The old Comrades are all just good friends


THE sign behind the speaker's rostrum said it all. "DL in Government" it proclaimed. Kathleen Lynch, the feisty Cork TD, said it was amazing to see. Pinch me, is it real?

The sign also acted as a reminder to delegates not to rock the boat too much. No searing indictments or slashing critiques if you please: look where that class of thing got the Progressive Democrats.

After listening to a couple of dozen speeches, you felt there was something missing, some vital element of a traditional left wing conference. Suddenly it hit you: hardly anyone was using the word "comrade".

Proinsias De Rossa certainly wasn't using it. He opted instead for the soft focus word "friends".

It probably wouldn't be appropriate for members of a party in coalition with Fine Gael to call each other "comrade". This is the Royal Marine Hotel, not the Finland Station, so get real, "friend".

Fine Gael and Democratic Left have become the "odd couple" of Irish politics and Labour is definitely the gooseberry in this increasingly warm relationship.

DL's economic guru and Lenin lookalike, Paul Sweeney, claimed his party was "successfully persuading Fine Gael to return to its `Just Society' roots".

As the late Labour Party leader Frank Cluskey said in a different context: "There's confidence for you." But if a Blueshirt rancher from the Golden Vale had somehow strayed into the conference he would have noticed that, although DL may have dispensed with the rhetoric of the left, it is still pushing its social concerns and has a major "hang up" about long term unemployment.

The rancher would have to conclude that DL doesn't stand for Democratic Left at all but Def Leppard. We are not talking about the rock band here. This "Leppard" isn't ready yet to change its socialist spots and it appears to be "Def" to the laments of the higher income taxpayer.

Take Mr Lenin Sweeney for example. If his speech on the economy were widely circulated it would cause a serious outbreak of migraine in the stockbroker belt.

The socialist party pooper saw fit to snipe at the "long queues of rich people to buy Mercedes and Jaguar cars". His stony heart was unmoved by the fact that "the boom in house prices has made the rich squeal about the puny property tax".

There was more in this vein from Pat Rabbitte. Drawing himself up to his full height as a three quarters minister, he poked fun at the PD campaign against property tax.

With typical Rabbitte rhetoric he conjured up a vision of "Michael McDowell walking up and down Ailesbury Road in a sandwich board proclaiming that the end is nigh".

Is there nobody left in Fine Gael, to remind these pinkos that the poor will always be with us? Then Pat went "Rabbitting" on about the unemployment blackspots where whole communities are plugged" from the economy.

The rich can only hope DL will come to its senses on this issue as it has on water rates. The annual conference debate has now become a ritual. Some of the party's councillors were accused of a sell out but it ran off them "like water charges off a duck's back".

An overcrowded agenda meant that a row over human rights abuses in China never really got going. A motion that was highly critical of the Chinese government was defeated, with the help of the party leader, and a softer one passed in its place.

The underlying conference message was that DL is "delirah and excirah" to be achieving so much of its agenda in government. Some Blueshirts still grumble but a DL activist said a senior Fine Gael Minister told him in flat tones recently: "Ye may be expensive but when ye're bought ye stay bought".