Labour: a lot done, much to do
The Labour Party conference, which takes place this weekend, comes after the most successful general election result in its history when in February 2011 it overtook Fianna Fail to become the second-largest political party in the State.
Unfortunately, while Labour had a successful general election 14 months ago, its coalition partner Fine Gael had an even more successful outcome. It won 76 seats, more than twice as many as Labour, displacing its long-time rival Fianna Fail as Ireland's largest political party.
Indeed, had it chosen to do so, Fine Gael had the parliamentary numbers to govern alone. However, party leader Enda Kenny decided, wisely in our opinion, that given the gravity of the economic crisis, the national interest would be best served if his party governed in coalition with Labour, the two largest parties coming together to form what is effectively a "national Government".
During the general election Fine Gael and Labour went head-to-head on the issue of taxation. Labour wanted a third, higher, income tax rate. Fine Gael promised no increase in tax rates. The general election result eloquently demonstrates who won that particular debate.
Still, it's not difficult to have some sympathy for Labour's predicament. Despite the most successful general election result in its history, its position in this Government is not as strong as in some of the seven coalitions it has formed with Fine Gael since 1948. While Mr Kenny has been careful not to rub Labour's nose in it, Fine Gael needs its junior partner far less than Labour needs Fine Gael.
But Labour should not despair. The performances of its ministers in government have in general been far more assured than some of their Fine Gael counterparts. Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn and Social Protection Minister Joan Burton are serious, heavyweight politicians, playing at the top of their game.
By comparison, with the exception of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan, the performance of most of the Fine Gael ministers has drawn a lot of criticism, much of which could have been avoided. While Environment Minister Phil Hogan has justifiably been taken to task for the household charge and septic tank registration fee debacles, the truth is that many of the other Fine Gael ministers have also struggled.
The challenge facing Labour leader Eamon Gilmore is to translate the party's qualitative superiority over Fine Gael into tangible gains for his party. So far Mr Gilmore, who has struggled to replicate his barnstorming ways in opposition, has failed to do so.