FERGUS FINLAY: Gilmore is going a bomb because he is not offering a magic bullet

I’M tempted to ring the Labour party and leave them a message.

My days of offering advice to the party are over, but I’m getting really frustrated at all those people who should know better (and who do know better in many cases) solemnly pronouncing that the only thing wrong with the Labour party is that it has no policies.

Next time you hear someone saying that, I’ll suggest, parcel up the entire set of policies you’ve published and send them off. That’ll teach them because a pretty substantial box will arrive on their doorsteps.

Already this year the party has published 10 substantial policy papers – on issues as diverse as tourism, sport, priorities in education, universal health insurance and the need for a strategic investment bank.

To describe the party as a policy-free zone, as Alan Shatter did over the weekend, or to sneer at Eamon Gilmore for lacking specifics, as Celia Larkin did on Sunday, is just a travesty of the truth.

What Labour hasn’t done, of course, is show us a silver bullet. They haven’t said “vote for us and the economy will grow by 10% a year and we’ll create tens of thousands of jobs overnight”.

You know why they haven’t said that? Because (a) it wouldn’t be true, and (b) we wouldn’t believe it even if it was. In fact, I reckon we’re much more likely to vote against the party that offers us a magic bullet the next time. We’ve been there before and we’ve been burned. We’re looking for something different this time.

One of the best speeches I ever heard was made by Barack Obama. It didn’t win him an election, that speech – in fact it was made after he won the election. Standing in a sports field in Chicago, he said:

“There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after the children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage or pay their doctors’ bills or save enough for their child’s college education … The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America , I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there … But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree… And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” And he finished this way: “This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”

Eamon Gilmore could add a few more items to Barack Obama’s brick-by-brick list – job by job, classroom by classroom, hospital ward by hospital ward. He knows, and every one of us knows, that our economy has to be rebuilt from the ground up. Our public services, essential to our quality of life, have to be rebuilt the same way. It cannot be done by magic – it can only be done by shared sacrifice.

We’ve seen the magic before. Last week I wrote about the legacy of decentralisation – empty buildings, demoralised staff, chaos in decision-making and a mountain of wasted money. That’s what happens when even relatively small rabbits are pulled out of magician’s hats. And the bigger rabbits – like the stream of tax incentives and tax breaks for builders and developers at a time when the economy was already boiling over – have done the kind of damage that will take a generation to undo.

It’s also accustomed us all to take part in conversations about sums of money we can’t begin to comprehend. We all seem to think in billions these days, don’t we? I was listening to a discussion about financial waste on Marian Finucane’s show on Sunday. The money being talked about was stratospheric, and utterly incomprehensible.

But on Sunday afternoon I met a large group of people who volunteer for the St Vincent de Paul Society in Donegal, and I know only too well what they could do with, say, €30,000 – mere petty cash in the context of all the money we talk about now.

They could transform the lives of people they know and perhaps even save some lives that are pretty close to despair. With a tiny amount of money, well directed, they could set about rebuilding hope where none exists at the moment. They, like thousands of others around the country, are “Yes we can” people.

The leadership they’re looking for is all too clear – and it’s the reason why all this guff about policy is just a load of nonsense. They’re looking for leadership that will be not just honest with them, but open; that will listen and understand how people are suffering; that will seek to involve them in developing the real priorities. They’re looking for leaders who have been through it, who know (and haven’t forgotten) what it’s like to struggle to pay bills or give your kids the best education possible, or help to provide for your child’s wedding. They’re looking for leaders whose decisions will be capable of being understood, even if you don’t always agree with them.

They’re looking for character, in other words. There’s a few other things that go into the definition of character as well – honesty, hard work, efficiency, a willingness to take responsibility, a determination to live simply.

POLITICIANS with character know that you sometimes have to change your mind as circumstances change, and they know that being in government often means that how you manage events is just as important as whether the manifesto gets delivered in full. But when they change course, they do so for good reason, and they do so openly.

When you meet people who are making a difference in their local communities, they’re the qualities you find in real leaders. And they’re the qualities that we are looking for in our national leaders too.

So here’s the irony. The reason Eamon Gilmore is doing so well in the polls is not because he has sold us the pup of a magic solution to all our problems. It’s because he hasn’t. He has concentrated on trying to prove to people that he gets it.

Despite all the published policies, he may in the end of the day have nothing to offer us but rolled-up sleeves and an absolute determination to do the hard slog – and to get us to roll up our sleeves too.

I suspect that for the “yes we can” people I meet all over the country, that’s more than enough to be getting on with.


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