Bailout exit single biggest achievement in 2013, says Gilmore

Government remains determined to complete the recovery agenda

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore: “I think the fortunes of the Labour Party are bound up in the progress we are making” towards restoring the State’s fortunes. Photograph: Frank Miller

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore: “I think the fortunes of the Labour Party are bound up in the progress we are making” towards restoring the State’s fortunes. Photograph: Frank Miller

Tue, Dec 24, 2013, 01:00

This time last year Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore gave a very upbeat interview to this newspaper about the year ahead: 2013, he said, would be a turning point for the Government and for the party he leads, Labour, in which it could plan for the first time for a “post-recession Ireland”.

It seemed overly optimistic at the time.

Colm Keaveney had just crossed the Rubicon, bringing the number of defecting parliamentarians to six. Labour was seen to have come out second best to Fine Gael in the argument on introducing a higher rate of USC in the budget for those earning more than €100,000.

The March deadline was looming for a €6 billion payment to honour the Anglo promissory note. And within a short time, Labour would get a terrible trouncing in the Meath East byelection.

However, after a poor start, 2013 is arguably the best of Labour’s three years in Government, albeit all of these things have to be seen in relative terms.

A deal was struck on the promissory note. In addition, Labour Minister Brendan Howlin – against the odds, it has to be said – secured agreement with public service employees in the Haddington Road agreement. For the Labour Party, the enactment of abortion legislation reflecting the X-case judgment and agreement on a referendum on gay marriage achieved two core targets for a party that is more identifiable these days by its liberal outlook than its socialism (or to be more accurate, social democracy).

The exit from the EU-ECB- IMF bailout was also a hugely significant (and symbolic) moment. Vice-president of the European Commission Olli Rehn also helpfully commented that, in retrospect, the blanket bank guarantee was the wrong option, allowing Labour to trumpet to Sinn Féin and others that it was the only party opposed to it.

Of course, the party has compromised

in Coalition and has failed the stress test on cleaving to principles applied by some of its own supporters. Thus, its support base has fallen far more when compared to that of Fine Gael.

Of all the parties, Labour will face into the 2014 local and European elections with most trepidation. Still, there is a sense that a corner has been turned.

Perhaps one sign of this is that there is far less urgent talk these days of the Tánaiste needing to shuffle himself from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The interview takes place in Gilmore’s attractive office in Iveagh House, where he begins by putting 2013 in context.

“We were conscious coming into 2013 that there were a number of big hurdles that we needed to jump. One was in the early part of the year – the promissory note.

“We were facing into a situation that not only was the promissory note for 2013 to be paid in March, there were two promissory notes (the one from 2012 was deferred) and we had to pay over €6 billion to a dead bank.”

Gilmore says exiting the bailout was the biggest achievement and remembers very distinctly doing an interview with French news agency AFP in Paris soon after the Coalition came to power and bond yields were “going off the Richter Scale”.

“They said, you don’t have a prayer of exiting by 2013. Back then, even though I was making the case, there was an element of doubt in my own mind,” says the Labour leader.

On criticism that post-bailout strategy was too scant and too vague, he

says it was never intended to be a document of detail, rather one of overall strategy. He says individual elements that comprise the strategy will be very detailed and instances two policies as examples: the action plan on jobs and pathways to work.

The Tánaiste says there will be self-assessment models as the plan is implemented. But it is clear they will be different to the manner in which adherence to the troika’s memorandum of understanding was assessed in a public way each quarter.

For Gilmore the ultimate test will be a simple one: “How many extra people have got into employment? Have people been able to advance their own wellbeing?”

Does his optimism for an improving economy extend to his own party? He is clearly relying on a changed economic landscape in 2016.

“I look to the electoral health of the party and always want to do well and better in subsequent elections I have a bit of form on this.

“I think the fortunes of the Labour Party are bound up in the progress we are making. We inherited a terrible mess. We have had to turn it around. It has not been easy on people and families. It has not been easy on my party in Government.

“It has not been an easy period. We have always been determined to see it through. People when they cast their votes in 2016, I believe they will do it fairly and will give us a fair hearing.”

He says the Labour Party needs to set out the vision for the future and see where the country is going as the economy improves.

“I think we have to continue to look at what needs to be done in terms of greater economic equality and economic distribution in the post-recession period.

“The people who made the sacrifices have now got to be the people who gain from that and benefit from that.”

The Labour leader says he is confident of the prospects, but is also realistic and knows the 2014 midterm elections will be challenging.

He points to 2009 as the best election for Labour to date, but says he is confident the party can do well next year.