Éamon Gilmore interviewed

Interview Niall Crowley  Illustration Peter Hanan

Baking sunlight, little dinghies bobbing on sparkling blue water, people in short sleeves taking a leisurely look at the shops. Dun Laoghaire is like another world in the surprise heat wave. The function rooms of the Royal Marine Hotel are tall and cool. The bar looks out over a generous green lawn. Éamon Gilmore, however, makes no concessions to the relaxed mood, with full suit and tie, a busy man  man on a lazy Friday afternoon.

He has just come from speaking at a local rally. ‘There’s been a strike for over six weeks now in the main street. It’s a difficult dispute. I previously made an attempt to mediate, to see if we could at least find a basis for talks”.

He emphasises the human side to the dispute. “There’s a lot of stress for the people involved, their families, and for the employer too. Ultimately it will have to be settled and I hope the event will cause the employer to reflect on where he is at and to go to the table. There is no dishonour in talking”.

There is a function to attend later. On Saturday morning he will be out canvassing. “I get a group of Party members and we do a different housing estate every Saturday morning”. He breaks into laughter. ”It’s a service we provide to get people out of their beds if they’re not up by eleven thirty”. He emphasises “for me it’s the best focus group there is, to hear the take of my constituents on the issues of the day and to talk to people about their difficulties or issues or problems”. On Sunday he will be launching a Labour Party policy document on tourism. Monday then is the day for his constituency clinic. “As leader of the Labour Party it is now a seven day commitment”.

He is animated by the events of the moment: “This week, the Fianna Fáil-Green Government poured another €2 billion of taxpayers’ money into the hole in Anglo Irish Bank, despite not knowing either how big the hole is, or whether it is in anyone’s interest to bring Anglo back to life.  Last week the taxpayer became the majority owner of EBS, at a cost of at least an extra €100 million, and nobody batted an eyelid.
In the same fortnight, we hear about the chaos in the HSE, that had someone as at risk as Daniel McAnaspie wandering from Garda station to Garda station, looking for a bed for the night.  Even more chaotic, is that they did not even know how many children had died in care over the past ten years”.

And he believes the hangover from the boom, and the need to rescue the banks, is |”going to be used by Fianna Fáil as an excuse for not delivering the kind of services that could be effective in cases like Daniel McAnaspie’s and others like him.  Frankly, those excuses are ten years too late, and coming from a Government that seems incapable of managing their filing cabinets, let alone the vital organs of the State and the financial sector”.

Gilmore sees hunger for change everywhere, ”across all groups. There is much more discussion now about wider political and social issues. There are some who yearn for things to go back to where they were. They can’t and they won’t. Obviously the type of change people want reflects the kind of lives they are leading”. He is optimistic that “the future can and will be better for our children. But it won’t be measured only by material things. It will be about the kind of society we live in, how we relate with one another and the values that underpin that”.

He was recently reminded of Pat Rabbitte’s poster campaign in 2006, in the run in to the 2007 election. The posters asked “But Are You Happy?” He laughs that ‘the big debate was should there be a comma’. However, “looking back on it, it was at the height of the boom, it hit the nail on the head. It was raising the values question”.

► Pursuing Equality

What priority does the Labour Party accord to the value of equality?
“Equality is part of the DNA of Labour. It is what you expect the Labour Party to do, to drive equality”.

‘”We have to pursue an active policy of promoting equality. There is an equality agenda that has to be pursued that is not dependent on legislation and that is more to do with how we do our business and our practice. We have to pursue the idea, that more equal societies are better societies, are better economies. It is not an accident that the five countries that are most at risk of economic failure are the most unequal countries in the European Union”.

What are the possibilities for a new departure on equality with a new Government?
“I see it much more now around issues and policies rather than necessarily around institutions. The agenda for Government will be much more around issues that have to do with socio economic equality”.

“Employment is a starting point. It has to be at the heart of it. Labour’s  economic policy is about jobs and getting people back into work. This is the key foundation for equality. Education is another important focus. This means first of all increasing and enhancing educational opportunities. We need to move to universal third-level or further education. This is about equality in outcomes from our educational system”.

“Health and medical care need to be available to people based on need rather than income. We have to forge ahead with the introduction of a system of universal health insurance.  This is a health reform agenda which is essentially about equality”.

”In social welfare we need a different deal between the state and the individual which provides for support in different ways and at different points in the life cycle. Education, childcare, care of older people, care of people with disabilities and lifelong learning would all be a part of that. The assumption now has to be that you will change employment and career a number of times over the course of your life. Therefore we need to re-invent the welfare system”.

“One of the concepts we have been looking at is flexicurity. So we look at the welfare system not as a subsistence income you fall back on in hard times but rather as a platform from which to move onto the next phase of your life. Part of this will be addressing the issues of chronic poverty and chronic disadvantage”.

Does this suggest the territory of positive duties that have been developed in Northern Ireland and Britain where the public sector is required to have due regard to equality in carrying out its functions?
“Yes indeed – I think that is part of it. But let me issue a word of caution. We have to do more than legislate for it. Poverty-proofing for example became an exercise in getting somebody who knew the language to write up the evaluation of the policy. It has to be more. It has to be politically driven”.

“I am an outcomes guy. I’ll measure my time in Government  by what we have actually achieved in outcomes rather than what we have put in to legislation.

The  thinking that has dominated the world of politics and public discourse is that the market was supreme, you minimised regulation, you kept the state small, you reduced tax and you maximised individual economic freedom. That thinking has to be replaced by a different culture  that reflects that we are interdependent, that we need to strengthen the bonds between us and that we make a more equal society because that is a better society. One way of doing that is legislation but it must also become part of the way in which we think. Now obviously in doing that it has to be done in a way that rewards effort and enterprise as well”.

► Political Reform
Éamon Gilmore has previously highlighted the importance of looking again at how we are governed. What might this involve?
He takes an historical perspective. “I see three phases. The phase of independence, that period from 1916 right up to the end of the fifties That whole early period was about the bedding down of independence, of democracy and of the institutions of the state. It ended in economic failure. You then had Whitaker. You had the whole period of another fifty years of economic growth, liberalisation of our laws, modernisation of the country. This reaches its climax with the ‘Celtic tiger’ and then, of course,   it ends again in economic crisis”.

”Now we have the third phase. This idea of a new republic. It coincides with the centenary of the foundation of the state. There is going to be something new. It is hugely exciting. You have to locate it in a global context. There  is a shifting of the tectonic plates of economics, politics and governance. It is the logic of being a globalised society, of being in the information age. There are consequences to this in terms of governance”.
Dáil reform is one focus in meeting this challenge. “First of all we need to look at our parliamentary system again. It has to become a real parliament. For example, this idea that every piece of legislation has to be introduced by the Government in office, I think that’s the past. Individual TDs should have the opportunity of introducing their own legislation. There should be a possibility of it being passed where it is reforming legislation and it makes sense”.

“We also need to change the system of accountability. The very rigid parliamentary questions system has to be changed. There has to be much more opportunity for state agencies, and indeed private organisations that operate under licence from the state, to come before Oireachtas committees and to state what they are doing and answer questions”.
Éamon Gilmore recently proposed a Constitutional Convention to construct the proposal for a new constitution. “The constitution belongs to the people. The changing of the constitution should therefore be a people process. I have suggested a process involving a forum made up of one third public representatives, one third civic society and one third jury type selection from the public”.

Does he see this approach as having a relevance to other issues?
“I do. There are difficult social issues that we are not dealing with which could benefit from a forum or formula of engagement like this”.  He mentions issues relating to integration in a multi-cultural Ireland and to inter-generational poverty. .

“This is just a formula, and I am not wedded to it, where there would be public debate and considered discussion of issues which sometimes are not easy. The formula I have proposed is like extending the existing all-party committee idea in a way so that you have this wider engagement. It is a participative formula”.

“I don’t think we are good at consultation in Ireland. I feel very strongly about this. We have invented a process of consultation. Public bodies are fabulous at it. They put notices in the paper, invite the submissions and hold the required number of public meetings. Then they just ignore what people are saying. I was very struck by the process of consultation when I was in Canada looking at waste-management facilities. There the whole thing is a mediated thing where there is much more of a problem-solving approach”.

Where do groups who are powerless fit into this political reform?
“Any society has to have a healthy civic society. This participation is one of the essential requirements for good democracy. Dissent is part of our democratic life. The challenging of accepted wisdom and the status quo simply has to be encouraged and welcomed. I have seen over the years where organisations in civic society have been quieted. They know that they have to get the money and that therefore they have to be onside with the present government. It is a form of political patronage. That inevitably means that they watch their step in terms of being critical”.

► Rethinking Economic Development
Do NAMA, the recapitalisation of the banks, the bank guarantee and growing indebtedness not suggest limited room for hope in the future?
“Let’s park NAMA and all of that for one moment. Hope comes from the fact that every economic recession comes to an end. We are going to have a growing economy again. We are probably saddled for decades with the consequences of what was going on in the last ten years. I don’t think we have to go under. We are going to have a big debt that we are going to be carrying. What we have to do is reassess where we are in both the European economy and the world economy”.

‘If we say the future is the knowledge economy then that means that we have to invest in people, in education and training. There are industries we took our eye off the ball on over recent times. This is a food producing country. The world has a growing population that has to be fed. The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy provides us with an opportunity to become a food basket for Europe and the wider world. We  have to rediscover our capacity to produce food and to develop the added value products and industries. We also have to look afresh at our tourism product”.

“We need to look at things like services. There are issues, which if we can solve for ourselves, that could be developed as business opportunities as well  For example, the technology is being developed which will assist people to live independently for longer. If we can develop solutions to personal care issues, care of older people issues, care of people with disabilities issues and to the challenge of independent living, we are not just solving a social or health issue for ourselves but creating the possibility for doing business”.

How would this innovation contribute to a context of greater economic equality?
“One of the things that has emerged from the economic crisis is a much bigger focus on income inequality. Two or three years ago, the idea of chief executives of major corporations being paid in millions and their staff being paid the minimum wage wasn’t on the radar. It is now. The Japanese approach to equality where it becomes an issue of being socially unacceptable to have these inequalities has started to appear into our discourse and our thinking a lot more. Labour would progress this in Government”.

“People have to have a living wage and a living income. There is no easy answer to the issue of income inequality. The social partnership process that we had has ended. But there is going to have to be a process put in its place that deals with issues of incomes and inequality. Taxation is one of the ways of dealing with income inequality. The Labour Party has proposed a third rate of tax for those portions of anyone’s income that are over one hundred thousand Euro. However I am very attracted to the Japanese approach that says top management need to be moderate and those at the top need to moderate their incomes”.

► Personal Values
What is the source of your political values?
“It comes from experience. My father died when I was fourteen months old. I grew up in difficult circumstances. I got educational opportunities which enabled me to work my own way out of poverty. We were the first group that benefited from free education and grants. We were the first in our families to go to university. The thinking that was around was partly influenced by the civil rights movement in the US and in the north”.
A shy hesitancy and reluctance replaces the previous fluid responses. “I have experienced disadvantage. I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity of coming out of that. I just think that everyone else should have the same opportunity. I believe in it”.

What sustains your energy and enthusiasm for the work?
“I like the work whether as a trade union officer or as a public representative. I like advocating. I love to share in the joy people get out of cracking it, getting the job or getting some right they should have. I get huge satisfaction out of working for improvements and seeing those come through”.
“Right now we are looking at where we are at, post-recession. The challenge is there but also the opportunity to carve out a different, more equal, fairer and better society. We have made huge progress on equality in this country. There is a long way to go. We’ve tended to think about equality as an issue about minorities. Equality is about the majority.