Labour's volatility has reached level of serious threat to Coalition's future
The Labour Party has had many splits in its history. In the 1950s it divided into two parties. In later decades, its involvement in coalitions gave rise to monumental internal struggles and, in the early 1980s, even led to the defection of a Labour Party leader to Fine Gael.
The current divisions in the Labour Party are, however, the biggest threat to party cohesion for decades. The volatility in Labour and its environs is also a significant threat to the cohesion of the Government itself. The odds are shortening on the lifespan of this Coalition.
Tommy Broughan’s loss of the party whip was not surprising. Willie Penrose’s resignation as a minister of state arose from a particular constituency issue. Patrick Nulty was only a couple of months in Dáil Éireann when he jumped ship but even during the byelection he had been semi-detached from party policy.
The two more recent resignations are of an entirely different order. Róisín Shortall was a contender for a Cabinet position when Labour went back into the Government in February 2011.
Instead she struggled for 18 months as minister of state in the Department of Health seeking to implement Labour policy in primary care. When Minister for Health James Reilly undermined her, she got little support from her Cabinet-level colleagues and ultimately resigned.
In so doing, she gave up her ministerial pay, abandoned additional pension entitlements and refused to take up the out-of-office payment. Freedom of Information requests since Shortall resigned have more than confirmed her version of how the reordering of primary care centres was driven by Reilly’s political and constituency considerations.
Colm Keaveney surprised many by voting against the harsher provisions of the Social Welfare Bill. Once, if a deputy wished to oppose a budget they voted against measures on budget night itself.
When Keaveney did not do so he was taunted on Twitter and elsewhere for talking tough on social protection but not following through. On Wednesday night, he was largely silent and it seemed the Government had got the budget through without defections. The next day when it came to the precise provisions about respite care and child benefit, Keaveney voted with the Opposition.
Keaveney cannot be dismissed as one of the usual hotheads. He is a thoughtful, if intense, politician. He engaged extensively with Labour Ministers about the budget, at one stage, according to reports, producing spreadsheets showing the adverse effect of some of the proposals. When his representations to Joan Burton did not lead to changes in the Social Welfare Bill, he voted against it.
Keaveney also holds a significant position within the party as chairman. Like the leader and deputy leader, he is directly elected to that position by the party membership, in his case at party conference. He won the position despite the opposition of the party hierarchy, who would have preferred either Derek Keating or Brian O’Shea.