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Labour will always struggle while the whole is less than the sum of its parts


Eamon Gilmore TD will not run in the next election

Eamon Gilmore TD will not run in the next election

Pic Frank Mc Grath

Eamon Gilmore TD will not run in the next election

Eamon Gilmore led a party of 37 deputies into the Dáil in 2011. It was a record: almost four times the party's normal representation.

Ever since, and notwithstanding the current improvement in the economy, it has been pretty much downhill all the way.

The departing leader has a sense of humour, though it mostly goes unnoticed by the people who listen to his well-constructed but unexciting speeches. He has explained his decision to leave politics by saying that "I wanted to finish the game, but I was carrying a lot of injuries."

A lot of injuries, indeed. They began with his declaration that the country - in effect, the incoming government - had a choice of tackling the recession in "Frankfurt's way or Labour's way". This choice never existed. It would always be Frankfurt's way.

He did have another option, but there is no evidence that he, or anybody else, gave it serious consideration - or any consideration at all.

He could have taken Labour into opposition and let Fine Gael form a single-party minority government. That would have been a dashing move, but a dangerous one. He would have been accused of risking instability and worse. When things went wrong, as things always do, he would have taken more blame than Fine Gael.

And the move would have shocked a political world which clings fervently to a tradition that Irish politicians love but seldom or never seek to justify.

They hold, unanimously, that achieving office is the only worthy objective for an Irish politician. This means, among other things, that if the "right numbers" exist, a minor party should grab whatever cabinet and junior positions are available and feed on whatever crumbs the senior partners choose to throw them.

Over the last four years and more, we have observed an object lesson in how this system works.

Fine Gael has implemented "Frankfurt's way" with enthusiasm. The demands of the EC-ECB-IMF troika on the financial side have been conceded almost to the letter.

Labour has had to make do with advances on the Liberal Agenda. These have lately culminated in the overwhelming success of the Yes vote in the same-sex marriage referendum. But will this be translated into votes at the coming general election?

Fine Gael ministers evidently think it will not. They have continued, in plain view of the public, with one of the oldest tricks in the game: tax cuts, spending increases, "restoration" of pre-crash public sector income scales.

It may work. Very likely, it will work. But it involves big risks.

This week the Fiscal Advisory Council issued a sharp warning. It said that the Government has no plan, is too optimistic about economic growth, and is breaking the budgetary rules laid down by the European Union. This last one could lead to punishment in the form of fines - heavy fines.

The Government's reaction was predictable. In this newspaper yesterday, Thomas Molloy described it as "bland indifference".

But bland indifference is not palatable to an organisation more influential than the FAC.

We often talk about the Troika's departure from Dublin. How many of us know that it never really went away? Its representatives come back every few weeks to discuss progress (or lack of progress) with Government officials.

Progress on what? Well, for example, progress on reform of the legal and medical professions. Throughout the worst of the Great Recession, while the Troika praised the Government for austerity measures, it raised the reform question again and again. It still keeps on raising it - with increasing anxiety and some plain speaking.

And unlike the Government, the Troika does not forget the context in this Europe with which we so frequently find ourselves at odds.

A supposed zone of peace and prosperity is really a nervous continent beset by terrible troubles whose outcome nobody can predict.

Greece this week came closer than ever to the brink. The civil war in Ukraine continued. A far-right government in Hungary threatened to reintroduce the death penalty, something forbidden by the EU. Elections in Italy brought ambiguous results, leaving Matteo Renzi (probably the country's last best hope) to pick up the pieces.

And David Cameron stepped up his campaign to reform (his word) the European Union, a project which, as we all fear, could result in Britain leaving the EU.

This is no time for bland indifference. It is a time to proceed intelligently and with the greatest caution. It is a time to remind ourselves that we have completed, at best, only the beginning of true recovery.

It is also a time for Irish politicians - such few of them as are capable of thinking for themselves - to read some history books. Heaven knows, they have plenty of spare time.

If they read the books (which need go back no farther than the end of the Second World War in 1945), they will learn about a period of astonishing change: in politics, economics, technology, social systems and even in the conduct of individuals. They will see that the questions which obsess us in Ireland are trifling if not wholly irrelevant.

One of those questions, now almost forgotten, sums it up.

Eamon Gilmore was one of the architects of the Labour-Democratic Left merger - some called it "the reverse takeover" - in 1999. Optimists thought the move marked a step on the road to an Irish version of social democracy.

Fianna Fáil took a more hard-headed view. They asked, "can the whole be less than the sum of the parts?" The answer was Yes.

Only in Ireland, it seems, can we defy the laws of arithmetic as well as politics and economics.

Irish Independent