Sunday 18 August 2019

Let's remember Gilmore was equally mercenary in his treatment of Burton

Joan Burton was the last of Labour’s cabinet nominees to be summoned to see the then party leader, Eamon Gilmore, at which point she was given just 60 seconds to accept or reject the role of Social Protection Minister
Joan Burton was the last of Labour’s cabinet nominees to be summoned to see the then party leader, Eamon Gilmore, at which point she was given just 60 seconds to accept or reject the role of Social Protection Minister
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Eamon Gilmore has depicted Joan Burton's treatment of him as ruthless and cruel in his new memoir, but don't be fooled into thinking he was some guileless naïf.

In a widely publicised extract from his new book, the former Labour leader has made much of his hurt feelings after he was summarily dismissed from cabinet by his successor.

"I have just been court-martialled and I am to be shot at dawn," he confided to a senior civil servant, after he was dumped by Burton in a meeting lasting just two minutes last year.

At the very least, he said, he expected to be "afforded the courtesy of some advance notice" so he would have had some time to put his affairs in order.

While Burton's treatment of Gilmore was callous, it can't have come as much surprise, considering he had been equally mercenary when their roles were reversed and she was the supplicant relying on him for a job.

In fact, Burton's meeting with Gilmore lasted twice as long as the meeting he had with her in 2011, when he was doling out cabinet positions after Labour entered coalition with Fine Gael.

Having won plaudits for her performance as Labour's finance spokesperson for nine long years, particularly for her prescience in convincing the party to vote no to the reviled bank guarantee, it had been widely anticipated that Burton would be rewarded with a position in the Department of Finance.

Instead, Burton was the last of Labour's cabinet nominees to be summoned to see the party leader, at which point she was given just 60 seconds to accept or reject the role of Social Protection Minister.

The news came as a complete shock given that a few months earlier, in an interview with Marian Finucane on RTE, Gilmore had publicly said he intended to appoint Burton as finance minister if the party entered government.

Not only that, but in the negotiations for the programme for government, carried out between Labour and Fine Gael after the election, Burton was told to take the lead role when it came to economic matters.

Now, Gilmore is claiming Burton didn't want a finance ministry at all and was actually angling for the relatively cushy role of Foreign Affairs minister, which he ultimately took up himself.

Asked by Miriam O'Callaghan in an interview on Sunday why he had opted for Brendan Howlin instead of Burton in the Department of Finance, he said it was because he had produced a "major document" on reform in the public service.

Really? Well, how many "major" documents and reports had Burton produced over nine years shadowing three successive finance minsters?

While some have latterly incorrectly tried to paint her opposition to the bank guarantee as being based solely on trifling regulatory concerns, during the Dáil debate in 2008, she raised the collapse of a number of international financial institutions and said she was concerned the government was "writing a blank cheque to people who lived high off the hog during the years of plenty", which is exactly what happened.

Given Burton's record as finance spokesperson, not to mention the fact that as an accountant she was actually qualified for the job, she wasn't the only one who was "surprised" and "bewildered" when she was passed over.

So, when it was her turn to wield the knife last year, after Gilmore resigned as party leader, it shouldn't have come as a shock to him when he was unceremoniously turfed out on his ear.

Gilmore may feel that he was hard done by, but it is a truism that even the most successful political career ultimately ends in failure.

Gilmore may have led the Labour Party to its greatest ever election result, but he also bears responsibility for much of the disproportionate blame heaped on the Labour Party for austerity measures introduced by the Coalition.

It was he who, in a panic at Labour's slide in the opinion polls during the dying days of the last election, signed off on the infamous "every little hurts" Tesco advert, which is still trotted out by the party's opponents to this day as a handy graphic detailing all of its broken promises.

On Sunday, he said the advert was put together "in good faith" - echoing Pat Rabbitte's "isn't that what you do during an election?" line, when referring to pre-election promises - as if that somehow absolves the party of blame for reneging on every single one of the pledges contained in the document.

It was also Gilmore who coined the now derided "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way" slogan, fighting talk that didn't translate into action once the party entered government.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that Labour has exerted some influence in government - the marriage equality referendum, X Case legislation, increases in the minimum wage and the removal of tens of thousands of low-paid workers from the USC net, to name a few - but the fact remains that under Gilmore's leadership, the party oversold and under-delivered and, in the process, lost the trust of many voters.

Some have suggested Gilmore's book may benefit Labour by reminding the public of the extent of the financial crisis when the party entered government, and how perilously close the country came to the abyss, and that may be true.

However, it should also serve as a cautionary tale for politicians who idly make pre-election promises, assuming they can abandon them without suffering the consequences once they gain office.

Irish Independent

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