Ruairi Quinn’s prediction will come true after short-lived glory days

Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe sees the writing on the wall for Labour as the party fights for its survival in the upcoming election    

As the votes were being counted at the last general election and tallymen had concluded Fianna Fáil’s misfortunes and calculated Fine Gael and Labour’s unprecedented gains, I remember a sombre and almost emotional Ruairi Quinn walking through the doors of the RDS count centre in Dublin.

Despite the extraordinary victory for the Labour TD’s party, the former finance minister seemed upset.

“What’s wrong?”, I asked him. He paused, then said: “Labour will never get as many votes as this again.”

It was a remarkable moment. The party seized 37 seats, the highest in its 100- year history, surpassing the huge wave of support under Dick Spring in 1992.

The then Labour leader Eamon Gilmore had at one stage predicted his party could win as many as 50 seats.

Quinn’s stoic prophecy, while forlorn, was indicative of what Labour ultimately would now face going into power as the junior party in an inevitable time of austerity. It would potentially be Labour’s brightest moment, but not to be repeated again.

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Gilmore knew it too. As the Coalition was being formed in those dark days of February 2011, the party leader warned his newly- crowned parliamentary members that the “forests of placards” or protestors would come. They did too.

Flash forward to Labour’s conference the following year when it was held in Galway. Cabinet members and TDs were forced into a lockdown at NUI Galway after protestors broke through a garda blocade and surrounded the conference venue.

Five years later and under a new leader, Joan Burton, Labour is potentially facing an election meltdown, which would leave the junior coalition partner with less than half of those original seat wins.

Cutbacks, new charges and unkeepable promises are all coming home to roost, so much so that many predict that Labour during the election is now very much fighting for its existence.

While the humble increase in support to 10% in the weekend Red C poll will augur well for the beginning of the campaign, it’s a daunting battle now for Labour.

Quinn’s poignant remark about its future is clear. He and senior Labour figures knew this day would come, where it faced extinction for decisions taken alongside Fine Gael. So how much support can the party claw back or is it too late?

The party’s weekend pre-election conference in Mullingar, Westmeath, saw a strong emphasis on the economy, jobs and personal finances. This is the meat of general elections.

Tánaiste Joan Burton’s speech was peppered throughout with continued references to jobs and the economy. She even went as far as saying that Irish people would commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising this year with our “economic freedom restored”. It’s all about the money and jobs at election time. Moreoever, Labour are desperate to take some ownership of the economic recovery, in case voters attribute it to Fine Gael.

One senior party figure shared the reality of what matters for voters, as canvassers hit the doorsteps. “It’s not the eighth amendment, abortion or social issues, it’s about that job, that tax or that cut,” he said.

But lest we forget what it is that has left Labour’s support on the floor. The litany of cuts and charges dropped on citizens under their watch won’t be easily forgotten.

There were water charges, the property tax, cuts to child benefit, the removal of medical cards and cuts to health and welfare entitlements.

Cuts to entitlements for the most vulnerable were particularly harsh, such as those to the fuel allowance, back-to-school clothing, the footwear allowance, and the household benefits package.

Now, as has been pointed out, the outgoing Government are trying to stuff money back into one pocket after having taking it out of voters’ other one in recent years.

Another problem for Labour is that there is greater support for other candidates on the left as opposed to last time around.

In several constituencies, Sinn Féin candidates and some left-wing Independents are likely to pass the line before the Labour candidate does or they may be left fighting for the last seat.

While a party delegate at the weekend quipped that these alternative candidates were just throwing out “phoney Harry Potter” fantasy promises, their gain is Labour’s loss.

Furthermore, Labour is in a fight for the last seat with its very own outgoing coalition partner, Fine Gael, in several constituencies, including Dublin Rathdown, Dublin Bay North and Cork South Central among areas.

We can expect lots of fake wars between the two parties in the coming weeks, as Labour in particular attempts to recast its own image for voters and distance itself from Fine Gael.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to know if undecided voters will accept this as a credible reason to give Labour another chance in government.

If not, we might see a very different Joan Burton come through the doors of the main count centres in a few weeks if Labour hit, not a new high, but a new low in the election.

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