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7 things we learned from Labour's one-day conference

Here’s what we found out after spending the day with Eamon Gilmore and co in a nice hotel in Enfield, Co Meath.

Ministers Pat Rabbitte and Ruairí Quinn at the Labour conference in Meath today
Ministers Pat Rabbitte and Ruairí Quinn at the Labour conference in Meath today
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

WITH THE LOCAL and European elections less than 100 days away, Labour gathered in Meath today for a one-day national conference where they talked about all the great things the party is doing in government.

Having just gathered for a whole weekend last November, where they voted through dozens of motions and debated policy, this event was more about rallying the troops ahead of what are sure to be difficult elections on 23 May.

TheJournal.ie spent the whole day at the conference, and here’s what we found out…

1. MEPs and MEP hopefuls were front and centre

One of the repeat features of this conference was local election candidates lining up to have their picture taken with various ministers with Ruairí Quinn being particularly popular. We also heard from a lot of these candidates during the televised session this morning.

The party was also keen to showcase their European election hopefuls – all of them female – with their posters dotted around the Johnstown House Hotel, and two of them, Emer Costello and Phil Prendergast flanking Joan Burton when she spoke to the media.

Burton said it was “remarkable” that people in the northside of Dublin refer to Emer Costello as ‘Emer’ and was full of praise for the ‘Galway Girl’ Lorraine Higgins – having earlier forgotten her name on RTÉ Radio. Unfortunately she neglected to mention Prendergast as she talked-up the party’s chances in the European Parliament elections, while the Ireland South MEP was standing beside her. Awkward.

2. The pylon protesters came, but in small numbers

As delegates arrived this morning, anti-pylon and anti-wind turbine protesters were stationed outside the Johnstown House Hotel, but by the time we went to speak to them they’d headed home. Despite their small numbers they seemed well-organised with professional banners that probably cost a few bob.

At a session on internet safety, one enterprising audience member somehow referenced the pylons issue but there was very little talk about them generally, certainly when compared to Sinn Féin last week. Protest wise, Labour will be pleased there was no repeat of the infamous Galway conference in 2012, but this morning’s small demonstration showed that the pylon/wind turbine issue is very much alive.

image3. Joan Burton is still playing a canny game

The party’s deputy leader hit out at the “obnoxious” theory of ‘trick-down economics’ and spoke of the importance of building the economy from the bottom up in a speech this morning. When you add this to her previous calls for a ‘living wage’ the minister is evidently keen to carve out a niche for herself as someone wholly dedicated to looking out for low-paid workers. This is despite heading a department that has made some of the severest cuts to the incomes of the most vulnerable in recent years.

Added to that, Burton took a slight dig at James Reilly’s plans for universal health insurance (UHI) pointing out that similar models in other countries can be very expensive. Reilly is persona non grata with many in Labour and the Social Protection Minister was no doubt fully aware of this when making her remarks.

We no longer hear speculation of Burton making a play for the leadership, but she’s continuing to do the things that led to that kind of talk last summer.

4. We need to talk about the soup and sambos

Allow us a spot of self-indulgence as we give out blue (maybe red in this case) murder about the cost of getting fed down in Enfield. Delegates and the media literally had no option but to go for a soup and sandwich at a cost of €12 with the regular bar menu restricted to residents at the Johnstown House Hotel. After our encounter with a €2.50 bottle of water at Sinn Féin’s gathering last weekend, this left our jaws on the floor. A hotel source said the price was agreed with the party beforehand.

image5. Labour is going after Sinn Féin…

Political parties having a go at each other is no surprise, but Labour appears to be particularly critical of Sinn Féin, knowing the party threatens it from the left. Pat Rabbitte told RTÉ this week that SF is “getting away with murder” when being interviewed.

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Gerry Adams hit back at that, but the Tánaiste today took aim at the party’s “daft economics” which he said “will put us into a second bailout”. In his televised address he did not mention the party by named but warned of the “fantasy economics” of others. Expect more of this in the weeks ahead.

6. … and is unashamedly the party of the public sector

“We are the party of public servants and quality public services,” Brendan Howlin declared at a session held on the fringes of the conference today. Labour knows which side its bread is buttered on and that it needs the the votes of public sector workers. Some of them have become disillusioned with the party over the past three years, but Howlin insisted there would have been “no Haddington Road Agreement without Labour in government”. He’s probably right.

image7. Actually, we didn't learn that much at all

Party conferences have lacked big policy announcements in recent years and this one was no different. We weren't expecting much with Labour having already gathered as recently as November and with the local and European elections just weeks away, but this was largely a non-event.

It was the last party gathering before Labour more than likely takes a substantial hit in its number of elected representatives in three months' time.

Though the mood was positive today, there is no escaping the fact that Labour will not hit the heights of 2011 on 23 May and some of those there today won't be in the same positions they are now come the 2015 conference.

Read: ‘We get on extremely well’: Brendan Howlin ‘annoyed’ by report of rift with James Reilly

Tánaiste tells Labour: ‘We will not take any guff from Fianna Fáil’

About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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