised that I was being undermined as leader for some time, and that this (local election results) represented an ideal opportunity for my opponents in the party to go even further. I knew that in count centres around the country, defeated candidates and their supporters were understandably looking for someone to blame. In football, it's the team manager. In politics, it's the party leader. I recognised that I carried an added responsibility: in 2011 I had recommended that the party enter government in a risky mission to save our country. Now, right across that country, good Labour councillors and courageous candidates were paying a high price for that risk. As leader, I could not absolve myself from my role in that.

By the rules of the Labour Party, the only way that the leader can be removed from office is for a 'motion of no confidence', to be passed by a two-thirds majority of members of the Central Council. I knew it would be impossible for a no-confidence motion to secure such a majority, and therefore if it came to it, I could survive. But to lead the Labour Party, one needs to do more than technically survive such a motion. One needs a broad level of support in the parliamentary party and in the constituencies. There is no way of measuring that mathematically. It comes down to political judgment.

When we met, Brendan (Howlin) and Pat (Rabbitte) again assured me of their own continued support. If I wanted to stay on as leader, they would both stand by me. Being the kind of good friends they are, though, they quickly added that if I was thinking of resigning, I should do it sooner rather than later. We already knew that one member of the Central Council had submitted a 'motion of no confidence in the leader' for the meeting which was scheduled for June 14, but that was a constant critic and I knew I could win the motion. Pat and Brendan both sensed, however, that matters would not wait until mid-June, that a heave could come as early as the next meeting of the parliamentary party the following Wednesday.

In the middle of our discussion, Brendan got a phone call from Jack Wall, chairperson of the parliamentary party, who had always been very loyal and supportive. Apparently, some members of the parliamentary party, whom he did not identify, had been in touch with him to ask if he would put the leadership issue on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting.

I went home and discussed the situation with (my wife) Carol. She wanted me to stay on and fight off any challenge. But I knew where that would end. I might win the first round, but that wouldn't be the last of it. There was now more than one person working against me within the party. I looked at it from a party perspective: it was now a year and nine months to the next general election. The party needed to use that time to recover and to rebuild. It could not do so if it was consumed by a continuing brawl over the leadership. I did not want to be in the middle of that.

I decided I would resign as leader the next day.

Within days of my resignation, there was media speculation that I might be appointed as Ireland's next EU Commissioner. I was flattered by some of the commentary.

Meanwhile, the leadership contest between Joan Burton and Alex White continued up to Friday, July 4 - my final day as leader. Officially, I could remain on as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade until the following week, when the Dáil would approve the re-shuffled Cabinet. But as the date approached, it occurred to me that if Joan was elected as the new leader, she should immediately take over as Tánaiste as that appointment would not require Dáil approval. I asked the Taoiseach to facilitate this and met with Joan on the Thursday to inform her. I also assured her - her win now widely anticipated - that I was available to help in any possible way in her role as leader.

At the end of our meeting, I asked her about her intentions regarding my own position. I had no expectations that she would include me in her ministerial team and was somewhat surprised when she said she had not yet made any decision.

This led me to wonder if I might be re-appointed as minister, possibly in the same department, as I had seen similar situations occur recently in Germany, Denmark and Luxembourg: a party leader resigning as deputy prime minister but remaining on as a foreign minister. In any event, I believed that if I were to be sacked as minister, as the outgoing leader, I would at least be afforded the courtesy of some advance notice so that I could make some practical arrangements.

I expected the reshuffle to take place when the Dáil reconvened on Tuesday, but the new Tánaiste's talks with the Taoiseach continued until Friday morning, July 14. Shortly after eight that morning, I got a telephone call at home from Joan's new Chief of Staff, Ed Brophy. Could I meet the Tánaiste at 9am? I knew what the call meant. Ministers getting fired are always the first to be called!

Joan's assistant, Karen O'Connell, escorted me down the corridor to the familiar Sycamore Room. Inside the room was Joan Burton, her papers spread across the big inlaid table. She beckoned me to sit and told me that the nomination of the new EU Commissioner was a matter entirely for the Taoiseach, and not for the Government, and that he was not going to appoint me and there was nothing she could do about that. I had never seen the Taoiseach exercise such a prerogative before, nor even attempt to.

She went on to state that she would not be nominating me to the Cabinet, and asked me to write my resignation as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade immediately. The entire exchange took two, maybe three minutes. In the corridor on my way out, I met Martin Fraser, Secretary General to the Government. 'What's the score?' he enquired. 'I have just been court-martialled and I am to be shot at dawn!' We both laughed."

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