Triumphant Labour emerges from wilderness of opposition

Mon, Apr 16, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The economy remains on life support, but political life is sweet for the Coalition partner, writes DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN

WHAT A difference two years makes: Labour returned to the City of the Tribes for its party conference, but it was more than a rerun of 2010.

Back then the party was marking 13 long years in opposition, now it has put in 13 months on the Government benches.

The worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition: the phrase is attributed to Mary Harney, but the sentiment would be shared by most politicians. Labour now has five full Ministers and six ministerial posts, or “half-cars”. Political life is sweet.

It would be even sweeter for them if the economy was off life-support.

Two years ago in Galway, Joan Burton warned that Labour would be taking office in an era of “lean years and scorched earth”.

As they say in the west, there was “a gradle of truth in that”. But Senator Ivana Bacik’s applause-winning reference last time to Joan Burton as “our next minister for finance” turned out to be incorrect and she got the poisoned chalice of social protection instead.

Labour’s critics say that when it comes to going into government, the party always wrestles with its conscience – and wins. But an eloquent case for the party’s marriage of convenience with Fine Gael was made by the Ictu union’s general secretary David Begg, who listed what he saw as the party’s achievements.

These include: reversing the cut in the minimum wage; blocking the break-up of the ESB; preventing a “fire-sale” of State assets, and keeping the portfolios of social protection, education and public service reform in Labour hands and away from those right-wing Fine Gael types.

However, to borrow a phrase, there is “a lot done, more to do”. Eamon Gilmore spelt out the challenges in the starkest terms during his keynote speech, given against the dramatic backdrop of a red Labour rose on a huge sky-blue screen.

Unlike the last time, he didn’t have to be placed in close proximity to an array of young Labourites instead of his well-matured parliamentary party – the current crop of TDs cover all age groups.

If he tires of politics, the Labour leader has an alternative career as a motivational speaker: a secular version of preachers like Billy Graham or Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

There’s a good time coming, was his opening gambit, but he quickly moved on to the bad news. Having campaigned on the slogan, “It’s Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”, he was obviously able to confirm rapidly that the German city had the upper hand.

Given the dysfunctional nature of the outgoing regime, there is reason to believe Gilmore when he said: “There were times in those first few weeks when I feared that we would topple over the cliff, and that it might take generations to recover.”

Thirteen months later he claims the economy has been pulled back from the edge. “We will succeed and our country will recover.”

He made much of the fact that Labour has emerged with such a clean sheet from the tribunals and its palm remains uncrossed with silver. This was a constant theme at the conference and has justifiably become part of Labour’s stock political message.

Party conferences used to be quite raucous affairs but, if anything, the delegates in the Bailey Allen Hall at NUI Galway were too well behaved, apart from a strong note of dissent by some delegates on the economy.

There was, of course, considerable discontent on the outside. Demonstrators assembled in their thousands to march from Galway city centre. Two dozen uniformed gardaí proved unable to halt a minority of determined protesters from breaking into the courtyard outside the hall.

The doors were closed and nobody could get in or out for more than two hours. We have heard of the Great Dublin Lockout, but this was the Great Galway Lock-in. An important seminar on the EU fiscal treaty in an adjacent building was abandoned on Garda advice.

The scenes were disturbing and conveyed a negative message about the left in general. Greater efforts should have been made to avoid the widely-televised and much-publicised disturbance.

One imagines the likes of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King inviting their critics to an open debate on the fringe of the conference. If the hard left had refused the invitation, they would have been on the back foot.

The advance security precautions made Labour look uptight and insecure (“You shouldn’t be walking around here without a lanyard,” this reporter was told), while clashes with gardaí may do little to popularise the cause of those who are against the household charge.

The conference made much of the foundation of Labour exactly 100 years ago.

But Connolly and Larkin would doubtless be sad to see different elements of the working-class movement being held apart by a tiny group of police and security personnel.

More generally, with Fianna Fáil in the doldrums, Labour has a golden opportunity to consolidate as the second largest party and bring an end to what Gilmore calls the “Celtic-Rangers” view of Irish politics.

Incidentally, the party would have a better chance of eroding Fianna Fáil’s traditional support base if any of the 159 motions on the agenda had been in Irish, and the leader had displayed his excellent command of the language in his keynote address.

One feels sure that if President Michael D Higgins had been involved these omissions would never have occurred.

But he has moved on to greater things and his election as President is naturally a source of great pride to his former party colleagues.

Colm Keaveney’s victory in the election for party chairman surprised many. But trade union votes and tireless campaigning saw him home. Life will be less comfortable for the leadership with the Galway East TD, but a little more internal dissent would be good for Labour’s soul.