More than 1,000 members of the Labour Party gathered at the O’Reilly Hall at UCD in the heart of Dublin South to decide whether or not the party should go into government with Fine Gael. There was no sense of triumphalism or euphoria in the packed auditorium. Rather, there was a sense of trepidation amongst those present about what the future might hold not just for the Labour Party, but for the country as a whole. The draft programme for government presented is not the Labour Party manifesto, but according to Eamon Gilmore, it is driven by the values of the Labour Party. On the economic front, it contains a commitment to introducing a jobs plan as well as labour market activation strategies, establishing a strategic investment bank and renegotiating the EU/IMF framework. On the issue of reform, it contains a blueprint for a new way in which to conduct government business. Eamon Gilmore argued that the new government would not be a coalition in the old sense but rather a national government formed between the largest and second largest party in the state to deal with the challenges faced by the country. Thus, he said, the business of governing would be done on the basis of co-decision making and parity of esteem. At the core of the new governance system would be an economic management council or ‘war cabinet’ which will be the body that will decide all major economic issues. The council would be chaired by the Taoiseach, managed by the Tanaiste and made up of equal numbers drawn from both coalition parties. All relevant departments and agencies such as NAMA and the Regulator offices will be drawn into the council, which is intended to achieve the elusive ‘joined-up’ thinking on matters pertaining to the economy.
The programme for government contains the most radical platform of reform of the Dail and of the Civil Service that has ever been put before the people. Some of these proposed reforms will require constitutional changes, in particular, changes that will empower parliament to hold the government and the civil service to account. Fundamentally, there will be an attempt to rebalance the relationship between the oireachtas and the executive. Under recent administrations, the Oireachtas was effectively circumvented by a highly centralized and sometime ‘out of control’ executive.
In the debate that followed many delegates warned that the Labour Party in government with Fine Gael would face the same fate as the Liberal Democrats in in government with the Tories in Britain. In the recent Barnsley byelection, for instance, the Lib Dems came in 6th behind a pot pourri of other candidates. Others argued that the time for Labour was not now, but in five years time when Labour might be strong enough to lead a left government. Ruairi Quinn countered that the epithet “Labour must wait” had confined the party to opposition for generations. Joan Burton argued that economic renewal and recovery are conditional on high standards of probity in every aspect of Irish life, and that the Labour Party entering government could play a key role in ending cronyism and corruption in Irish politics. But perhaps the most compelling argument was made by Susan O’Keeffe who argued that Fianna Fail had always put party first, and country, second. The Labour Party must put the people first ahead of party considerations. The party must work as hard as it can and as long as it can to change the country for the better.
The motion to enter government was passed overwhelmingly. It is a very high risk strategy for the Labour Party. But politics is ultimately about the exercise of power, and if the Labour Party can exercise power in the public interest in the coming years the country as a whole can only benefit. Its time now to get to work.