Jack Power is a UCD History Joint Major student. The best book reviews written as part of the course requirements for POL30080 Irish Politics and Policy are posted here to let UCD students contribute to critical reflection on key issues in Irish political and social life.
Gilmore, Éamon (2015) Inside the Room: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Crisis Government, Dublin, Merrion Press.
Eamon Gilmore’s memoir Inside the Room, despite its several shortcomings, provides an interesting read for any politico. The book was penned by Gilmore presumably in an attempt to justify the Labour Party’s efforts in government with the public. It offers a look behind both the doors of the coalition government and into the Labour Party backroom, and if one can cut through the haze of Gilmore’s own political spin, the book can go a long way to explaining the Labour Party’s fall from grace.
The book comes out of the Fine Gael-Labour 2011 coalition government and gives an accurate insight into the political context of the time. But written perhaps prematurely, it bears much of the situational residue from the political landscape within the government trenches and thus lacks in reflection. The purpose was no doubt to set the record straight on Labour’s time in government, but it reads as an exercise in self-defence and political spin. The repetitive message of ‘jobs jobs jobs’ fits Gilmore’s own concocted narrative that the first port of call of a socialist is to ensure job creation and national economic conditions that will provide good wages. This angling from Gilmore to try and square the austerity policies of the coalition with the ideology of the left runs throughout the book, and while it wears thin on the reader at times, it provides an interesting insight into the perhaps where it all went wrong for the Labour party in office. Most crucially for Labour, it seems they lost the PR battle with the public.
‘Often in politics, it is not what it said that matters, but what is heard’ – this is Gilmore’s most prophetic line on the election promise of ‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way’. The former party leader outlines how his punchy election slogan was meant to be a strong call for a growth-centred approach to the Irish financial crisis, but was interpreted by voters as a promise to burn the bondholders. The failure of clarity of communication meant that even when the Troika did move to a more growth-based solution, and relaxed the pressure on the Irish government to pursue ‘internal devaluation’, it was seen as a loss for Labour rather than a victory.
Gilmore’s analysis of the Programme for Government negotiated between Labour and Fine Gael in 2011 highlights areas in which Labour should have received credit from the electorate but did not. They moderated Fine Gael’s plans to reduce the national budget deficit primarily by cutting public services rather than raising taxes: pressure from Labour reduced that ratio from 3:1 to closer to 2:1. Yet Labour bore the brunt of the vitriol over the cuts to public spending that did take place, and received no plaudits for the cuts or reductions they prevented. The junior coalition partner in Irish politics often falls victim to this fate. Working with limited resources and absorbed with the time-consuming responsibilities of governing, the parliamentary Labour Party did not look up from their desks until it was too late and the tide of public opinion had turned irretrievably against them.
The within-coalition political jostling between Labour and Fine Gael also provides the most interesting and candid sections of the book in Chapters 6, 7 and 8. In contrast to Labour, Fine Gael put tremendous effort during their time in government into selling their message of job growth. Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton and Taoiseach Enda Kenny were relentless over the five years in trumpeting jobs announcements and unveiling new business endeavours. Gilmore attempts to emphasise his own overlooked role as Minister for Foreign Affairs in lobbying and reaching out to Ireland’s business-world diaspora to help the country get back on its feet. Much of this work was done in private meetings, at state dinners, and in embassies across the world – all far removed from the public eye. The disconnect between what Labour were doing and what the increasingly disenfranchised voters were seeing meant that Fine Gael owned the narrative of job creation and recovery as their own, and this tended to sideline Labour’s efforts.
Labour’s woes in coalition stem from experiences such as this: they failed to associate any of the ‘wins’ of the government with their own party. Much of the social and progressive reform of the government were driven behind the scenes by passionate Labour representatives, but this didn’t translate into success stories for the party in the eyes of the public. The Marriage Equality referendum, the Protection of Life Bill, and the Constitutional Convention were all Labour policies for which that the party received little gratitude from the electorate. The problem, which Gilmore’s book reveals whether it intends to or not, was that Fine Gael were able to co-opt the good news stories and elbow Labour out of the frame. Labour seemingly got no credit either for the hard-line Fine Gael policy preferences it prevented, or for the Labour party reforms it did achieve.
Inside the Room is therefore itself an example of the Labour Party’s failings. Gilmore’s tone at times reveals a frustration or arrogance when addressing ‘the people’. The idea that the electorate simply didn’t understand the good Labour has done for them fed into a contempt for their own voters within the party, and this only put further distance between Labour and its support base, especially among the working class. The PR and communications ball was ultimately and fatally dropped by Labour in the chaos of what was at times a crisis cabinet during 2011 and 2012: amid continuing cuts and austerity, the party was all too easily vilified by its supporters. Gilmore’s efforts at outlining Labour’s positive impact in office and its real success stories – while valid – simply come off as more political spin, self-serving in nature. This only presses home the point that when the tide of public opinion turns against you politically, it is often all but impossible to turn it back. Inside the Room then, while serving as Gilmore’s own political obituary, should be a reminder and a warning to any future junior coalition partner. The act of governing while maintaining your support among voters is more an art of public relations than of politics.