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Eamon Gilmore (2008): Finally atop the Labour Party triangle? (profile 2008)

By Michael Smith.

Eamon Gilmore needs to continue showing us his edge.

“Triangulate: to move in the direction of a point by partly moving away from it”.

For years the Irish Labour Party in general and its now leader, Eamon Gilmore in particular, have – characteristically – triangulated. They criticise a measure but pull their punches in part, lest they risk alienating someone or being seen as too radical. Or maybe because the Irish Labour Party, its leadership and much of its membership, after a period of radicalism thirty years ago, is now conservative by temperament.

Gilmore won’t criticise the central substance of a measure; he’ll criticise its timing, its presentation, its costing, he’ll say it didn’t go far enough or something else needed to be done first. This won’t just be an add-on to his assessment, it will be his sound-byte. If Eamon Gilmore was breaking it off with you he’d say it wasn’t about you it was about him. Indeed that’s exactly what he’s been telling the unions. Speaking to the party’s youth conference about the link between Labour and the Unions, for Gilmore “It was not about the Labour Party’s view of the trade unions”. But rather, “the question is: where do the trade unions’ members see themselves in relation to the Labour Party?”. Gilmore would characteristically deny there is a problem with policies that indirectly have the effect of favouring the rich by saying he never sees such people. On a recent Questions and Answers programme, for example, he got around a question about whether he was in favour of allowing Tony O’Reilly a free medical card by saying he never saw millionaires at the doctor’s. It’s his instinct: caution outside his key passions. It allows him always to appear solid and competent and not to frighten the horses; and the pedantry even suggests erudition. But politics isn’t really about politicians. Or even primarily about competence. Gilmore needs to unlearn many of his key strategies. The question for Gilmore’s Labour Party is: Is there any beef?

The policies
Income Tax
Labour’s 2007 Manifesto says “Labour will enhance the incomes of hard working families who have suffered from the “rip off” experience by delivering … a 2-point cut in the standard rate of tax from 20 per cent to 18 per cent”. This is directly culled from US and British populist thinking pitched at middle earners rather than the most needy in society.

CGT and Corporation Tax
Labour’s 2007 Manifesto which remains policy says “we recognise the need to maintain incentives for work, and to maintain Ireland’s attractiveness as a location for mobile investment and skilled labour. Accordingly we will:
Maintain the existing rates of Corporation Tax.
Maintain the existing rates of Capital Gains Tax”.
In fact there is no reason not to increase Corporation Tax marginally to pay for services. It is also a blatant non-sequitur to imply that CGT is an incentive to work. This is definitive evidence of the Labour Party’s failure of nerve and radicalism.

Universal Benefits
Gilmore favours universal – i.e. non-means-tested – entitlements even against a background where the country cannot afford to give such “rights” to the richest. He seems, perhaps unwittingly, to be pandering to the middle-class base and brains of his party. Means-testing for Medical cards – including for over-seventies – and requiring university fees for those on high incomes are egalitarian policies (though in the case of the over-seventies it may be disproportionate to withdraw entitlements they have come to depend on). Applying typical Gilmore logic he says universal provision of services and benefits ensures those on middle and higher incomes have a stake in maintaining high standards of public services. In fact it is more notable they get a benefit than that they get a stake.

Environment
Triangulation was the key to Gilmore’s approach as Labour Party Environment spokesperson until 2007. For example Gilmore said the Protection of the Environment Bill 2003 which required householders, as polluters, to pay for the waste they generated and car-sellers to take responsibility for ”end-of-life” vehicles would “come to haunt” the Government when householders, the motor trade and local communities came to realise its impact. There was certainly a problem with the Bill which undemocratically allowed County Managers to override elected councilors, but the costs of taking care of the environment were inevitable and he should not, as environment spokesperson, have been arguing against them on blatantly populist grounds.

Carbon Tax.
Gilmore advocated reform of vehicle registration taxes (VRT) to encourage people to buy smaller cars, but Labour ruled out and continues to rule out introducing a carbon tax. Such taxation would damage Ireland’s competitiveness, Gilmore said.

Liberal Social Agenda
Gilmore has notably failed clearly to champion the classic “liberal” social positions that once galvanised his supporters.

Abortion
Gilmore does not feel the need to promote the party position which is to legislate for the X case. He told Hot Press, “I’m pro-choice. If abortion wasn’t as available in the UK then it would be much more on our agenda than it is now. Situations where the life of a mother is at risk, where a foetus is not viable, and, in particular, the issue of rape – those areas need to be looked at”. As he admits, it is not really on their agenda.

Gay Marriage
He is not pushing for a referendum for gay marriage, though typically he recently disdained the greens as having been “sold a pup” by FF in not getting commitments to hold one. He said of the Labour Party’s Civil Unions Bill, “To the extent that it stops short of changing the definition of marriage in the Irish constitution … some would argue that we have chosen the wrong approach… [but] our bill will lay the foundation to enable us to win the argument if or when there is a referendum on the issue”.

Secular State.
Gilmore doesn’t see the Angelus as an issue of secularity but as one of taste. He told Hot Press, “If we were starting from scratch, you wouldn’t put the Angeles on television. But to try and remove it now would just upset too many people. I think it is quite tasteful the way it is done”.

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Bertie Ahern
Even on Bertie’s tribunal evidence Gilmore seemed to think it would be too dangerous to nail a part-popular Taoiseach. The problem that required the Taoiseach’s resignation, according to Gilmore, was that nobody believed Bertie, rather than that he was actually telling lies.

Planning
The Labour Party has for a long time been scrupulous on urban and suburban planning but the Irish Times reported last year that the Labour Party was “quick to insist that it would not interfere with current ‘one-off’ housing rules”.At a local level, in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, Gilmore is apparently solid but actually inclined to positional fudges on important planning issues such as the Cherrywood rezoning in the early 1990s and the siting of a travellers’ settlement in Dalkey Quarry. For example he “opposed the development of Dun Laoghaire Golf Club from the very beginning” but in fact believed only that “no planning permission should be granted until a Local Area Plan has been drawn up for the general area”. In other words he really believed only that the development was premature.

Under Pat Rabbitte Labour’s game was to coalesce with Fine Gael. Particularly when the strategy was spearheaded by personalities associated with unradical coalition governments in the past, this led to a very dull and uninspiring policy platform and image for the Labour Party.

Initially Gilmore seemed to be inclined to continue the wateriness. His inaugural speech as party leader envisioned his party as “a voice for enterprise, business and aspiration” and he was tough on the trade unions. He told the first meeting of the 21st Century Commission that Labour was the party “of rights” but should also be “the party of responsibilities. So far so Blair.

But there are signs of change. So he outshouted Willie O’Dea on a recent Question and Answers to nail his government for “targeting” the old, the sick and children rather than “highrollers” (a favourite phrase). It is lucky for us and him that he has found something to be passionate about. In fact he’s always been good on defending the weakest in society. It dates back to the years he spent on the ground on behalf of the Workers Party and Democratic Left in Shankill and Ballybrack, representing some of the most disadvantaged. Perhaps the latter-day problem was that he thought the most disadvantaged were faring just fine under the Celtic Tiger.

Ireland needs a fired-up Eamon Gilmore for he offers a formidable combination of intelligence, political skill and perhaps even, eventually, charisma. In time of crisis and public anger where everything is up for grabs politically, the question is whether under Gilmore, we will get more of the new edge or of the old triangle.