Gilmore plays up the positive as party support begins to stabilise


THE OPTICS were poor, in fairness. In through the stately, massive gates, up an interminable avenue weaving through hundreds of acres of golf course, crossing an old stone bridge over the river Liffey, before reaching the beautiful, 18th-century Palladian house that was once the country seat of the first duke of Leinster.

A superior double room in Carton House tonight would set you back €220 and residents will tell you it’s worth every cent. Still, it’s probably not quite what the party’s founding fathers had in mind for what its current leader called the annual away day. If they ever had an away day.

But Eamon Gilmore defended it robustly in the traditional “media doorstep” before the formal proceedings. They got a good deal from the hotel, he said, as Emmet Stagg solicitously plucked an autumn leaf from the dear leader’s hair. “We got meeting rooms for €450 for two days. And it’s a sign of the times that deals of various kinds are now available in the hotel and tourism sector . . .”

He didn’t mention the upset experienced by Labour staff when protests turned physical at the party’s annual conference in Galway in April. More than anything else, said a party source, that determined the criteria for the next venue – gates and high walls.

Yesterday, as well as a garda or two stationed around the gates, 10 staff from a private security firm were also on duty, all on heightened alert after a call warning them to expect some kind of incursion at 4pm. The hour came and went without any further excitement.

Back inside, the participants were bright-eyed, relaxed, almost skittish.

What was wrong with them? “It’s down to sex. Sex and poetry,” declared a giddy senior member.

“We’re just back off our holidays. Give it time,” said another plaintively.

Gilmore was asked if there were any nerves about the reshuffle the Taoiseach had, um, jokily mentioned at the Fine Gael dinner in Westport.

“I heard what he said on Morning Ireland and I thought he made it very clear that he was cracking a joke.” Pause. “The Taoiseach cracks very good jokes – I think that was one of his better ones,” he added in meaningful tones.

“Have you never heard the expression, ‘Beware the man who laughs whose stomach does not move’?” asked Irish Times man Deaglán de Bréadún, a tad mordantly.

The Labour leader laughed, though the crush made it hard to see if his stomach was moving. “I haven’t heard that one recently, no.”

Local lad Emmet Stagg got to welcome everyone and reminded them they were now in a Labour stronghold and that the county had been represented by a Labour TD since 1922. “Bill Norton served for over three decades and was party leader for most of that time. Eamon has about another 25 years to go as leader to match Bill Norton’s record,” he declared, grinning over his leader. “So you can smile at that”.

Gilmore thanked him kindly for his “pledge of support for the next 25 years” and noted that “the only two people smiling” at the 25-year reference were his two predecessors – the cherubic Pat Rabbitte and dapper Ruairí Quinn.

At least they let us in for the leader’s speech, which is more than Fine Gael did. And a very upbeat speech it was, giving a kind of middle finger to everyone who doubted that Labour could meet its targets. “Remember the reception we got when we talked about making Irish politics a three-way contest? Or when I talked about Labour winning 30 seats in a general election? Or this time last year, when our guest speaker was someone who is now President of Ireland?” Hah.

There would always be difficulties in government, he said. “Politics and government is

a human business and we will make mistakes. What we have to do is learn from those mistakes and do better the next time. There are difficult decisions to make.”

If the lads and lassies learned anything yesterday, that was it.

One member who was fairly sceptical to begin with came out with a little more understanding of what they were up against.

“The speakers were good and there was a lot of detail – like the social protection spend alone is 40 per cent of the entire budget. I suppose what Ministers were doing was placing decisions into context . . . People were being asked to brace themselves, to be able to defend themselves with vim and vigour by understanding what was behind it all.”

But behind the bonhomie, there were also suggestions that the event was “highly controlled and stage-managed and involved a fair bit of papering over the serious underlying tensions . . . The problem is there is no critical mass for cutting up rough yet but it’s bubbling under . . . People are biting their tongues here. The programme is sanitised and fairly harmless. They put on a good show but little enough substance on health.”

The absence from the agenda of hot-button issues such as the cuts in home help or carers – “which are getting us savaged on the ground” – was causing a bit of unrest. “There’s no room for a real robust exchange of views.”

But then again, the organisers showed they have a talent for timing. The last “surprise” item on the schedule was the unveiling of a Red C poll conducted in August, which showed Labour support to have stabilised at last.

Up at 26 per cent in Dublin and at 21 per cent in the rest of Leinster. Now that called for a drink . . . Maybe a nice swim beforehand.

“Enjoy the couple of days,” said Gilmore earlier to the cavilling media. “And if any of you have a principled objection to being here . . .” The rest was lost in laughter.