Hostage for Fortune?

Has the Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, given another hostage of fortune, following the party’s conference in Galway at the weekend?

Has the Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, given another hostage of fortune, following the party’s conference in Galway at the weekend?

He pledged that there would be two more tough budgets before the country emerges with some kind of victory in the economic war. But what if after those two tough budgets, austerity is the fare still being served up in a grim daily fiscal diet to the long-suffering Irish people?

Will Mr Gilmore’s words from the Labour confererence be run, again and again, on radio and television and quoted in the newspapers? These are relevant questions after a weekend in which Labour celebrated, in a suitably muted way, the party’s electoral triumph in the general election and the Presidential election.

Time and again, Mr Gilmore is reminded of his general election campaign pledge that, in government, it would be either Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way on the economy.

That remark will go down in history as very ill-judged, given the economic reality that confronted Labour when it joined Fine Gael in Government with a massive majority.

In fairness to Mr Gilmore, he has put it down to the rhetoric of a highly-charged election campaign when it seemed as if Fine Gael could well secure an overall majority.

But it will continue to haunt him, unless this country manages to secure some kind of write-down on our massive bank bailout debt. And given the negative vibes coming from the European Central Bank, that seems very unlikely indeed.

But there will be no prospect of a rhetorical pardon for Mr Gilmore if, after two further tough budgets, people fail to see some light at the end of the fiscal tunnel.

The critical question for this Government right now is the extent to which people will put up with austerity and for how long. In an impressive speech to his party conference, Mr Gilmore set out the grim reality of our financial mess.

He stressed that it was the Government’s aim to be out of the EU-IMF programme within two years, to be able to sell Irish Government bonds on the financial markets and to stand on our own two feet again.

But to do that the Government would have to get the budget deficit down.

“This is not a matter of choice. It’s simple maths,” he added. “We simply cannot continue to borrow 44 million euro every day in order to run the country. We will need two more difficult budgets.”

Fine Gael and Labour will survive or die politically on their performance in the economy. Mr Gilmore has set out his stall, as the Taoiseach Enda Kenny has done.

But the jury remains very much out on whether this Government will win the economic war. And it should not continue to test the patience of the Irish people.

That is why failing to sing from the same hymn sheet at the weekend on the installation of water meters made people wonder if the Taoiseach and his Ministers talk to each other on matters literally affecting every household in the country.

Mr Kenny has said that households will have to pay for meters but their installation will be free. Mr Gilmore had a different version of events. “No decision has yet been made on how water meters are to be paid for,” he declared.

And to confuse matters further, the Department of the Environment was saying that both the cost of buying and installing meters would be passed on to the households and not paid for by the exchequer.

On Monday morning, hard pressed householders woke up to this level of confusion about a further tax to be imposed on them. After that, Government attempts to introduce some clarity to the issue were of little value.

An early test of Government credibility on a further expensive tax had been failed. If the Government cannot show unity of purpose on the introduction of a water tax, what chance has it in attempting to rescue us from the economic doldrums?

It is not as if the Government and Ministers are short of advisers, spindoctors and so on. Speaking with one voice in Government is surely a minimum requirement to instill public confidence in the Coalition.

As in Mr Kenny’s case at the Fine Gael Ardfheis, Mr Gilmore was at pains to avoid any hint of triumphalism at the weekend. It was, after all, the party’s centenary and a little bit of back-slapping would be in order. But the celebration was low-key.

“I will not exaggerate our achievements, nor will I underestimate what is yet to be done,” said Mr Gilmore. “Neither will I ignore what has been left undone, or done badly, but in difficult times we can report progress.”

Mr Gilmore had one justifiably proud boast. He righly referred to the Mahon report’s “sickening chronicle of corruption, bribery and lies at the highest levels of previous Fianna Fail governments.”

He might usefully have added that Fine Gael was not without blemish in that area. But he was right to point out that no wrongdoing was attached to Labour.

Labour can take credit for that in these grim times.