Why is Ireland’s oldest political party in a state of implosion while a former member of that party goes from strength to strength? PJ Cunningham looks at the vicissitudes involved in an intriguing rise and fall tale on the Irish political landscape.
Irish public life is changing rapidly and no one knows this better than Labour Party members in the Republic.
Wasn’t it former Canandian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who once claimed that the essential ingredient of politics is… timing? – and few in Ireland will agree with that more than our current President, Michael D Higgins, and Labour Party leader, Brendan Howlin.
There is more than a grain of irony involved in the paths these two people – core Labour Party politicians for decades – have travelled in the past seven years.
Michael D is virtually home and hosed to spend a second term in the Aras as president, something that would have been unheard of for a Labour man even a few decades ago.
Timing…he was the man who was best place to take ad- vantage of the RTE Frontline programme hosted by Pat Kenny which essentially took the best placed candidate, Sean Gallagher, out of the race in 2011 with the mention of a phantom payment.
As President, Mr Higgins has proven to be an intelligent bearer of the office, a poet and patriot who has been a wonderful ambassador for Ireland, its people and culture. He has thrived on it.
But it is easy to forget – as they electorate appears to have done – how Labour’s economic ‘patriotism’ helped get the country out of the recession.
It could have, some would say should have, stuck to its initial instincts on so many elements of the economic cli- mate at the time: banks, cuts – the sort of tough decisions that have cast it adrift of political mass now the so-called good times have returned.
And even with decimated numbers of seven TDs in Ireland’s oldest party – now 106 years of age – more blood-letting will probably be the order of the day over Howlin’s leadership despite his best efforts to put it to bed at the party conference over the weekend.
His turn at the wheel has coincided with historically low support for, and perception of, the party at a time when the political landscape has splintered into myriad parties and indepedents.
Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein seem to have timed their run perfectly to hoover up both Fianna Fail and Labour support in virtually every constituency.
There is no doubt that strategically the labour Party has made some glaring mistakes since the economic downturn over a decade ago.
At a closed meeting of party members at the weekend, Mr Howlin was severely chastised by his own councillors – many of whom had publicly called for him to go only a number of weeks ago.
After apologising to the Irish public for Labour’s mistakes while they were part of the Coalition government between 2011 and ’16, he also prostrated himself for his own errors as a cabinet minister in that Cabinet.
He said in his defence that the Labour Party had acted as a brake on the worst excesses of what the Fine Gael led administration would have carried out if they weren’t there.
The truth is Labour in- creased the rights of workers through collective bargaining legislation as Mr Howlin highlighted to the meeting and also blocked Fine Gael’s drive for increased privatisation when the latter party under Enda Kenny had by far the biggest percentage of Dail representation.
Mostly importantly, Labour went out on a limb to clean up the mess that was left by left by Fianna Fáil in the noughties.
He now faces what many sees as an impossible task of reconnecting with an electorate that has turned its back as the party falls from being the country’s third largest party to a minnow among a group of also-rans.
Inside the Labour Party too he has many enemies with former minister, Alan Kelly, only chomping at the bit to step in dressed in emperor’s new clothing.
He didn’t quite go as far as to call for Howlin to step down but he rounded on his parliamentary party colleagues for not coming forward more dynamically to discuss issues.
A number of councillors at the conference probably nailed the perception of the party best when saying it had become virtually irrelevant in the Irish political landscape.
It seems like their reward for biting the bullet to do the right thing for the country is extermination.
A question of timing
As Hubert H. Humphrey, Lyndon B Johnson’s vice president once remarked amusingly: “To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.”
And that’s precisely where Labour finds itself today – the fall guys who don’t look like they can get back up on their political feet again.
As party leaders wonder why they can seem to do no right, Michael D meanwhile carries on as if he can do no wrong. And the difference? – a question of timing.