On a Sunday in early June 2009, I was chatting off-air to a leading Labour Party figure in RTÉ during European election result programmes. I wondered aloud how Nessa Childers had come from nowhere to secure more than 78,000 first-preference votes and comfortably take a seat in the Ireland East constituency.
Her victory, I suggested, was all the more surprising considering the fact that former Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Peter Cassells, who might have been thought to have had more impressive and more genuinely Labour credentials, couldn’t win the seat in 2004.
The Labour man at the 2009 results programme expressed himself equally surprised at Childers's performance but recounted how months earlier Labour strategists concluded that there was half a quota in moveable Fianna Fáil votes up for grabs in that constituency. While Fianna Fáil voters would never vote for the Fine Gael candidates they might be persuaded to vote for a Labour candidate with a Fianna Fáil sounding name.
In Erskine Childers’s daughter Labour headhunted someone who had fit the bill.
Nessa, a former Green Party councillor, was brought into the Labour Party just months before the convention. The fact that she was a female with a Green Party background did her prospects no harm in a constituency where Nuala Ahern had held a seat until 2004.
The word from Brussels is that since 2009 Childers has been a diligent MEP. At home she has attracted more coverage for her spats with the Labour Party leadership than her European Parliament work. She has shown herself an effective user of social media and media generally, most notably in organising a conference on media-related topics last year.
She also gained much public prominence in Brussels and Dublin for her opposition to the Fine Gael-Labour Government’s nomination of Kevin Cardiff, the then secretary general of the Department of Finance, to the European Court of Auditors in 2011.
The resignation of an MEP from the parliamentary party is not something that a party should welcome but one gets the sense this weekend that the establishment in the Labour Party were happy to see her finally go. To rework the old adage, some camels are so messy inside the tent it’s best to leave them outside.
In response to her resignation, Labour spokespersons described her as semi-detached from the party for months. Quite apart from her differences of opinion with Ministers over the Cardiff appointment she has been very willing to row in with "continuity Labour" Deputies such as Tommy Broughan and Patrick Nulty in being critical of the policies being pursued by Labour in Government.
In practical terms her resignation from the Labour parliamentary party has little real substance. MEPs can attend parliamentary party meetings but since these are usually held on Wednesdays when the European Parliament is sitting , they seldom get to be present. This is not like the previous resignations from the Labour whip, affected the Dáil arithmetic, if only slightly.
In electoral terms, Childers's resignation also matters little to Labour. It would have been difficult for the party to retain this European Parliament seat in next June's elections irrespective of whether or not Childers was still the candidate.
Leaving the parliamentary party and casting herself as some kind of independent Labour candidate may give Childers some chance of being re-elected. One year out it is difficult to be definitive in any analysis of the European elections.
Labour Party sources spoke yesterday, half in jest, about how Childers’s departure would give them the opportunity to blood a new young candidate in the Leinster area for the European elections.
If in the ordinary course the resignation of Childers from the parliamentary party would not have mattered much, it is the timing which gives it some impact. It raises questions as to why Childers, who could have jumped at any time, chose to do so now, almost precisely a week after the ballot boxes in Meath East were opened.
It prompts one to wonder whether her move is the first salvo in a disorganised heave against Eamon Gilmore. If it is then it is weak enough. That said, Gilmore was busily ringing around backbenchers yesterday inviting them to one-on-one sessions over the next few days. It seems he is seeking to reassure them without giving off any sense that he is panicked.
Childers’s resignation, if not an aftershock, is certainly part of the ripple effect from the Meath East byelection operating on an already unsteady Labour parliamentary party. The experience on the ground in Meath for Labour backbenchers was very uncomfortable. They were lambasted at the doorsteps for broken promises. It is this which has frightened them as much as the actual result.
It adds worry to an existing resentment, even among some middle-ground Deputies, that Ministers are not sufficiently attentive to backbench and grassroot concerns or don’t fully appreciate the scale of the backlash the party is suffering.
There is no doubt that there is real division within the Labour Party. What is less clear is the size of the malcontent.
Childers’s resignation doesn’t tell us much since she falls into the predictable category.
If her actions are followed by dramatic forms of protest from any less obvious personalities, things could take an entirely different course.