Upbeat mood at Labour event a far cry from last year
Eamon Gilmore’s speech showed where Labour is pitching itself post-crisis
Calmer affair: Labour leader Eamon Gilmore receives a standing ovation at his party’s annual conference in Killarney on Saturday night. Photograph: Don MacMonagle.
It was never going to match Militant Tendency, but the poor showing for the only breakaway meeting of the weekend showed how comfortable this conference was for Labour and its leadership.
The “Campaign for Labour Policies” group sent an email to the media announcing it would hold a fringe meeting in a separate hotel on Saturday on the subject of “reclaiming the Labour Party”.
They were to gather outside the conference centre before walking down to the meeting, and there were some expectations of a substantial march of the disaffected.
However, any fears of a mass walkout were quickly dispelled when a group of only five – initially mistaken for people huddled for a cigarette – headed down the road and away from the INEC in Killarney.
The last party conference in Galway in April 2012 was marked by violent clashes, with delegates locked inside as gardaí used pepper spray and made arrests at a protest outside.
That conference also saw Colm Keaveney elected as chairman, effectively one in the leadership’s eye from the members.
But if last year was the “forest of placards” that Eamon Gilmore warned party members they would face as they prepared to enter Government, then this conference perhaps offered a glimpse of the better times he promised would come if his party toughed out the Coalition.
It was a happier and calmer affair, one of the main reasons for which was the absence – apart from a few grassroots members – of a disgruntled rump criticising the leadership and the party’s role in Government.
Most people spoke of Labour’s achievements and of how things would be worse if they weren’t there to keep an eye on Fine Gael.
When Mr Keaveney tweeted about the X-Factor on Saturday night as delegates gathered in the conference hall to hear the leader’s speech, some party figures rolled their eyes and muttered that the Galway East TD was trying to “make himself relevant”.
The party’s core has hardened, and, while you can never be certain, further defections in the lifetime of the Government now seem unlikely.
Whoever was going to jump has done so already, and the TDs and senators who have remained aren’t going to cry over them any more.
Events haven’t been very good to Labour since it entered Government exactly 1,000 days ago today, but a couple of events in the run-up to the weekend’s conference transformed the mood of the party.
The bailout exit is in sight, employment figures released last week exceeded the expectations of almost everyone, and recent polls show Labour support inching upwards.
Mr Gilmore was talking about the party as much as he was about the country when he said during his televised address: “These past few years have been tough and we still have a distance to travel, but for the first time since the crisis began, we can dare to hope again.”
SIPTU researcher Loraine Mulligan, seen as the leadership’s candidate, won the contest to succeed Mr Keaveney as chairperson, narrowly beating Ray Kavanagh, the former general secretary, who had been tipped to win.
All in all, Mr Gilmore could be happy with how the conference went, even though his speech was typical of a party leader half way through the lifetime of a government.
There was nothing very new and no major announcements, but the shape of what Labour expects in the second half of this Government, free of the bailout, was being firmed up.
Mr Gilmore again pitched his party at the “hard pressed families” – quickly becoming Labour’s equivalent of Bertie Ahern’s “hard workin’ man” – and spoke of the little things it will do to help them.
There was a hint of a possible tax cut, a hope the Government “will be able to relieve somewhat the burden of taxation on working people” and more traditional Labour issues such as decent wages.
“Full employment is our new economic goal, but it’s not about having any old job. We want our people to have good jobs, that can generate a living income. We want people who work hard, to earn enough to be able to support their family, and give their children the best possible start in life.”
He also spoke of looking forward to “post-recession Ireland”, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard that phrase from the Tánaiste.
He used it last year, but the idea was never fully fleshed out. His speech at this year’s conference, as well as the message crafted by Labour in recent weeks, shows where it is pitching itself post-crisis.
And perhaps the conference offered Labour a glimpse that a calmer, post-recession politics might be better for it than the tough past few years.