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This outgoing minister gave us a brutal assessment of where it all went wrong for Labour

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin explained why the seeds of Labour’s demise were sown in 2011 in a wide-ranging interview with TheJournal.ie this week.
Mar 22nd 2016, 8:30 PM 27,610 72

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Actually, funnily, bizarrely, the last couple of weeks, since I lost my seat, it’s actually… it’s a little bit of a release. It’s kind of hard to describe.

AS A TD, AODHÁN Ó Ríordáin spent the last five years constantly worrying about his seat, then the worst happened.

After an epic count, lasting several days in the RDS last month, the Labour junior minister, like so many of his colleagues across the country, was relieved of his duties by the voters of Dublin Bay North.

It was a rollercoaster of a weekend. Ó Ríordáin and his team thought for some time that he was going to be okay. But he was unseated after failing to secure sufficient transfers in a crowded field of 20 candidates.

original Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in the RDS with senator Mairia Cahill last month. Source: Cianan Brennan/TheJournal.ie

It was a dreadful election for Labour and despite that personal release from seat anxiety, it was hard to see so many of his colleagues turfed out by an unforgiving electorate.

Everything Ó Ríordáin believed over the last few years, everything he worked to achieve as a Labour TD and then as a minister of state for new communities, culture equality, and drugs strategy was rejected. It hurts him a lot.

“I am so proud of what we’ve done over the last number of years and I’ve fully committed myself to it and I fully believe in it,” Ó Ríordáin told TheJournal.ie this week.

Then you come to an election where it’s been soundly rejected. It’s soundly rejected by the people and coming to that realisation is pretty harsh.

Ó Ríordáin on what it’s been like since he lost his seat:

Source: Michael Sheils McNamee/TheJournal.ie

“You’re so convinced about something that you join a party, you manage to get yourself elected, you’re involved in it for five years, you’re a minister of state for a period of time, you fully believe in the project and then what you believe in, you get the personal rejection, but you’re [also] roundly rejected.

Everything you’ve been saying for five years has just been absolutely rejected by the people, in the most spectacular way. It’s difficult to pick up the pieces from that.

Labour’s demise was well-flagged. The party, despite its own spin, was on course for a wallop at the polls. But the scale of the collapse was still surprising to many political observers as it won just seven seats, having returned with 37 in 2011.

Ó Ríordáin said it was a strange election, which “was passing people by” even as he and his political colleagues were all busy knocking on doors and arguing on the airwaves. Many voters he encountered were undecided about who to vote for, even as late as the night before going to the ballots.

Where did it go wrong?

But the seeds of Labour’s collapse were sown five years ago, he believes. That is a view shared by many commentators who have pointed to the infamous ‘Every Little Hurts’ Tesco ad in the dying days of the 2011 campaign as a point where the party made it promises it would be unable to honour.

screenshot.1458656857.71824 Source: www.thejournal.ie

[The Tesco ad] just showed the kind of the panic that set in to the campaign in 2011 and then you go from that, I mean, I think there was a massive sense of disappointment in 2011 that we only got 19%, that we only got 37 seats.

“I think there was a sense at the beginning of the campaign that this [was] serious breakthrough territory. This [was] going to be 50 or 60 seats territory for the Labour party. Maybe not 60, but certainly in and around major breakthrough point.

So when we got what we got there was almost a sense of disappointment, and from then on it was as if we were always on the back foot.

As someone who has a keen interest in education, Ó Ríordáin also identified Ruairí Quinn’s decision to sign a USI pledge not to increase student fees during the last election as a promise broken when he became education minister.

General Elections Campaigns Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

“I remember that week. We were all told: ‘Absolutely do not sign, pledge or promise anything because the country is in hoc and we’ve no money.’ When I saw that I thought: ‘What’s he doing that for?’

So, not to blame Ruairi – that was his decision to make in that week but it did kind of give us, as candidates, a sense that there [was] a level of desperation seeping into this campaign here. We thought we were going to do an awful lot better.

During that campaign, there was also ‘Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’ – then leader Eamon Gilmore’s infamous insistence that his party would not kowtow to the Troika.

Source: Brian Greene/YouTube

O Ríordáin believes Labour should have made more of the fact that the party raised the minimum wage and protected core social welfare payments, against the will of its EU/IMF paymasters.

“We could have easily presented to people a number of things that Frankfurt wanted that they didn’t get. From the minimum wage, to the €1.7 billion extra in social welfare cuts, the €600 million extra in tax increases that they wanted, the promissory note,” he said.

We could have listed things that Frankfurt wanted that they didn’t get, but we didn’t do it.

The Kelly factor and Fine Gael’s ‘catastrophe’

He’s reluctant to talk about Alan Kelly’s controversial role in the more recent election campaign.

The Labour deputy leader gave an ill-advised interview to the Sunday Independent in which he said, among other things, that power “is a drug” that suits him. Kelly also faced claims that he verbally attacked Newstalk presenter Chris Donoghue, just one example of how his abrasive style raised many eyebrows.

Kelly has an ego, Ó Ríordáin said, as does everyone in politics (he included himself here). But when pushed on what he really thinks of the outgoing Environment Minister, he had something to say:

Source: Michael Sheils McNamee/TheJournal.ie

Overall, the campaign didn’t do much to enhance Labour’s chances. Ó Ríordáin believes the party’s warning about the consequences of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition came too late.

Furthermore, Labour ended up aligned closely to a party that had an “absolutely catastrophic” campaign.

Whatever campaign we had was in some way aligned to that. So from the overreach on USC – which nobody bought – to the €2 billion that they couldn’t find in their figures, to the Michael Lowry thing – which was again a mistake – to the debates, that were okay but not brilliant, to the ‘whingers’ comment.

“It just went from bad to worse and so, while we expected not to do as well as 2011, a bit like the local elections, Fine Gael did an awful lot worse than they were expecting. So we had hitched ourselves, I suppose, to a re-elect the government message.”

Should Labour have apologised for the broken promises in that Tesco ad and others? Would a bit of humility have benefitted the party at the polls? Ó Ríordáin isn’t so sure:

Source: Michael Sheils McNamee/TheJournal.ie

Then you’re making the narrative about apologies and how we haven’t lived up to expectations whereas there was so many things we felt we were doing.

What now? 

With seven seats and, as it sees it, no mandate to govern, Labour will go into opposition and seek to rebuild.

Ó Ríordáin believes the question over Joan Burton’s leadership doesn’t arise right now as there are so many imponderables about the formation of the next government.

But he seems pretty downbeat about the party’s prospects if a second election was to be called soon. What message can Labour go to the doors with this time around that would entice people to vote for it, he wonders.

It begs the question as to whether the party can survive at all after the worst election in its 104-year history. Ó Ríordáin seemed slightly hesitant when we asked:

Source: Michael Sheils McNamee/TheJournal.ie

Social affairs

A referendum on the Eighth Amendment, which Labour has championed in recent years, will not now happen, Ó Ríordáin believes. He will continue to campaign for it, but sees no prospect of Fine Gael, in a minority government, pursuing the thorny issue of abortion.

“A minority Fine Gael government is not going to open up that can of worms,” he said.

Do you think a minority government, led by Fine Gael, supported or facilitated by Fianna Fáil, is actually going to grasp the thorny nettle of an Eighth Amendment referendum? Not in a million years.

Ó Ríordáin is also worried that the campaign for a living wage of €11.30 is now dead in the water and that the pledge to reduce class sizes to a ratio of 20:1 will fall by the wayside.

His own future may lie in the Seanad if he’s elected next month, but when it comes to the bigger picture, Ó Ríordáin believes that politics is in flux and that centre left politics, a space that Labour likes to occupy, “is in crisis”.

“Centrist politics is certainly in trouble and centre left politics is in crisis. Certainly in Ireland,” he said.

I think I care too much to walk away but… I may be pointed to walk away, or I may have an opportunity to stick around. But look, I think the issues that I care about are too important to walk away from.

WATCH:  ‘I’m not going to lie to people, I’d much rather be in the Dáil’

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Hugh O'Connell

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