Major blow to Gilmore and Labour leadership

Thu, Sep 27, 2012, 01:00

THE DECISION by Róisín Shortall to resign as Minister for State for Health and from the Labour parliamentary party whip came as a bolt from the blue last night.

Shortly before 7pm, the first rumours appeared on Twitter, and within minutes Shortall herself had confirmed it with a terse statement.

The deep chilling of her relationship with the party leadership was clear by the manner in which the deed was done. There was no wringing of hands or plaintive pleas. Her resignation was executed with a coolness, and not a little contempt for the leadership. She tendered her resignation to the Taoiseach at midday and did not inform her own leader Eamon Gilmore until the afternoon – and then by email.

Gilmore, who was on a trade mission to New York, had to try to manage the crisis from a distance of 3,000 miles. As the news started filtering out at 7pm, stunned Labour TDs and Senators learned of it from colleagues and through tweets and texts. One senior Labour Minister, walking the corridors, said he had heard of it only three minutes before – and that was at 7.30pm.

The junior political party, facing its single biggest crisis since the Government was formed in February 2011, seemed to be reeling and completely unprepared. At 8.15pm, the party’s whip, the vastly experienced Emmet Stagg, appeared on the plinth to talk to reporters. The object of the exercise was to calm the waters, placate shocked backbench TDs and Senators and try to present it as something less than an all-enveloping crisis.

That he did to a certain extent – he conveyed the official line of “disappointment”, but also had a dig at Shortall for the manner in which she had chosen to go.

She is the fourth member of Labour to have resigned the party whip in the 19 months since it entered Government. While the other three created ripples at the time, none was seen as posing fundamental questions about the party’s role in Government.

Tommy Broughan had lost the whip before, and his left-wing views always made him a favourite for an early departure. Patrick Nulty, who won the byelection in Dublin West, was also on the left of the party. He was only a wet week in the Dáil before he too had lost the whip over budgetary cuts. On the face of it, the resignation of Willie Penrose, the super-junior, looked more serious. But he had long signalled that he would go if Mullingar barracks was closed.

Shortall’s resignation is on a different scale completely. It is reflective of two major fault lines in this Government. The first is that between Fine Gael and Labour over separate policy issues that are incompatible but have been wedged into the programme for government using vague language. The second is the internal crack in the Labour Party between a largely conservative and pragmatic leadership (with a close working relationship with their Fine Gael colleagues) and a more ideological group of backbench TDs – a small number of whom are becoming increasingly vocal about what they see as too much compromise.

The references to health in the programme for government were a good example of the manner in which the parties tried to make their policies co-exist. Fine Gael got most of its manifesto promises on universal health insurance into the programme, while as a quid pro quo Labour’s promise on free primary healthcare for the entire population was also included.

The primary care area was Shortall’s brief in the department and she duly began to draw up plans to make it a reality. Given the economic constraints, she was aware that it would be a gradual and incremental process. And to kick-start it, she succeeded in getting €30 million ringfenced for developing the area this year.

However, some of those funds disappeared when the department began clawing back in an attempt to deal with serious over-runs.

How will her resignation play within her party? There is undoubtedly a rift between her and the senior leadership. However, there was also a huge swell of sympathy for her last night from colleagues.

Politically, the move will put Labour on the back foot and some within the party will question the direction in which Gilmore and the senior Ministers have taken the party.