Removing Keaveney a major test of leader’s credentials

Eamon Gilmore’s problems are only just beginning, writes Political correspondent Mary Regan

Eamon Gilmore faces the biggest test of his leadership of the Labour Party as he tries to find a way of removing Colm Keaveney from the position of chair without alienation the party’s rank and file.

There is a growing concern among the party’s top ranks that Mr Keaveney will become a focal point for the grassroots who are unhappy with the direction the party is taking.

The Galway East representative became the fifth Labour Party TD to break ranks and join the opposition benches when he voted against the Social Welfare Bill in the Dáil on Thursday. But he is digging his heels in and insisting that he will hold onto the position of party chairman.

He was elected to the position by members at their conference in Galway earlier this year because they wanted a thorn in the side of Mr Gilmore and someone who would ensure their views were represented.

Under party rules, members would have to be called to a conference to vote if Mr Keaveney was to be removed.

But the very public self-reflection this would cause, and the prospect of ordinary members lambasting the Labour leader on their way into a conference centre, is something the party hierarchy will want to avoid at all costs.

Instead, Labour may have to use more creative means of forcing him to resign to avoid having to go down the official route.

It is a tricky balance for Mr Gilmore to strike as he tries to get rid of the thorn in his side without opening a rift between the top ranks and the increasingly disillusioned party members around the country.

Pat Rabbitte, the former leader of the party and current communications minister, did Mr Gilmore no favours in this regard by describing the actions of Mr Keaveney and other party rebels as “calculated venom” on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday.

It’s clear from comments of Mr Rabbitte and others that they are concerned about the organisational power of the five Labour TDs who have joined the opposition benches.

They are former junior ministers Róisín Shortall and Willie Penrose, Mr Keaveney, long-term TD Tommy Broughan, and first-time TD Patrick Nulty.

Asked about this group, Mr Rabbitte said: “I don’t think the people you mention have a great deal in common other than their membership of the Labour Party.”

The party whip, Emmet Stagg, echoed this, hinting there is a concerted effort underway to undermine this group. “They are quite different really, the people in that group are quite different,” he said.

This message shows there is concern among the leadership about the Labour TDs who have jumped ship and who are edging towards a critical mass. While they cannot form a Dáil technical group (there can only be one) they could form their own party or, at the very least, be latched onto by the grassroots.

For now, Mr Gilmore has to worry about next week’s Seanad vote on the Social Welfare Bill. The Coalition has a slimmer majority, of just 32 to 28, in the Seanad and there is doubt over the voting intentions of three Labour senators — James Heffernan, John Whelan, and Denis Landy.

While the Seanad can’t block the Bill, it could delay it for up to six months.

The Labour leader’s problems are far from over.


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