Labour's conference


WHEN MINISTER for Education Ruairí Quinn cautioned teachers that they did not fully appreciate the gravity of the fiscal crisis, he was quietly warning them that, in the absence of robust economic growth, further cuts are likely. Their rejection of this unpalatable reality is likely to be replicated at the Labour Party’s conference in Galway this weekend when delegates gather to celebrate past electoral success rather than anticipate future problems.

They have cause for satisfaction. Returning thirty-seven TDs to the Dáil in 2011 marked the party’s best-ever election result, surpassing the so-called Spring tide of 1992. But the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011 did not just benefit the Labour Party. Fine Gael made even larger gains and Eamon Gilmore’s ambition to lead the largest party in the Dáil was thwarted. Fine Gael eased into leadership of a coalition Government with an overwhelming majority.

Overwhelming majorities can be dangerous, as Jack Lynch found after 1977. They encourage lax discipline, ministerial arrogance and backbench ambition. Already, tensions involving Ministers and parties have grown to such an extent that Taoiseach Enda Kenny felt it necessary to publicly warn those involved to calm down. Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has challenged Fine Gael on ethical issues and the priorities to be pursued in Government, particularly involving social payments. That has played well with party members and has diverted attention from welfare cuts. Relations between key Labour Ministers are also said to be poor, affecting the party’s impact at Cabinet.

Eamon Gilmore remains popular. But the Foreign Affairs portfolio has not delivered the high profile he might have expected. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have taken the lead in EU fiscal negotiations while Mr Kenny has attracted publicity at prime overseas events. Mr Gilmore’s biggest challenge will come at the end of next month when a referendum on the EU fiscal treaty takes place. He can be expected to rally undecided party members in support of the measure.

Entering government, Labour members were warned that “a forest of placards” would greet them the next time they gathered. They may not be disappointed. Disparate groups opposed to property, septic tank and water charges and to all public service cuts intend to protest during the conference. Notwithstanding such pressure, ministerial animosities, the loss of two parliamentary members and outspoken backbenchers, confidence remains high within the party. Labour was forced to abandon a pre-election commitment to “burn the bondholders” and it has since met EU-IMF demands by reducing the budget deficit. Perceptual difficulties exist. Promises concerning a constitutional convention and other legislative reforms have not been delivered. Progress is required on a number of fronts, including criminal charges arising from tribunal, banking and other investigations, if public confidence is to be restored.