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Michael Brennan: Luxurious Carton House is setting for Labour’s pre-budget battle

CARTON House is a luxurious setting for Labour TDs to come and steel themselves for the Budget battle.

The former stately home was once used as a location by Stanley Kubrick for his film Barry Lyndon – but Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore will be trying to avoid a repeat of its famous pistol duel.

Yet there is plenty of scope at the two-day “think in” for political shoot-outs.

The property tax, the Croke Park deal and the abolition of the Seanad are just three of the most contentious issues.

Mr Gilmore will be trying to generate as much unity and consensus as possible with his opening address in the afternoon.

This speech will be in public – which gives him a chance to get his message across to Labour voters as well. But the rest of the “think in” will take behind closed doors as usual.

Labour has attracted some internal criticism for choosing the four star Carton House hotel – but it does have the advantage of being a “protest unfriendly” location.

It is located on the outskirts of Maynooth, which makes it harder for protesters to get to. The entire estate which dates back more than 700 years to the Earls of Kildare is surrounded by an imposing stone wall. And the hotel itself is located a half a mile away from the main estate entrance – meaning that protesters expected from the Socialist Workers Party will be unable to make themselves heard.

The tone for the “think in” has already been set by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin – who said it was about preparing the party for the “hard slog” ahead.

He made it clear after his arrival in Carton House that the Croke Park deal would remain in place for the next 18 months as long as the public sector unions played their part in delivering reforms.

That is exactly what Labour TDs want to hear – because they are depending on the votes of public sector workers for their re-election.

Mr Howlin declared that the Croke Park deal was not unchangeable – but his focus is going to be on seeking further reforms rather than tearing up the deal and starting all over again.

He will be talking to Labour TDs and Senators at 4.15pm about the Budget and economic recovery.

That brings us onto the thorny issue of social welfare cuts – €500m from a budget of €20bn.

And the person responsible for doing this is Social Protection Minister Joan Burton – a favourite with the party faithful.

She is addressing the Labour parliamentary party this afternoon about her plans to change the social welfare system.

“The Department of Social Protection have been targeted in the deal with the IMF for very significant reductions in expenditure – in excess of €500m this year.

That’s a big number but we had a very big number last year as well,” she said.

So Labour TDs would do well to enjoy their time in Carton House, which was designed for the FitzGerald family by the famous architect Richard Castle in 1739.

Richard Castle also designed Leinster House, but their brief respite is sure to come to an end when they return there next week.