Eamon Gilmore: ‘I never worked as hard as I did in the past three years’

Labour leader is proud of what went right and reflective about what went wrong

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore checking his phone at the Department of Foreign Affairs yesterday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore checking his phone at the Department of Foreign Affairs yesterday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

It is before noon. Eamon Gilmore is nursing a glass of water in his office in Iveagh House on St Stephen’s Green. You couldn’t describe the atmosphere as being that of the dressing room of a defeated All-Ireland team, but it is ever-so-slightly muted.

This will only be Gilmore’s office until July 4th, when he formally steps down as Tánaiste, Minster for Foreign Affairs and leader of the Labour Party. He is in effect working out his notice.

As we are speaking, Alex White and a coterie of Labour parliamentarians are walking across Rosie Hackett Bridge. White has just announced his candidacy for the leadership. For Gilmore, politically, the baton has already been passed.

In an interview with The Irish Times, he is relaxed and reflective, more candid and open with his views than the slightly guarded persona he maintained in office.

In the month that remains, he has said he will concentrate on two areas within his portfolio: the opportunity to make progress in the Northern talks as part of the Haass project, as well as the plight of the undocumented Irish in the US. “I will gave that one more shot,” he says with emphasis.

A week ago, Gilmore saw the highpoint of 2011 and his party winning a historic 37 seats being undone by an electoral meltdown. The percentage support figures told a tale: 19 per cent in 2011; barely 7 per cent this year.

He could see his time was up and he had to go. The unexpected decision was made over the course of a difficult weekend.

The motion of no confidence in him tabled by seven TDs and one Senator was unrelated to his decision, he maintains. It was drafted after he had made up his mind. Sure, his leadership was damaged by the elections, but it is moot now whether others in the party would have rallied around White and the younger TDs who put their names to it.

‘Don’t hold grudges’

As to his feelings on those who were behind the motion, he is relatively stoic: “Well, they have all talked to me about it and as far as I am concerned it is over and done with. It’s more important that we move on from it. I don’t hold grudges, we move on.”

Former leaders Ruairí Quinn and Pat Rabbitte have had careers post-leadership. Gilmore also envisages some future role but says it is too early. “The new leader of the party should have the absolute freedom to make the decision. I’m not going to seek to influence that. I’m not going to talk to the new leader or ask for something on my own behalf. They have to make those calls independently.”

A huge difficulty for Labour, and for him personally, in Government was some of the pre-election slogans and promises, including “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”. When it is put to Gilmore that the party took a hammering due to over-promises, he responds: “I intend to do some reflection. I do intend to reflect on my entire time as leader of the party over a seven-year period, including the lead-in to the general election. I may write about it at some stage.

“People should look at the totality of what we were saying . . . I was on The Late Late Show in the run-in to the election and said we would not be able to reverse the cuts and adjustments that Fianna Fáil had made.”

‘Crisis decision-making’

When it is suggested to him that he was never as comfortable or effective in his role as a leader in Government as he was as a leader in opposition, he demurs, suggesting the achievements of this Government might not be fully realised: “You have to look at the job you do in government. It was not just government being different to opposition. We were in government in a crisis. A lot of what we had to do was crisis decision-making and the priority was to get us out of the crisis.

“The thing I am proudest of is that we took responsibility at a time of crisis and we took the country out of crisis. The commentary at the time was that we could not get out of a bailout and there would be a second [bailout plan]. We renegotiated the terms of the bailout. That was what I meant by it’s Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way . . . We did succeed in getting the interest rate down and the end of the promissory note.”

That said, they did not butter any parsnips with ordinary people. “The difficulty is that success was not felt by people. On the doors they said it was fine but told you how their household budget was down and talked about property tax and water charges and the USC [universal social charge].”

That was the rub. Gilmore contends the State is on a road to recovery and that if the route advocated by the likes of Sinn Féin were adopted Ireland would be on the road to ruin.

The next phase will be translating the recovery into people’s lives. “I am confident that when the Labour Party contests the next general election it will be in a better place. That comes back to my decision over the weekend. A new leader will be in a better position to see that through.”

Judgment of history

He maintains that history will judge the first three years of this Government more kindly than the elections of last weekend, and he himself believes the Government was successful in what it set out to do. “The financial and economic crisis we faced was horrendous and I have said before there were many times in the early stages of government that I feared that the State was going to go under.

“We did not have the money. There were not people out there who would lend us money other than the harsh conditions of the troika programme.”

He continues: “I have always worked hard during everything I have done. I probably have a reputation as a hard worker. I never worked as hard as I did in the past three years.

“The greatest satisfaction is going into government and taking on that responsibility and at a time of enormous crisis entering into the bailout, to get recovery, doing reforms and building a platform for the future.”

Asked about the threat Sinn Féin poses the Labour Party, he says: “The immediate question they have to answer is what they are for. They say they will abolish USC, property, water charges. But that’s €5 billion. That’s a quarter of the social welfare budget. How do they square that?”

There was criticism that Foreign Affairs and Trade was not suitable for the leader of the junior Government party. Gilmore does not agree. “If you remember, when we went into government our problem was largely international. We had a reputation problem that needed to be addressed . . .

“I am very satisfied with the job we have done and that the country’s reputation has been restored. I am also glad we have been able to maintain faith with the poorest people in the world, and managed to retain our aid programme.”

Highlights of his career? “The 2011 election and standing beside President Higgins as his election was announced.”

Labour needs to defend its achievements: page 13