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Column: Nessa Childers said what many ordinary Labour members really think about the government

Eamon Gilmore will have one less Christmas card to write now – but if Labour took its MEPs seriously, this may never have happened, writes Nessa Childers’ former parliamentary assistant Ciara Galvin.

Ciara Galvin

NESSA CHILDERS’ DECISION to resign from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is slightly less surprising than the fact that it’s not rained yet in Dublin today.

It has been a long time coming. Relations between Childers and the leadership have not been the same since her clash with the leadership in 2011 over the Cardiff affair – when, to the embarrassment of the government, Childers loudly criticised attempts to quietly move former secretary-general Kevin Cardiff from the Department of Finance to the European Court of Auditors. Afterwards relations were only tenuously rebuilt. Her perceived criticism in the media of Labour Party colleagues for their part in government has not helped in this regard, and has long led rank-and-file members to speculate she may run as an independent candidate in the European elections in 2014.

As such, the roots of Childers’ decision to leave the PLP today probably run deeper than her statement suggests. Its timing is certainly interesting in that it comes a week after Labour polled at 4 per cent in the Meath-East by-election (part of Childers’ constituency), and with the European elections just over a year away.

In practical terms, Childers’ resignation will make almost no difference to how the PLP operates. Besides not being able to attend PLP meetings of TDs, Senators and MEPs,  all that will really happen is Childers will no longer be able to issue press releases through the Labour press office and she will most probably not make Eamon Gilmore’s Christmas card list this year. The relationships between MEPs and their national legislatures are often complicated, but MEPs are rather marginal players in the PLP and the absence will hardly be noticed. Nor missed. As an indication of just how marginal the MEPs are, the PLP’s special pre-budget ‘think-in’ last year was scheduled during a week when MEPs could not attend. A letter from the head of delegation Emer Costello objecting to the event’s timing was reportedly laughed at from the floor.

The selection convention will take place  soon – and will almost certainly be controversial

In European terms, Childers will probably no longer attend the meetings of the Irish Labour delegation in the European Parliament – which after Cardiff she did not attend for a time anyway – but she will still be part of the S&D (Socialist and Democrat) group. The group is equivalent to the parliamentary party for Socialist and Democrat MEPs, but with considerably less discipline when it comes to recommended voting positions. Usually the group communicates their position to each country’s delegation leader, in this case Emer Costello’s office, who passes it on to the other MEPs. If Childers is not longer part of the delegation it will cause the group a minor headache as they will have to treat her as the leader of a separate delegation and communicate with her office directly. As there are only three Irish Labour MEPs, having two separate delegations does seem a little redundant. In practice though, this will be little different than the situation which emerged after the Cardiff incident.

With regards to Childers’ re-election in 2014, her move to resign from the PLP is unlikely to hurt her popularity, at least with the electorate most likely to support her. There is still the matter of being re-selected by the Labour Party as a candidate for the European elections. The selection convention will take place fairly soon, and will almost certainly be a source of controversy. If Party members choose Childers as their candidate, Labour may not fund her campaign. If they don’t choose Childers, which is unlikely, as there are no other strong contenders at this point, Childers will almost certainly run as an independent candidate. It’s also possible – if rumours of a Labour splinter group breaking off prove true – that she could skip the convention and run as part of a new social democratic party.

Overall, perhaps this situation could have been avoided if the Labour Party had engaged with the MEPs more seriously. Then again, the same could be said of engagement with party members. In resigning from the PLP, Childers is expressing a lot of the disgruntlement that ordinary Labour members have been feeling about supporting a government of austerity.

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‘The Labour party conference should prove interesting…’

Childers has already attended a number of events hosted by the Campaign for Labour Policies (CLP), an admittedly small member’s organisation which seeks to promote Labour values in government. The group is due to meet again tomorrow, Saturday 6 April, to discuss the state of the party after the Meath East by-election, with Childers scheduled to attend. A search for supporters for a breakaway party in their ranks may prove fruitless however, as to date its members have preferred to work for change from inside Labour rather than leave.

It’s too soon to say what long-term impact Childers’ resignation will have – if any – on the Labour Party. It will not have much direct effect on the PLP. It will have some impact on how Childers herself works, but not much as she was already fairly independent. She will probably find support in other disgruntled members, and stand in the 2014 election either as an independent Labour candidate or as part of a new social democratic group. Either way, the Party Conference in November should prove interesting when Childers attends with the other 4 ‘rebel’ TDs. And Eamon Gilmore will have at least one less Christmas card to write this year.

Ciara (@ciaraleena) is one of 25 young journalists taking part in European Movement Ireland’s ‘Youth Media and the Irish Presidency’ project (#YMIP). She is affiliated to the Labour Party, and formerly worked for Nessa Childers in the European Parliament.

About the author:

Ciara Galvin

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