Labour is primarily an urban party and must make inroads in rural constituencies if it wants to succeed, writes ELAINE BYRNE in the IRISH TIMES April 20 2010
EAMON GILMORE is good at oratory. His “One Ireland” rhetoric at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Galway paid tribute to the hope of an Ireland defined by “employers and employees. Farmers and business people. Private sector and public sector”. It rhymed well with Barack Obama’s signature line – “There is no red state America; there is no blue state of America; there is the United States of America.”
But just how capable is the Labour Party in translating these nice sounding words into plausible actions?
The 1980s were circumscribed by the clash of conservatism and liberalism, articulated through a series of referendums on abortion and divorce. The 1990s and 2000s witnessed the blistering transformation of conservative social attitudes. In the space of a generation, Ireland has witnessed a dramatic rejection of traditional authority structures. A liberal emphasis on individual moral responsibility, on equality rather than hierarchy, on participation rather than submission to authority has occurred.
The 2010s will be defined by economic conflict between an Ireland divided by rural and urban; public and private. The competition for scarce financial resources will be more acute as the long-term consequences of the recession take hold. For instance, according to last week’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report, the Government will invest at least €73 billion into fixing the banking system. (That’s more that everything we received from the EU Structural and Cohesion Funds since we joined in 1973.) This year’s budget deficit is €19 billion. December’s budget will make €3 billion in cuts. The consequence of this is, potentially, national fragmentation.
Cavan, Roscommon, Longford and Leitrim county councils, for example, receive seven to eight times more grants from the Government than local tax revenues. In stark contrast, Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick raise over two to three times more in local tax revenue than from Government grants.
Most of these grants come from the general purpose grant, which is partly funded by motor tax revenue. This source of funding is now considerably lower as people have stopped buying cars and there are not as many anymore. With less money available now to rural local authorities, difficult decisions will have to be made about where priorities now lie for public services, such as cutting back on road maintenance.
Colm McCarthy’s 2008 report implied that rural Ireland has been in receipt of disproportionate privilege from the exchequer. The report suggested that the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs should be abolished. Other hard-hitting recommendations were: amalgamate small rural primary schools, cease funding the Rural Transport Scheme, terminate the Suckler Cow Scheme, close the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (Reps), suspend the Western Development Commission, reduce the allocation for local and community development programmes, possibly privatise Bord na Móna, and rationalise Teagasc offices. Rural Ireland genuinely believes it is under attack and RTÉ’s Frontline programme gently obliges this assumption by facilitating antagonistic audiences of us and them. The Green Party has become identified as the bogeyman that seeks to destroy the rustic pastoral values of stag hunting and dog breeding.
Labour is primarily a political party of urban Ireland. At last year’s local elections it became the biggest party in Dublin and is on course to radically increase its eight seats in the capital.
Dr Adrian Kavanagh, a political geographer at NUI Maynooth, has analysed the geography of Labour Party support in the 2007 election and found the party registered very weak levels of support across large tracts of the political landscape. Although it contested every constituency in 2007, Labour failed to win over 5 per cent of the vote in any of the Connacht-Ulster constituencies (apart from Galway West) as well as Clare, Cork North-West, Laois-Offaly and Meath-West (see http://nuimgeography.wordpress.com).
Gilmore’s quirky ambition to become taoiseach, or even the second largest party, is entirely dependent on his ability to convince rural Ireland that Labour can indeed represent a “One Ireland”.
As he celebrates his 55th birthday this week, the Caltra, Co Galway man from a small farming family, now TD for Dún Laoghaire, is keen to emphasise his dual claim to rural and urban Ireland.
Motion 65 of the 147 debated at the party conference, was perhaps the most important. It sought to commit Labour “to formulating, in consultation with rural constituencies and representatives, a campaign strategy and policy platform to attract votes in rural Ireland; to engaging more actively on rural issues, and to presenting pro-active solutions to the many problems facing rural Ireland”.
The high-profile weekend unveiling of Jerry Cowley, former Mayo Independent, as a new Labour recruit was internally highly symbolic for the party as it begins to focus on this mammoth shortcoming. Rural default lines aside, Labour still remains all things to all men in the absence of a core policy.
As the party approaches its 100th anniversary in 2012, it will celebrate Michael Davitt. In 1890, the Mayo man established the Irish Democratic Labour Federation which for the first time in Irish politics advocated free education.
In the 1922 post-Treaty elections, TJ O’Connell, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation was elected and subsequently became Labour Party leader in 1927. Education has historically defined the Labour tradition. But any revolutionary vision requires more than oratory.