John Downing: Labour must learnto deal with coalition angst
DOWN the years we have had Irish political themes which went round and round in public debate and drove many of us mad. Then these themes disappeared from view and many of us were surprised to find we missed them.
That may seem a bit of a political riddle to some of you. But if we look at a few examples you'll surely get my drift.
Remember Fianna Fail rows over 'paper cumainn'? That was a sneaky process whereby the local TD, or, better again, some of his honchos, set up 'The Mickey Hooligan Memorial Cumann', remitted a largely phantom list of members' names and a cheque for the modest subs to Dublin HQ.
Result: increased organisational clout, including the little matter of ensuring you and yours would be on the ballot paper into the future.
Then there were the persistent rumours about the role and influence of the Catholic Church generally and some prominent clerics specifically. These rumours were sometimes true, sometimes false and often exaggerated.
And finally we had Labour publicly and bitterly tearing itself asunder over participation in coalition government. Through the 1970s and 1980s, political journalists just loved covering Labour Party national conferences. They loved the drama, the plots, the sub-plots, the last-minute urgent motions by schemers who believed the more conservative rural delegates were on their buses and headed for home.
Then big Labour coalition angst, a bit like FF paper cumainn and shadowy scheming clerics, just faded away. Irish political culture changed for a variety of reasons over the last 30 years. It is now an accepted part of political life that Ireland will have a coalition government of some kind or another.
Two emblematic things occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s which helped Labour activists live more easily with the principle of coalition. First was Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fail breaking the power-sharing taboo in June 1989 and sharing cabinet seats with the Progressive Democrats. The second was Labour's decision to coalesce with FF in December 1992, thereby ending the perennial scenario where they were always propping up Fine Gael in an Anybody-But-FF line-up.
But spurred on by the worst recession since the 1930s, Labour coalition angst is back. It will be a big feature of the political year 2013.
Did we miss it? Well, maybe not all that much.
Let's quickly re-run the facts here. In February 2011, Labour returned 37 TDs in their most successful election ever.
In October they added to that success by winning a by-election in Dublin West which had been caused by the death of Fianna Fail's Brian Lenihan. It was an interesting result as they were the first government party in almost 30 years to win a by-election. (If you want to truly amaze your friends at that political anorak pub quiz we can tell you that the last person to do it was the avuncular Noel Treacy of Fianna Fail and Galway East in July 1982).
But Labour's winner in October 2011, Patrick Nulty, just looked in briefly to a few parliamentary party meetings before quitting in protest at budget austerity in December 2011. He did not lack company on the exile benches as two colleagues preceded him and two more followed.
It is far from ideal for party leader Eamon Gilmore to have a 'party in exile' playing as 'the real soul of Labour'. But the case of Colm Keaveney is seriously damaging as he remains on as party chairman elected by delegates at their annual conference last April.
Mr Keaveney insists he cannot be ousted from the national chair by anyone other than the party membership and another national conference is not due until October. The party leadership insist that in all practical terms his position is untenable. The lawyers are combing through the party constitution and various other rule books – a sign that an organisation is on a loser.
It is clear that there will be no shortage of rhetoric in the coming months. It is a high-risk business for Mr Gilmore but he cannot duck out of this one. If he allows Deputy Keaveney to grandstand, why should the other TDs and senators take local grief and criticism?
It will make for an interesting sideshow and for those who like their politics it might hasten the onset of the longer evenings. But let us recall that this issue is very much peripheral to the real business of government in 2013 – that of moving Ireland back towards solvency.