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Daniel McConnell: The honeymoon is decidedly over

ONE is a party which insists it is squeaky clean and has no tolerance for sleaze, corruption or cronyism.

The other is a party which claims it is squeaky clean and has no tolerance for sleaze, corruption or cronyism -- yet in its past history has shown itself to be almost as dirty as Fianna Fail, the grand masters of sleaze in this country.

The two parties have occupied office for 13 months and I'm sure you can distinguish which description above fits Labour and which fits Fine Gael.

Following a rather difficult and turbulent year, ahead of the Labour Party's think-in next weekend in Galway, leader Eamon Gilmore and his troop of not-so-merry men and women have a great deal of soul-searching to do, as to how best to navigate the next chapter of life in government.

The mood within the party at present is best described as edgy.

Continued slides in the polls from its general election result of 20 per cent, three defections from its ranks, including former minister Willie Penrose, questions over the effectiveness of leader Eamon Gilmore and repeated outbursts from deputy leader Joan Burton (who has been seen as undermining her leader) are just some of the issues facing the Labour faithful.

But of greater significance are the ever-deteriorating relations between Labour and Fine Gael.

Early warmth and tolerance for its coalition partner has been replaced with increased antagonism, frustration and at times outright anger.

That anger is currently directed primarily at the man they see as the current villain-in-chief, Phil Hogan, over his meeting with Michael Lowry only days after the delivery of the Moriarty tribunal, his calamitous handling of the household charge fiasco, his bully-boy threat to bang down the doors of little old ladies to shake down their purses, and his previous stroke of reducing the septic tank charge from €50 to €5 without agreement from his Cabinet colleagues.

The reluctance of countless Labour politicians to come out and defend Big Phil has been palpable and given the public backlash against the €100 Household Charge, there are now genuine calls from within the junior coalition party for the Kilkenny colossus to be dumped.

"But much of the angst is over how stupidly self-centred the Blueshirts are. I mean the idea of getting together with the stars to celebrate their first year in government typified how shameless they are and have been," one Labour TD told me this weekend.

Tensions and fractious disharmony are often the hallmark of coalition governments, and the last seven months have been no different for this one. While we are not yet anywhere near the sort of stalemate between Dick Spring and Garret FitzGerald in the mid-Eighties, relations between the two parties are markedly cooler than this time last year.

On taking office, the Coalition enjoyed an extended honeymoon. Cracks began to appear toward the end of the summer in the run-up to the Budget, when the impact of proposed cuts began to become clear.

It was in the weeks preceding Budget day that many Labour Party faithful were disgusted with the "grotesque" scaremongering by a couple of ministers, but FG's deputy leader and Health Minister James Reilly in particular.

Maintaining services for the sick and the elderly was a line-in-the-sand issue for many Labour TDs who felt the authoritarian Reilly and his department unnecessarily flew kites causing great anxiety to many.

But many within Labour, even at Cabinet, were nonplussed with the "highly arrogant" performance of Justice Minister Alan Shatter ahead of the defeated Abbeylara referendum, which sought to grant powers to politicians to inquire and make findings against individuals.

Shatter, who failed to explain the significance of the referendum sufficiently to the public, became embroiled in a bitter exchange with seven former Attorneys-General, who pressed the case against the referendum.

Buoyed by his earlier scrapes with the judiciary, Shatter incorrectly gauged the public mood -- and ended up with a bloody nose. To annoy his colleagues further, he sought to lay the blame at the door of Brendan Howlin, who was the technical sponsor of the Bill.

Even last week, Finance Minister Michael Noonan did a doorstep on the promissory note in the courtyard of Government Buildings. While he had Brian Hayes for company, the absence of Howlin (Noonan's main partner in Government) by his side did not go down well with Labour, given how close the two work.

But from those I have spoken to this past week, there is also a discomfort within Labour about the perceived ambivalence to the findings of the Moriarty tribunal displayed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his ministers.

There has also been discomfort within Labour over the far too cosy nexus of Kenny, Michael Lowry and Denis O'Brien.

"They seem unable to distance themselves from their less than stellar past. They hide behind the passing of the Moriarty report to the DPP and CAB where nothing has happened, yet they still play footsie with Lowry. We are not willing to defend such things," one senior Labour TD said.

When it comes to defending FG's cosy photo opportunities with men against whom adverse findings at a tribunal of inquiry have been made, many of Eamon Gilmore's troops have just said no, no, no.

Ministers Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton forcefully rebuked their own Taoiseach in public on the appropriateness of the now-infamous balcony moment in New York.

As far as Labour goes, any further whiffs of cronyism or Fianna Fail-style corporate cosiness from its coalition partners would be as welcome as a bout of impotence in breeding season.

There is no appetite among Labour ministers either to allow Mr O'Brien to assume control of the largest newspaper group in this country, Independent News and Media, which publishes this paper.

"That would mean one man would own the largest newspaper group and the largest independent radio group in the country. It would be undemocratic and not in the best interests of this country," one minister said.

Vox pops on RTE's This Week radio programme from the FG Ard Fheis last weekend highlighted the chasm of opinion between the parties on the topic of cronyism.

"Denis O'Brien played a very minor part in the Moriarty tribunal, Bertie Ahern and his previous government were an absolute disgrace, they ruined this country, and all you're asking me today is about Denis O'Brien -- I don't think the question is appropriate," said one FG delegate.

"I've no problem at all, I think Denis O'Brien is a very good man," said another.

Many I speak to in Labour about the fate of junior coalition partners often refer to the elimination of the Greens in 2011 and the extinction of the PDs as cautionary tales. They say they have no wish to be the mudguard for Fine Gael's agenda.

Labour is facing a crunch time in power. It is under attack from the left in the form of a very organised and energised Sinn Fein party, which has become the master of opposition politics.

Oppose everything, support nothing has been the Shinners' tack -- and it has worked, given that the party is now the second most popular party in the State. But Labour also risks alienating its base of supporters by implementing austerity* budget after austerity budget and also implementing cuts on their public sector friends.

Only time will tell at what point will Labour patience break with the arrogance of Fine Gael. Given recent events, it is only a matter of time.

Sunday Independent