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Liz O’Donnell: Gilmore needs to leave Iveagh House and reconnect with domestic agenda

GIVEN the state of the nation, government parties cannot expect to be popular. On the contrary, it is almost a badge of honour to take hard decisions in the national interest. But this only gives so much rope. Inevitably as different sectors bear the brunt of deeper cuts, the blame game begins.

Fine Gael seems to have the knack of avoiding blame while their coalition partners in the Labour Party tend to attract it. Is this the natural order of the small guy getting hammered as in all coalition governments? I well recall support levels for the PDs plummeting to zero at various stages of coalition government, while Fianna Fail continued to smell of roses.

The media has a lot to do with this. In the main, they move in a pack, targeting the perceived weak link and pursuing it with unrelenting vigour and even feigned outrage. Remember how Labour was berated by the media for going into government with a Haughey-led Fianna Fail and implicated forever with the hated tax amnesty?

In this Government of austerity, there is no quarter given and Labour ministers have become the focus of constant media opprobrium.

But there are other factors at play in the current drama. There's nothing like an electoral mauling to concentrate the minds of politicians. To be beaten into fifth place in the Meath East by-election despite a very credible candidate has seriously frightened the horses in the Labour camp. With local elections coming up, panic is setting in at the prospect of wipeout. The awkward squad are growing in number; seven members of the parliamentary party have already jumped ship after just two years. The majority is steady by all accounts but the domino effect is feared.

In smaller parties with big ideologies, personality and ego-based considerations always feature. Loyalty is not highly regarded as in the larger tribal parties like Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. In fact, independence and personal courage is more highly prized. One does not find such wrestling with conscience or "pirouetting on the plinth" in the bigger parties. It's seen as unmanly somehow. But in ideologically-based groups like Labour and the PDs, there is a righteousness which governs the actions of individual members, supporting walkouts, splits and serial resigners.

The latest resigner is the MEP for Ireland East, Nessa Childers, who has form in this regard, having already resigned from the Green Party and been regularly offside and critical of party policy from the remove of Brussels.

She joins a diverse group of disaffected TDs who have exited the Labour Party fold on issues of principle or policy. To lose a number of TDs is not calamitous – a government with a groaning majority can afford men overboard. But the skies are darkening over the party's prospects as they enter the second half of this government term.

Labour ministers are not having it easy these days. Last week, Ruairi Quinn was heckled at the teachers' union conferences, while Brendan Howlin finds himself in a toxic stand-off with the public service unions over Croke Park II.

Inevitably, electoral defeat and resignations lead to mutterings of leadership heaves. But this malaise is not about Eamon Gilmore as leader. It is more a case of a slow train crash with passengers assessing their options and chances of survival whether they stay or jump. Most will stay in the national interest and reckless to their own skins. The jumpers will be joined by others as the terrain gets rougher. As the next Budget nears, it will be a white-knuckle ride.

There are now calls for a national conference to debate a change in direction. Too much democracy is a dangerous thing for a party of government. A hyped-up dissident-driven conference could turn into a coconut shy with angry delegates and disaffected TDs humiliating the leadership.

I imagine Pat Rabbitte sometimes dreams of his rocking chair and hanging up his boots. Joan Burton and Brendan Howlin are toiling in departments which are unforgiving. Ruairi Quinn has the reforming zeal of a minister in his last term. The Tanaiste needs to get out of Iveagh House fast and reconnect with the domestic agenda.

Michael McDowell's mantra for the PDs was that small parties had to be "radical or redundant". Labour in Government is so wedded to the national interest that it is in danger of the latter. On the austerity agenda, there may be little wiggle room. A spat with Phil Hogan deferring water charges is thin gruel aimed at limiting damage in the local elections. But glaring opportunities are being missed to strike an independent pose, such as on the halcyon promise of "new politics".

Irish Independent