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'Napoleon' Gilmore may yet seize the day


REAL CONTENDER: Labour leader Eamon Gilmore is eyeing up the Taoieach's job and if his party plays its cards right they could outmanoeuvre Fine Gael in a snap election

REAL CONTENDER: Labour leader Eamon Gilmore is eyeing up the Taoieach's job and if his party plays its cards right they could outmanoeuvre Fine Gael in a snap election

REAL CONTENDER: Labour leader Eamon Gilmore is eyeing up the Taoieach's job and if his party plays its cards right they could outmanoeuvre Fine Gael in a snap election

When Irish politics starts to resemble some malign theatre of the absurd Brian Cowen is generally at the heart of it all.

Still in a world where Brian Lenihan doubles the national debt in a day at least the sight of Cowen getting tough on the public sector from the safety of Japan was amusing.

But the Taoiseach's handling of the IMF blunder was another worrying example of his Calamity James-style capacity to make a bad situation worse.

As Mr Cowen finished his trip with a knowledgeable dissertation about Ireland and Japan's "common love for the pint of stout'' we could be consoled by the precedent where trips by delusional FF leaders to Japan are swiftly followed by elections.

But while Eamon Gilmore certainly believed this should be the case in the Alice in Wonderland of Irish politics things were also getting 'curiouser and curiouser'.

Of course you could hardly blame FF and the Greens for being less than enthused by such a prospect but odd was the kindest word that could be used for Enda Kenny's reluctance to put up his hand and shout 'me!'

The Fine Gael leader might think his apparent belief that a Government that has neither "head nor direction nor mandate'' should be left in office for another three years was clever but in fact it looked more like political cowardice in the line of fire.

By the close of the week the madness had even apparently extended to Labour as Eamon Gilmore, who leads a party of 21 TDs, told the Sunday Independent that he wants to be the next Taoiseach.

But is Gilmore more attuned to reality than we think?

Of course, the most secretive Taoiseach since Haughey will attempt to do everything within his powers to avoid an election in 2009.

But as we edge towards a pauper's grave this Government simply does not have the moral weight to do what needs to be done if the spectre of the IMF is not to become a reality rather than just a figment of RTE's imagination.

Anything from third-level fees to Lenihan's poll tax, Lisbon II, or the massed weight of 120,000 white-collar unemployed workers rushing towards the workhouse could finish them off.

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It may be believed that in a get-rid-of-FF election Fine Gael would be in the box-seat by default.

But now that we live in the sort of times where a black man called Obama can be President of America what's to stop a Labour party leader called Gilmore becoming Taoiseach of Ireland.

The smart people who know about politics will say it's called tradition but in this new age of the breaking of empires tradition just isn't as popular as it used to be.

If Cowen is forced into a general election in 2009 one thing is certain: The most dangerous thing for political parties is the sort of 'defining moment' polls that occurred in 1982, 1992 and 2007.

In 1982, Fine Gael secured a record number of seats based on the promise that they would sort out the economy, they didn't and have never been elected back into office.

After 1992 the electorate watched in a stunned vengeful silence as Dick Spring secured a mandate to put FF out, promptly put 'em straight back in and we all know how that turned out.

The bad news for Fianna Fail is that the defining moment in election 2007 occurred in the final week when an equivocal electorate belatedly succumbed to the promise that the party who squandered the boom could be trusted to guide us through the recession.

If Fianna Fail is called to account in 2009 over their role in busting the economy twice in three decades, the most unpopular Taoiseach in the history of the State will lead the party to a 30-seat loss.

But this does not necessarily mean that Fine Gael will become the biggest party in Irish politics and sweep into office with an obedient Labour rump.

For now Eamon Gilmore may resemble a great general whose sole flaw is the absence of an army but, like Napoleon after the French Revolution, when it comes to the broken battlefield of Irish politics Gilmore has real prospects.

Even during the zenith of Bertie's 'show-time' era of peace and prosperity in 2002 over 32 per cent of the electorate voted for left-wing alternatives. In any upcoming election should Gilmore stamp out Sinn Fein, guillotine the Greens, and annex the Independent vote, Labour would be swiftly in Spring-tide country. The possibilities do not end there, for in any 2009 election the central battleground will not be Cowen or Kenny for Taoiseach.

Instead the irrelevance of the FF option could mean that if Labour plays its cards cleverly enough the great issue of 2009 could be Enda or Gilmore for Taoiseach.

But after Kenny's milk and water performance over public sector reform last week, this could have the same deflationary effect on the Fine Gael currency as Bertie versus Enda. If Labour can exploit the voter's uncertainty about Kenny's capacity it would be poised to become the main beneficiary of FF's lost seats.

The party could expect to win seats in historic Labour strongholds such as Carlow Kilkenny, Tipperary North, Tipperary South, Louth, Kerry North, Dublin North, Dublin South, Dublin North Central and Laois Offaly.

With a real swing it could even secure the luxury of two seats in Mr Gilmore's own constituency of Dun Laoghaire while gains in former two-seat strongholds like Wicklow, Dublin South Central, and Dublin South West would not be impossible.

Such a surge also means the party could be in the hunt in Dublin West, Dublin Central, Galway West, Cork East, Sligo North Leitrim, Cork South West and constituencies such as Cavan Monaghan, Galway East and Limerick West which have a tradition of throwing up maverick results.

The transformation of breakfast-roll man into Victorian workhouse inmate also means those commuter constituencies such as Meath East and West, Dublin North and Kildare North are all real targets for Labour. It is a long shot but if FF are annihilated, Fine Gael deflated and SF emasculated all things are possible to the extent where if FG, Labour and Fianna Fail are all grouped around a narrow band of 45 to 55 seats should Labour secure the support of the dozen Green/SF/Independent dolly-mixture of TDs, Gilmore might have more votes than FG and FF in the voting for the Taoiseach's post.

The Labour leader would still be short of the numbers but if Fine Gael are desperate enough and Gilmore is cunning, Enda might be persuaded to follow the example of Richard Mulcahy in 1948, step aside for the greater good and end Labour's long wait in the ante-room of power.