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John Drennan: Labour must step out from Fine Gael's Lowry shadow

THERE was no danger at Labour's centennial conference that the party faithful would be allowed forget that Eamon Gilmore is the most successful Labour leader in the history of the State.

The problem is that the rest of the country is having a small problem remembering who Labour actually is.

Of course, the Grumpy Old Men, Pat and Ruairi and their aspirant successors, Brendan and Eamon, are contented -- but when it comes to those who live below the officer class seeking a political future that will last for more than five years, all is unease.

Significantly, in Labour's perfect conference, the differences between the Reverend Mother Gilmore and his FG 'partners' on how do you treat a Lowry was one of degree as Mr Gilmore did his best to keep up with the FG bad lads via the claim that all this Lowry stuff is a mere "distraction". Some would say we have indeed moved on when a Labour leader thinks that ethics is a "distraction" but when it comes to battling with its conscience Labour, historically, has form -- and it is of the losing variety.

However, while bending the knee to the FG version of ethics may be the easy choice, Gilmore's timorous refusal to differentiate himself from his partners will do little to ease the fears of all those new TDs and senators that their careers will be as short as Dick Spring's intake in 1992.

The current wintry mind-set is undoubtedly informed by the nature of the party's 'victory' in 2011 which resembled the cruel comment about the 'reluctant' Taoiseach Jack Lynch, who was described as being the first case ever of being a 'winner' who won 'backing away' from the job.

The story did not improve after the election, for after being comprehensively out manoeuvred in the pre- government power-game -- where Labour timidly acquiesced to five cabinet positions -- Gilmore almost sparked a civil war with the great betrayal of Joan.

As it turns out the triumph of the Labour 'old boys' club' of Quinn, Howlin, and Rabbitte and the relegation of Saint Joan to Social Protection did not work to the disadvantage of the party.

Initially, Howlin made enthusiastic noises over the necessity for immediate public sector reform while Quinn briskly made the necessary u-turns on education on the grounds that, rather like amputations, it's better to break your election promises sooner rather than later.

Like the good girl that she is, Burton seized control of her department in a manner that has not been seen in Irish politics since Charlie McCreevy kicked the doors of the Department of Finance open like a vengeful sheriff entering a Western saloon.

Labour, however, have begun to resemble the political equivalent Chicken Licken who believed the sky was going to fall down every day.

Ironically, in spite of his apparent success, much of the concern within the party is centred on the stately persona of its leader; for having somewhat cruelly, but accurately, acquired the moniker of Sir Talks-a-lot in Opposition, Mr Gilmore has become the invisible man of the Government.

The prelude to the Labour leader's submissive stance came via the Cloyne Report, where the Taoiseach opportunistically seized the mood with a speech that had far less to it than met the eye, and left nothing but political crumbs for poor Mr Gilmore.

And in yet another example of his uncertain political style Gilmore's subsequent decision to close the Vatican embassy left him looking like the small dog that only barks after the bigger hound has finished.

These developments have been the catalyst for real concerns that the party is irrevocably destined to suffer the wretched fate of all junior coalition partners, from the Greens to the PDs.

Last week, the spectre stalking Labour's equivocal Galway festivities was a Sinn Fein party that is currently winning up to 25 per cent of the vote in some polls.

But while Labour fears that one bright moment of political fool's gold when the Gilmore gale peaked in 2010 was a high-water mark that will not be surpassed, the presidential race illustrated Sinn Fein's real strength may be as illusory as the Gilmore gale.

As Labour frets over the possibility that it is doomed to repeat its previous history, it cannot be denied there is no good news coming down the tracks for the struggling half of the Odd Couple. The Croke Park Agreement hasn't gone away, while the economy and the lives of our citizens have been frozen by an ice age of personal debt, mortgage debt, banking debt and sovereign debt.

Despite all of the warnings, Ireland has become the European equivalent of the zombie Japanese economy and there is scant evidence that the new Government knows any better route out of that cul de sac of despair than its predecessor.

When it comes to its current woes Labour, however, would be wise to start casting cold eyes at a Fine Gael party that is sailing through the current recession rather than running around like sheep in a thunder storm every time Sinn Fein issues a press release.

Labour needs to use history as a guide rather than a prophecy and realise that deferring to its coalition partners in the hope that some of Enda's temporary Teflon rubs off on the party is a road to annihilation.

However, it is not impossible for Labour to thrive in government -- for while a dozen of its seats are threatened by SF an equal number of FG seats are equally susceptible to a swing to Labour. To do this, however, the party must keep its head, find the correct and the brave route and stick to it.

Nothing epitomises this more than the challenges posed by Croke Park where Labour's job is to ensure it doesn't end up being tied to the train tracks by a bearded Jack O'Connor and turned into the stooge of an ungrateful public sector as FG make off with the moral victory and the spoils of the votes of middle Ireland. The party would be equally wise to stop complaining about the straight-talking instincts of Burton over such delicate issues as Berlusconi and promissory notes.

Fine Gael may complain when Joan has the cheek to call things as they are but, as Mr Gilmore's 'invisible man' status reveals, bending the knee to FG and colluding with that disingenuous lot's brazen willingness to mislead the public is a short-cut to obscurity. The Irish political scene is uniquely fluid, for the old Moby Dick of the floating vote has surged from 10 per cent of the electorate to roughly 30 per cent. For now Moby is sticking with FG but it is a loveless enough arrangement and it is not impossible that, should Enda be revealed to be a man of straw, the intrinsically conservative Moby could transfer her allegiance to Labour and a reformed FF.

For that to happen though, Mr Gilmore will have to realise FG is the enemy, take some lessons from Joan and ditch the invisible 'doing a job of work' persona.

Sunday Independent