The government unquestionably inherited a mess, and it is in danger of allowing this to become its own mess if it does not tackle the more outrageous abuses that have been coming to light.
As the daughter of the late President Erskine H Childers, Nessa Childers raised many eyebrows when she joined the Labour Party in 2004. Her father had enjoyed a distinguished career as a Fianna Fáil deputy from 1938 until 1973, during which he served 17 years in cabinet and rose to become Tánaiste in 1969, before going on to be elected the fourth President of Ireland in 1973.
Nessa Childers quickly switched from the Labour Party to the Green Party and was elected a local councillor. She then abandoned the Green Party in 2008 and was elected to the European Parliament as a Labour Party candidate the following year.
Although she has now resigned from the Parliamentary Labour Party, citing her discontent with the party’s current policies, she spoke in terms that seemed to hint of a new party being formed by disillusioned party members.
“There is a possibility,” she said, “that we could see a group of people coming together to take up the ideas and values of Labour — leaving the party and its members hostage to a leadership that appears to be more comfortable with policies that protect the more privileged in Irish society.”
Ms Childers cited the poor showing of the Labour Party in the recent Meath East by-election as a major factor in her decision. Comparisons are being drawn with the party’s dismal showing in the two Cork by-elections of November 1994. Within days the Labour Party withdrew from its coalition with Fianna Fáil.
It was not the by-election results but the arrogant manner in which the Fianna Fáil leadership treated its partners in government in the wake of the Fr Brendan Smyth affair that broke up that government. Thus, there is no real comparison with the recent Meath East by-election.
While certainly faced with enormous challenges, the Labour Party should keep things in perspective. It has actually fared comparatively well at the polls since the last general election.
Throughout its history, the Labour Party has frequently split into contesting parties. Maybe its biggest problem is that it was never more united than it has been in the last few years. It actually won one of the two by-elections held during the lifetime of the current Dáil.
In October 2011 Patrick Nulty of the Labour Party won the seat vacated by the death of Brian Lenihan of Fianna Fáil. This was actually the first by-election won by a government party in more than 29 years. Moreover, notwithstanding Labour’s dismal showing in Meath East, a government candidate actually won that seat. It was the first time that a government won two consecutive by-elections since Jack Lynch’s first government in 1968.
People should also remember that the Labour Party undoubtedly enjoyed one of its finest electoral victories when Michael D Higgins was elected president, representing the Labour Party, within the lifetime of this government.