WHETHER because he’s the repository of rage or the harbinger of hope, there is no denying Eamon Gilmore is the man of the moment: the man to beat.
It is a position he has worked studiously to achieve, and one he clearly intends to carefully guard.
But is his status merely based on being able to articulate the anger of the nation without offering it any hard choices as opponents claim?
Mr Gilmore points to his decision to defy the then national consensus and oppose the bank guarantee scheme, as well as more than forty policy documents, as proof he is not the soft options and sound bites caricature his opponents allege.
“I think that’s a desperate Fianna Fáil put down. They can’t have it both ways, they can’t say we have no policies and then attack us because our policies are different to Fine Gael.
“We are going up in support not because we are the repository of rage, but because we are offering hope. Things like our Strategic Investment Bank – that registers with people trying to get credit for people doing their own business.
“Getting people back to work in the short term, projects that could go ahead like school buildings and the earn and learn scheme where people can work and train – that is what we are focusing on, job creation,” he states quite angrily, for a man who insists there is more to him than anger.
Mr Gilmore has also clearly been stung by accusations of fence-sitting on key national issues like the Croke Park deal or proposed water charges – indeed he has sometimes seemed as adept at stone-walling as a Connemara farm hand, but now realises he must shed that indecisive image.
“I’m against water charging. Water is a necessity, I’ve always believed essential services like water should be delivered as a public service.
“A flat household charge would be unfair and does not discriminate between houses with five bathrooms or none, and metering is unworkable,” he states unambiguously for the first time on the subject.
Though pro-active in many areas, Mr Gilmore seems to have also learned some things in Irish politics remain taboo.
While he felt able to declare in a Hot Press interview shortly after becoming leader in October 2007 that he was “pro-choice” on abortion, he is far more reticent now.
Mr Gilmore insists that was a “personal view” and he will not now go beyond the Labour policy of allowing terminations in restricted circumstances where the life or health of the mother is at risk.
But what did he mean by saying: “I’m pro choice” three years ago? “I’m leader, I support the Labour Party position,” is all he will volunteer.
And Mr Gilmore is also relaxed about Enda Kenny’s hard-line insistence at the last election that he would not allow an abortion referendum while Taoiseach. “Our proposals don’t require a constitutional amendment,” the Labour leader states, clearly uncomfortable with the issue.
Positioning itself as the engine of social change in the monotone, monocultural Ireland of the late 1980s and early 1990s reaped huge rewards for Labour and the party is still keeping the flame of radicalism alive in the area of gay inclusion.
Mr Gilmore insists he will push Fine Gael to implement full civil marriage equality for same sex couples, rather than the civil partnerships option that offers some of the rights given to heterosexuals to gay and lesbian couples.
He even feels bold enough to urge Pope Benedict XVI to “temper” statements such as that claiming that “saving” humanity from homosexuality was as important as protecting the rain forests.
“We have many examples of where there is not only discrimination against gay people, but there has been nasty homophobic bullying and assaults on gay people and I think opinions like that give comfort to that,” he states.
Discussing the Pope is one thing, but doing battle with a cornered Fianna Fáil is quite another, does he expect them to fight dirty?
“I expect it to be a very keenly contested election. I would hope that nobody in the election campaign will resort to dirty tricks, the Irish public have no stomach for negative campaigning,” he states.
Yet it was quite clear from Dáil exchanges at the end of last year that the Cabinet had almost formed its own book club and was avidly reading “The Lost Revolution” – an in-depth history of the Official IRA and Official Sinn Féin.
Fianna Fáil attack dogs like Dermot Ahern routinely heckled Mr Gilmore in the Dáil with references to the book – suggesting the Government may attempt to fling mud when the time comes.
Mr Gilmore, whose political journey through the decades from Official Sinn Féin to the Workers Party to Democratic Left to Labour has been little short of fascinating, is sanguine about the possibility, insisting he was never asked to join the Official IRA.
However, along with his parliamentary party, he does oppose the extradition of former official IRA leader Sean Garland to the US on counterfeiting allegations: “He’s an elderly man and I know that Ruairi Quinn and Joanna Tuffy have taken a strong stand and I support them on that,” he said.
Though speaking before yesterday’s Red C poll listed him as favoured Taoiseach by 40% of those questioned, Mr Gilmore made it clear he would only have a right to the job if Labour gained more seats than Fine Gael – and that he was “not into” a rotation of the office between himself and Enda Kenny. “Our objective is to be the largest party. There is a competition between Fine Gael and Labour to lead the next Government. It’s not about individuals. We have a parliamentary system not a presidential one. It will be decided by the size of the parties,” he said.
But he does admit the move to beef-up Labour’s organisation on the ground and get extra candidates into constituencies they already hold is causing tensions among the party’s old guard.
“Look, there is always a degree of discomfort. Everyone of us who are sitting TDs always feels a degree of discomfort in having a running mate,” he admits.
Mr Gilmore also believes Irish media is too narrowly concentrated, saying it is “unhealthy” for an individual like Denis O’Brien to have such large stakes in the country’s press and radio outlets.
In a rare moment of frivolity for a man who comes across as so serious, Mr Gilmore listed Julia Roberts as his favourite sex symbol when becoming leader. Have the intervening years working with the likes of Labour’s formidable Joan Burton and Liz McManus changed that?
“I stand by Julia Roberts,” he says with a smile.
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