Keaveney had little influence in Labour
Long-term problems for Gilmore
Colm Keaveney TD photographed outside the Dáil after he voted against the controversial social welfare cuts. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
While the departure of Labour Party chairman Colm Keaveney is a setback for the party it is also a reflection of just how little influence he had within the organisation.
His resignation, coming hot on the heels of the departure of Patrick Nulty, shows that there is a solid majority in the parliamentary party for remaining within the Coalition for the rest of the current Dáil term.
In previous decades parliamentary party rebels were able to muster a considerable degree of support within the party and make things difficult for the leadership during periods of coalition government.
As chairman of the party during the 1980s, the current President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was a thorn in the side of the party leadership, and came close at times to forcing the party out of coalition.
Higgins and others like Emmet Stagg attempted to take control of the party but they remained within the fold even after internal defeats.
As chairman Higgins commanded widespread support among the party membership and annual conferences became a gladiatorial contest between the leadership and the diverse group represented by the chairman which included a significant number of TDs.
In the current Dáil the dissenting group is much smaller, and Mr Keaveney received little backing from his parliamentary colleagues for his decision to vote against the Government on last year’s Social Welfare Bill.
Made life difficult
While he retained his position as chairman and could have made life difficult for party leader Eamon Gilmore at the party’s national conference in the autumn if he ran for the position again, Keaveney’s departure is a signal that his potential level of support for getting another term as chairman was limited.
Nonetheless, his departure and that of Nulty reflects a growing uneasiness in Labour at the negative impact being in coalition is having on the party’s popularity.
Two other TDs, Róisín Shortall and Tommy Broughan, are also outside the party whip and are unlikely to apply for readmission in the lifetime of the current Dáil.
The big question is whether they too will sever their ties with the party.
Another TD, Willie Penrose, also lost the party whip, but he has indicated a desire to return and it seems only a matter of time before he is readmitted to the parliamentary party.
MEP Nessa Childers is also semi-detached from the party, while Senator James Heffernan is in a similar position.
The cynics in the party suggest that Keaveney and others are setting themselves up to run as Independents at the next election as the party label may no longer be the vote winner it was at the last election.
However, there is no disguising the scale of the problem facing the party as it attempts to cope with the inevitable unpopularity that arises from being in government.
The decision of the Australian Labour Party to switch leaders in an effort to avoid an election disaster in the autumn shows what politicians are capable of in a crisis.
The example of Fianna Fáil’s decision to change leaders in the crisis days of January 2011 is another example of what can happen when the political pressure becomes intolerable.
Gilmore’s position as leader will not be affected by Keaveney’s departure, but a real challenge to his position before the next election cannot be ruled out.