It wasn’t high on the agenda, and it wasn’t too prevalent in the speeches. But it was in the air, nevertheless. It was in the determination visible in Gilmore’s speeches at the beginning and the end of the conference, and in Howlin’s mastery of the detail of the Government Programme.
It was in the spirited nature of the contributions made by Rebecca Moynihan and other younger delegates. And it was there too in the quiet conversations all around the hall, many of them involving delegates who’ve been going to party conferences for 30 years and more.
Hope. That was the word. It surprised me, I have to say, when I felt it first. I know an editorial writer of this paper used the phrase “aspirational and woolly” in yesterday’s editorial about the language of the government programme. Now, our writer is hardly ever wrong, but one of the striking things about this programme, when you read through it, is the specific nature of a lot of its commitments.
I know there are areas where it is impossible to pin down dates and timelines, but for thousands and thousands of people there is hope to be found in the detailed commitments here. At the risk of “doing an Enda” I won’t go into the details, but it’s well worth going to www.labour.ie, or www.finegael.ie, and downloading the document.
But there is hope too in a couple of phrases in the introduction to the document. On Pat Kenny’s Frontline programme last week I tried to make the point that the key to building peace in Northern Ireland was a complete and total recognition that the relationship between two communities had to be built on the principle of parity of esteem.
So I was delighted to find this sentence in the statement of common purpose underpinning the programme: … “A Government that will be built on partnership and parity of esteem between our two parties. Its key objective will be to repair our society over the next five years and get our people back to work.”
It is the key to hope. A lot of the immediate commentary about the programme for government has centred on who won and who lost, how much Fine Gael is there, how much Labour.
It’s natural for commentators to make up that kind of scorecard, of course, even though in a year’s time no one will remember who owned what bit of policy.
And it’s equally natural, especially when you’re trying to persuade your delegates and members to support a programme, that the leadership of both parties will want to be seen as having won the negotiations.
But all those claims fade.
What lasts is teamwork, or the absence of teamwork. We know only too well that we’ve had brilliant government programmes in the past that fell apart because of a lack of trust between the principals in government. And we know what happens to parties in coalition that can’t learn how to treat other with respect.
So it is absolutely vital that the team that is built by Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore is one that is based on mutual respect.
I’ve worked for coalition governments in the past, and I’ve seen at first hand how damaging point-scoring and triumphalism can be (I suppose I’ve been guilty of it myself occasionally). Given the kind of economic circumstances that face this government there can be no room for any of that. They have no choice but to think and act like a team.
A rugby team, of course, has different components — teams within teams. The bond between a pack of forwards can be almost indivisible, and it takes all the skills of half-backs sometimes to ensure that forwards and backs are working together.
There will be times in the life of this government when it will be a bit like that — it might be forwards in blue and backline in red, or vice versa. But Gilmore and Kenny will be in the half-back positions, and they will never be able to take off the green jersey.
All the signs are that both parties are well aware of the risks and challenges they face. At the Labour conference on Sunday there were a few delegates who yearned for the party to be in opposition, building and leading a coalition of the left.
The vast majority know full well that even if the party opted for opposition, it would still be impossible for Labour to build a common cause with Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance.
For some reason that I’ve never been able to fathom, the hard left always regards the left as its greatest enemy. Over the last couple of weeks, their representatives have never been able to refer to Labour without a sneer.
And there is no doubt that they see Labour’s decision to enter government now as their opportunity. You won’t see the Richard Boyd Barrets or the Mary Lou McDonalds of this world wishing Labour well, or expressing the hope that Labour delivers for the disadvantaged and marginalised people that the left tries to represent.
You can be fairly sure that before Labour lifts a finger in government, it will stand accused of a complete sell-out.
That’s just something the party has to live with. Throughout all the recent history of the party, it has always been threatened from its left. Somehow, it has always survived.
THE next few years will see a huge amount of political sniping too, especially as Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil try to outdo each other in populism.
Most of the sniping, naturally, will be directed at Labour. ’Twas ever thus. But there is a cure, a way of dealing with the old dilemma Labour always has. Performance. The next five years has to be about performance.
And of course, that applies to Fine Gael as well as to Labour. We need to see the best of both parties now.
A people virtually in despair have placed their trust in both parties, and there just isn’t room for failure. The parties have to ignore the cynicism of some commentators and the point-scoring of their opponents. They must place their trust in each other, and in the people who voted for them.
Above all, they have to deliver real change in the way politics is run and managed. Whatever the constraints in terms of delivering on economic and social commitments, there are no obstacles, apart from political will, in the way of political reform. The degree of political reform we see will be the test of this government’s will.
It starts tomorrow, with a restructuring of the Cabinet. But it needs to transform every aspect of political life, to make it more open, honest, and inclusive.
A revitalised political system, and the rebuilding of a decent relationship between the people and their politics, is entirely in the gift of Fine Gael and Labour working together.
Success and failure are divided by a thin line. But the success of this government is in all our interests.
We need what success can bring. Hope.