Keaveney's slow exit is bad news for Gilmore
Colm Keaveney’s Tale of the Unexpected took everyone by surprise.
Except his party leader, who went out of his way to look anything but surprised.
As the Dáil waited with bated breath to see if Labour’s party chairman was going to drag his heavy heart through the Opposition lobby, Eamon Gilmore flicked slowly through the pages of a document, engrossed in its contents.
Far too engrossed, given the events unfolding around him. But the Tánaiste never lifted his head to steal a look.
That might convey the impression that he was bothered. Another defection? No big deal, was the unspoken message. As he said later, Labour will struggle on to restore Ireland’s sovereignity. And when they succeed, the likes of Keaveney will be barred from the celebrations, cast forever in exile by their treasonous actions.
Right to the closing chapter, his party held the line while shipping heavy fire in the Dáil trenches. But if the last week hasn’t been easy, an end was in sight.
Then came the twist. Keaveney finally made good on his fighting words and voted against the Government. The deputy for Galway East had marched his indignation up to the top of the hill on so many occasions, only to slide back down again, few believed he would break ranks on the budget welfare cuts.
It was the vote on the reduction in respite care grants which proved an imposition too far. But during yesterday’s electronic vote, it still took a few seconds before people realised he had pressed the red light.
Colm? Nah, he’ll never do it.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. He came into the chamber well in advance of the vote, sitting in the back row and looking deeply conflicted.
Then again, that wasn’t particularly unusual either. Since he arrived in Leinster House, Keaveney has proved himself partial to theatrics. His heart is tacked to his sleeve as he worries about the future of the party he loves.
The atmosphere changed instantly in the chamber when the defection was confirmed.
Some of Keaveney’s colleagues – mostly the new intake, we didn’t see any of the Ministers offer soothing words – shook his hand.
When Fianna Fáil called for a traditional walk-through vote, Colm sat in his place, looking shell-shocked. His erstwhile parliamentary party colleagues had already skipped up the steps to the lobbies, leaving him with Róisín Shorthall, Tommy Broughan and Patrick Nulty, three of Labour’s growing band of five exiles.
Finally, he rose and made his way to vote, turning right and heading away from his party. He was sandwiched between Gerry Adams and Peadar Tóibín of Sinn Féin, with Tommy and Róisín walking behind. He looked thoroughly miserable. One more vote, one more walk through. He seemed more relaxed at the second time of asking.
The Bill passed, the Opposition stampeded to the plinth to commend Keaveney and lambast the Tánaiste for not following his noble lead.
Fine Gaelers kept their heads down. As the senior partners in this Coalition, they don’t want to be dragged into Labour’s predicament, or attract attention to themselves for the major part they had to play in the budget.
Keaveney gave interviews. He did what he did so he could go back home and look his constituents in the eye.
“I’ve been in great turmoil over the last number of days with respect to the scale of the adjustments” he said. “This is about doing what I believe is the right thing to do.”
Labour’s parliamentary party held a meeting in the wake of his departure. “Emotional, but cathartic” is how one deputy described it. We’d hate to see the scenes if something really big happened.
Colm, should he choose, could be a major thorn in the leadership’s side. He continues as party chairman – voted in by the party grassroots – and intends to stay on. There may be trouble ahead ...And if it doesn’t come from Keaveney, the Opposition has plenty of ammunition. They see Labour as the Coalition’s weak link, struggling with its conscience. They see Fine Gael as just reverting to type.
During Leaders’ Questions, the Tánaiste was given a torrid time by Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald.
Gilmore’s stock reply to both was to accuse them of having hard necks.
“And you have a soft belly,” retorted FF’s Timmy Dooley.
They tormented Labour with the hard evidence of their high-flown election promises. Mary Lou went as far as to call Gilmore a liar.
Leas Ceann Comhairle Michael Kitt told her you can’t say “liar” in the House. “There, there are other words, like, I mean there are other words that can be used...” “Untruth perhaps?” ventured Mary Lou. “Eh, yes, I, eh...” spluttered Michael.
“Well. Then let me withdraw the offensive term lie and say untruth ... porky pie ... Pinocchio!” she dripped, swooping her finger from her face to signify a big, long nose. It’s going to be a grim weekend in the constituencies.