Wednesday 11 December 2019

Labour pays price of empathy deficit

We may already be in the post-Gilmore phase as the party fears for its survival, never mind the future of its leader.

An Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore talks to the press earlier this week. Photo: Joe Travers.
An Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore talks to the press earlier this week. Photo: Joe Travers.

John Drennan

When you start to feel genuinely sorry for it, then it is in trouble. Last week as it struggled in the mire of water charges and polls and Phil Prendergast's challenge to Eamon Gilmore, it certainly was a case of hard Labour for the junior Coalition partner.

Gilmore was in the usual 'a job to do, going to get the job done, whatever the job might be' mode. But, increasingly the Labour leader resembles the moment in the Roadrunner cartoon where Wile E Coyote runs past the cliff-edge. For a brief time, the unfortunate coyote's legs continue to pump under the delusion that he is on solid ground before reality dawns, he looks down, and plunges to earth.

Gilmore may believe he still is the Labour leader, but, will it be the case after May 23 that he will discover from the moment Phil Prendergast broke ranks, the Invisible Tanaiste's leadership had effectively ended?

One indication we may already be entering the post-Gilmore phase is that increasingly TDs, senators and ministers are more concerned over whether Labour itself will survive, let alone Eamon Gilmore,

Sadly, when it comes to saving Project Labour, there is a touch of the 'Gay Mitchell and the Presidency', where anything that can go wrong will go wrong. This was epitomised by the Labour launch of the campaign, last Tuesday, of some German bureaucrat MEP, Martin Schultz, to be the next European Commission President.

This was supposed to be a harmless sort of feelgood event. But, though Labour MEP Emer Costello gamely wittered on about the importance of reversing the conservative majority in the European Parliament, she was just an echo in the room. Instead everyone was looking at the Phil Prendergast cuckoo in the nest and how she and Gilmore might look at each other.

Intriguingly, the most interesting feature of the event was not the cock-fight between the Invisible Tanaiste and his stalking horse of an MEP. What instead was more interesting was that the speech of

Schultz, the Euro bureaucrat, displayed a greater sense of empathy with the travails of the Irish voters than most of the Cabinet.

Schultz tore into the "scandal where the young generation are paying with their life chances for a crisis they have not caused" and warned the serried ranks of ministers and MEPs and senators that unless they were able to share the pain of parents who don't know where the next meal for their children will come from, they would not regain the trust of the citizens or "deserve to win the elections".

The denouement was laced with an almost unbearable irony as Schultz noted that "I do not need to tell a room of Labour supporters of the tremendous human cost" of the scenario where taxpayers are footing bankers' bills, where "homes have been lost, jobs destroyed, businesses crushed, schools closed and healthcare cut".

The strange thing is that increasingly it appears to be the case in the minds of the voters that most of the Labour Cabinet are, at best, indifferent to their plight. This unpalatable reality goes a long way towards explaining why Labour is in so much trouble.

The party is continuing to run around in ever-decreasing circles over issues such as Irish Water but despite the apparent confusion, the central problem Labour faces is the one of "empathy, stupid".

This is not solely a Labour problem for, despite all those guileful smiles from the Taoiseach, Fine Gael is not excessively supplied with the empathy gene either.

The major damage though is being done to Labour for we do not expect the Blueshirts to be excessively blessed with the gentler virtues. Labour, in contrast, is expected to be the kindly nurse who protects us from those dreadful Fine Gael types.

Sadly, when it comes to the current Labour Cabinet of Grumpy Old Men, Gilmore, Pat, Ruairi and the rest of the lads are short-traders in this regard.

Of course, this is not the first Irish government to suffer from an empathy deficit. But one of the more curious features of this Coalition is that it appeared to be embittered and at odds with the citizen almost from the very start.

Some of this may be understandably explained by the many long years they spent banished to the desert of Opposition but the Labour wing of this Coalition in particular would be wise to swiftly cast aside their hurt feelings.

In a very different age, Ruairi Quinn famously warned Albert Reynolds, at the end of the Harry Whelehan crisis that brought down the Fianna Fail/Labour coalition, that a delegation of Labour ministers had "come for a head, Harry's or yours – it doesn't look like we're getting Harry's".

The subsequent 14-year nightmare on the Opposition benches that followed the securing of Albert's head might have left Labour terribly gun-shy when it comes to political head-hunting.

However, the voters have decided to come calling for a head and the great fear in Labour is that the voters are not in the mood for an either/or option and are looking for all of Labour's heads.

A party facing an existential crisis finds that its options as we approach the May 23 Judgement Day are becoming increasingly stark. Simply cutting and running from governance would represent an implicit admission that it can neither govern nor oppose.

Labour will not save its party's souls by picking internal Cabinet rows with its Fine Gael colleagues either, for the Irish Water fight looks like a bad case of the political hysterics where Labour has decided that, rather than having one bad news day on Irish Water, we will drag the whole sorry shemozzle out over a month.

When it comes to Gilmore, for now the party is holding on to the hand of its Mrs Doubtfire for fear that letting go will lead to something worse. But, increasingly, the party must be wondering if it does not cast Mrs Doubtfire into the void swiftly enough, the voters may chop off all their heads. And the fear is growing amongst some of its more prescient souls that even if it does set the pack on Gilmore, it won't make too much difference one way or another.

Gilmore is still hanging in there, promising blood on the floor if anyone dares try take away the paper crown from him. But in truth his greatest danger is that whilst he can control the nervous political simpletons of the Labour Party, the Irish citizens are different.

And if they simply walk away from Labour, then no matter how effectively the Labour leader bunkers down, he will resemble a man shouting in an empty room.

Increasingly it looks as though Gilmore's fate will resemble the poor bull in the Spanish bullring which, in a kinder world, would be taken out in one blow.

Gilmore instead must stagger around the bloody sand of the political bullring for a prolonged period of time as the bullfighters plunge little lances into his sagging shoulders. Each will wound, but not fatally; or, worse still, not fatally for a long time, until our leader falls to his knees.

The fear within Labour will be that by the time Gilmore reaches that point, there will be no party left to save.

Sunday Independent

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