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Lise Hand: Like Superman, the job is kryptonite for Gilmore

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A PLATOON of wasps was merrily menacing the posse of press waiting for Eamon Gilmore at the entrance to the Mount Wolseley Hotel just after noon yesterday.

Or perhaps they were just an advance guard, as it transpired that the Labour leader was in a bit of a waspish mood himself.

After all, there the poor chap was, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the start of a brand-new Dail term, his school books neatly covered in brown paper and his shirts all crisply pressed, and he finds himself being described by a cabinet colleague with buzz-words such as "indecisive" and "quiet".

The stinging criticisms were made in yesterday's Irish Independent just as his parliamentary party's two-day 'special pre-Dail meeting' (a posh name for think-in) kicked off in Co Carlow.

And so the Tanaiste was busy as a bee when he appeared at his media doorstep, denying that he was the shrinking violet of the Government, the Cabinet's Ditherer-in-Chief, the Quiet Man of the Coalition.

Stuff, he declared, and nonsense. And, moreover, he doubted that any one of his cabinet colleagues would poke fun at him so disrespectfully.

"I don't accept that any minister said what was quoted in that article. We are not going to be distracted by that type of tittle-tattle. We have a job of work to do," he sniffed.

Perhaps he thinks (it is a think-in, after all) that the quotes were left under the author's pillow by the Tooth Fairy.

But then he was asked to assess his performance at the cabinet table -- are there times when he's a bit indecisive and quiet?

"No," he protested. "I'm very happy with the effectiveness of the Labour Party in this Government.

"This isn't about my performance, you know. This is about the performance of the Government," he dodged.

Which is true -- to an extent. But it's also about the performance of the Labour leader/Tanaiste/Foreign Affairs Minister. It's understandable that the holder of these three offices will come under scrutiny -- and it's also inevitable, given that, buoyed by sky-high poll figures during the dog-days of the last administration, the notion of 'Eamon Gilmore for Taoiseach' was enthusiastically embraced by his own party.

For in opposition the Dun Laoghaire TD played a blinder. He had the happy knack of being able to expertly channel the anger of the electorate into concise, forensic (and soundbite-friendly) attacks on the hapless Taoiseach Brian Cowen, often scoring points in the Dail over the less robust leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny.

As a result, Eamon consistently polled top of the party leaders in successive opinion polls, his Mister Angry stance striking a chord with the public.

It all looked rosy for Labour in the General Election when the last calamitous administration was finally dragged kicking and screaming to the country last February. And so it proved to be when the votes were counted, with the party winning a record 37 seats, taking 18 in the capital as opposed to Fianna Fail losing all but one of its seats in Dublin.

Although there was no surprise that Eamon claimed the post of Tanaiste in the post-election pow-wow with Fine Gael to form a Coalition, there was some bemusement when he chose to go to Foreign Affairs instead of taking on one of the more key economic portfolios.

Given the current focus on the Government's titanic struggle to rescue the economy, it was inevitable that Foreign Affairs would take a backseat as Mr Gilmore settled into life in the plush surrounds of Iveagh House.

Nor was the publicity that he did generate always welcome, such as the Wikileaks cable revelation in May that he had privately given the US ambassador an assurance that he would support a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after he publicly declared "the Lisbon Treaty is dead" in the wake of its defeat in June 2008.

This gave rise to the unwelcome impression that the famously plain-speaker was in fact speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

But it's definitely a more muted Eamon who sits around the cabinet table.

It appears that, like Superman, the Government has been kryptonite for the Labour hero who so far seems to have swapped his cape for a cloak of invisibility.

But the disappearance of his continually combative stance has meant that he and Enda Kenny have so far enjoyed a harmonious relationship around the cabinet table.

So far. But there are tough decisions to be made and at his party think-in yesterday the Tanaiste seemed eager to underline the fact that he and his party wouldn't shirk from making hard choices in the run-up to what promises to be the Mother of All Hairshirt Budgets this winter.

"No Government wants to have to cut spending and increase revenue," he said in his opening address yesterday afternoon.

"But it has to be done for the sake of the country and for the next generation," he said.

The mood among the parliamentary party was upbeat yesterday, despite a sobering poll at the weekend which showed that support for Labour has dropped since the election from 19pc to 12pc.

But it's not just the summer that's now over -- so too is the honeymoon for Labour and its leader.

Whether he likes it or not, much attention will be paid as to how Gilmore negotiates the rocky waters ahead of the Budget.

Will he fulfil his early promise and punch above his weight in the fraught negotiations or will he, like a reverse Muhammad Ali, sting like a butterfly and float like a bee?

Irish Independent