On the campaign trail with Eamon Gilmore
Harry McGee speaks to Gilmore as he emerges ‘unscathed’ from Kinnegad canvassing
It may come as a shock but Eamon Gilmore canvassed a housing estate yesterday and emerged from the experience almost unscathed.
The Labour Party leader went to a housing estate in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, called to about two dozen houses and was not bawled at, had no doors slammed in his face, heard not a whisper of criticism. Flanked by the party’s candidate in Midlands North West Lorraine Higgins and the Longford West-Meath byelection candidate Denis Leonard, Gilmore breezed through the estate.
Now, it must be said it was midday and only four people answered their doors. One of them was not Irish-born (and did not have a vote). In another, there were hellos with a mother and a little child and not much else. The discussion in another house centred around the issue and seriousness of of Lyme’s disease. And in the final house, Gilmore did ask a young parent about her issues. She replied that they were windmills and the withdrawal of discretionary medical cards. The Tánaiste went over this week’s (very belated) decision to review the withdrawals and agreed it had been poorly handled. Leonard, a likeable sunny-side-up kind of person, was able to give a good spiel on Labour’s approach to wind energy.
So it wasn’t really illustrative of Labour’s experience on canvas. Neither was it really any kind of microcosm. In truth, it was a slightly elongated photo opportunity and nothing like a full canvass. Still, Labour were able to run the gauntlet of a housing estate (even in a relatively safe area for it) and show that the party and Gilmore were not being eaten alive by angry citizens.
There is a widespread assumption abroad among commentators and the electorate alike that Labour will get a mauling in the election. And they expect its candidates to get the same short shrift while canvassing as Fianna Fáil and the Greens did in 2011.
The atmosphere has changed since 2011. Then, the State was at a nadir, at the bottom of a trough of despondency. The situation, and mood, may still not be great but they have both improved markedly since then. Sure, there is anger at the Government but it is muted rather than open, with a sentiment of indifference rather than naked hostility.
And so four doors are answered but you can see there are people in a good few of the other houses who deliberately don’t come to the door, or pull down the blinds. And later as we walk the short distance into the village of Kinnegad, Gilmore is buttonholed by a woman, Seona Keogh, whose husband is a public servant and has had to endure a whole series of cutbacks.
When she puts that to Gilmore, he engages with her for a long while, patiently. His explanation: the Government inherited a mess and everybody needed to make sacrifices in order to get the economy and country back on a steady keel (and he makes an outward gesture of ‘calm’ with his hands to reinforce it). Now, with an improving economic situation, the Government can address issues of equality, he says.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Walsh gives an answer that illustrates the complexity and volatility of the political landscape right now. She voted Labour at the last election, feels let down by the party and inclined to vote for somebody else. But her conversation with Gilmore had given her some reassurance. The only thing she knows with certainty, she says, is that she will never vote for Fianna Fáil again, though she voted for them in the past.
And so it seems there are degrees of betrayal.
But that said, there is no getting away from the sense of betrayal former supporters have in relation to the party. Gilmore partly acknowledges it but is adamant that the Cassandras are wrong, that the party won’t suffer quite as badly as has been predicted. Higgins is a doughty campaigner and her leader says she might have a chance of taking a seat (a very slim one) in MNW. He also insists the last seat in Dublin is going to be a straight fight between Labour’s Emer Costello and Fianna Fáil’s Mary Fitzpatrick (although Eamon Ryan is also in the mix).
Gilmore, the private person, is unshowy, modest, a little on the quiet side even. It’s a marked difference to the public performer who is a master at instant indignation and who rigidly defends the line adopted.
In truth, he is at his best when scrapping it out toe-to-toe in public with a political opponent. That’s why he was effective in opposition. Or why he was so good during the referendum campaigns where his verbal pugilism had a fair old whack.
By contrast, in the everyday humdrum business of government, especially when the Coalition puts on the ‘united front’ show, he can be bland and uninspiring. That kind of ‘partnership’ theme can work against a smaller party, where there is a perception of inequality of influence. After the Troika came into town, Brian Cowen kept on referring to Ireland working with its “partners” in Europe and in the IMF. Each time he said it, he reconfirmed the country’s serf status.
It’s not to say that Labour and Fine Gael should always be rowing because that can quickly become monotonous. But there’s an argument for more assertion and more awkwardness from the junior partner, and a bit more public passion in defending core values.
We saw that in droves from Gilmore yesterday, at the stand-up interview in Kinnegad, and on Newstalk with Pat Kenny earlier in the day.
He delivered a few very effective lines yesterday, and with fire in the belly: “I believe that on Friday when people sit down with their ballot papers and they look at what’s at stake here - the future of their cities, the future of their counties, the future of their local communities - I think they will remember that it is the Labour Party that has the best record in local Government, has never been found wanting, has never been in anybody’s pocket,” he said yesterday.
It was strong stuff but you sense it might have been uttered a little too late, when the party’s backs were against the wall. Sure it’s a mid-term or second-tier election. Despite the calm of Kinnegad yesterday, despite the lack of antagonism, despite the defiance of Gilmore’s prose, you still suspect this weekend’s events will have serious repercussions for Labour, will lead to a lot of difficult soul-searching about its continued role in Government.