Sunday 8 December 2019

Gilmore casts a nervous eye to the future as his leadership hangs on election outcome

John Downing

John Downing

IT HAS not been a good time to be knocking on doors wearing a Labour badge in this election campaign. And it will be even harder from today as the party's image of weakness takes on the added negative of deep division.

The Irish Independent/Millward Brown opinion polls over the weekend brought more bad news for Eamon Gilmore & Co. The surveys confirmed they are in danger of losing the three European Parliament seats they won in June 2009.

Today, we follow with news that the party's embattled Ireland South candidate, Phil Prendergast, who is on 4pc and unlikely to be in the shakedown for one of the four seats, has delivered a withering commentary on Mr Gilmore's leadership.

Ms Prendergast has brought the party leadership issue forward by a month and publicly called upon the party leader to quit.

I am among a minority of people who believe that Labour actually deserves better. The bulk of them stood their ground and stayed the course in the unpleasant business of dishing out harsh economic medicine.

With the EU-ECB-IMF troika "correcting the government homework", as Labour's own Pat Rabbitte so pithily put it, there were no real choices beyond austerity. Labour, in my minority book, deserves some points for fortitude and persistence.

But too many Labour people themselves do not appear convinced about that simple fact. In the absence of that belief, it is hard to go out and fight to sell a more positive story about themselves in Labour.

Labour is also reaping the bitter harvest of its own overblown rhetoric and utterly unrealistic promises in the February 2011 general election campaign. The party has struggled to get beyond Mr Gilmore's silly 'Labour's way or Frankfurt's way' declaration.

The harsh economic times we have experienced do not allow much scope for people to discount election campaign rhetoric as easily as in times past.

And a whole series of opinion polls tell us that Labour is headed for a major election kicking.

Labour insiders say, with some justification, that Ms Prendergast is not a central figure and that she has been a dissenting voice for some time. They will also point to her understandable dismay at a very poor opinion poll showing.

But there is no getting away from the fact that she is the sitting Labour MEP and official candidate in the upcoming election. The timing and ferocity of her comments are very damaging for the party and Mr Gilmore's leadership.

It raises a simple question: can Mr Gilmore see off a leadership heave? One answer given to this writer recently was rather interesting.

"Yes, he very probably can win a leadership challenge – if he wants to," a well-placed source said.

Today's findings in the Irish Independent/Millward Brown poll also offer food for thought in this matter.

Almost half the Labour supporters say they are dissatisfied with Mr Gilmore's leadership. That is twice the level of dissatisfaction expressed by other party supporters in their respective leaders, Enda Kenny, Micheal Martin and Gerry Adams.

It is interesting to note that 72pc of Fine Gael supporters approve of Mr Kenny's leadership, compared with just 42pc of Labour supporters expressing approval of Mr Gilmore's performance. Even Mr Martin, who faces his own internal leadership questions, has a 66pc approval rating from Fianna Fail supporters, while Mr Adams gets a 68pc approval rating among Sinn Fein stalwarts.

It all suggests that Mr Gilmore could face a very challenging time very soon now. If Labour cannot defy the odds and pull off some damage limitation actions on May 23, we are very likely looking at a leadership challenge.

It leaves Mr Gilmore with a long and arduous 'to-do list'. In the immediate, he and his senior colleagues need to steady the ship and try to motivate the party faithful for one last campaign aimed at stemming potential losses. None of that will be easy but there are few other options.

It all brings us back to another simple fact. It is that Mr Gilmore's fate may be linked to that of the party's outgoing Dublin MEP, Emer Costello. The Irish Independent /Millward Brown survey suggested that she is only candidate in with a shout of winning a Euro seat.

She is placed fifth and on 12pc of the vote. If that poll were borne out, Independent Nessa Childers and Sinn Fein's Lynn Boylan would be elected. And the third and final seat would be a dog-fight between four remaining candidates, Fine Gael's Brian Hayes, Fianna Fail's Mary Fitzpatrick, Ms Costello and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.

The loss of all Labour's Euro seats would be a big morale blow for the party and to Mr Gilmore's leadership. But Fianna Fail's failure to re-gain its Dublin Euro seat, lost in 2009, would equally be an outcome carrying an emblematic importance for party morale and Mr Martin's leadership.

So, both Martin and Gilmore will ponder those late counts in Dublin next month with nervous eyes to the future.

Irish Independent

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