Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Coalition is the only game in town – someone must tell Labour

Colm Keaveney's decision to vote against the Budget is clearly an exercise in nonsense politics.

The disarray in the Labour Party has reached a worrying point, according to political commentator Noel Whelan. He identified the threat posed by it, saying it was big enough to undermine the cohesion of the Government and shorten the lifespan of this Coalition.

In my view, Mr Whelan overstates his case and his judgments are unsound in certain significant respects, which I will briefly deal with. Describing the "current divisions" as "the biggest threat to party cohesion for decades" ignores the serious damage done to Labour by its involvement with Fianna Fail in government, a political episode that did serious and lasting electoral harm, something Mr Gilmore avoided, though only narrowly, in the circumstances of the last election.

Mr Gilmore's leadership, both before and during that election, and his difficulty in finding a common platform with Enda Kenny, though less serious than the Spring decision, was really the beginning of an uneasy relationship that has dogged the party during the lifetime of this Government, and seems destined to go on giving trouble in the future.

Noel Whelan's position in the argument about government cohesion is unacceptable, since it reflects problems within Labour and not between Labour and Fine Gael.

I refer in particular to other points made by Mr Whelan about Colm Keaveney, which follow closely on a eulogy for Ms Roisin Shortall. The fate of both these Labour Party figures has to be stated brutally. They have chosen their paths – to put conscience before party – and the sooner Mr Keaveney follows through on his break with party discipline and party membership, the better for both him and for Labour.

His position is absurd. Despite his qualities, which Mr Whelan labours overmuch, Mr Keaveney's decision to vote against the Budget and yet to remain as party chairman, having breached the most important undertaking any deputy gives when joining a party, is clearly an exercise in nonsense politics.

I turn now to the other part of the coalition partnership. This is the performance of Fine Gael, which is showing little sign of the discord that afflicts Labour. In fact, as underlined by the tragic death of Shane McEntee, party cohesion and solidarity has been reinforced. Enda Kenny's firm leadership of Fine Gael sets an example Labour should follow. The larger partner in the present Coalition increasingly looms over Labour, underscoring the public breast-beating and hair-tearing that is going on inside the junior coalition partner's membership.

Enda Kenny, against the odds and against expectation in the dying days of the old Fianna Fail party of Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern, has forged a new political movement in which his authority is as great as any of his predecessors, if not greater.

Less voluble, less opinionated, less intellectual, Enda Kenny has led a quiet revolution in Fine Gael, giving us something for which we, as a society, have never acknowledged the need. This is a party of the Right that is based in law and reform.

GUBU politics, pursued illegally by Charles Haughey as far back as 1968-69, and then espoused by him in a dreadful period of power and corruption, created a disgraceful era of authoritarianism that cast a political blight over the normal operation of political life in this country.

That has become history, and with luck will remain so. Instead, we have the refreshing spectacle of ministers and ministers of state, including excellent examples from the Labour Party, working along democratic lines for the country's good in the most difficult political period we have encountered since the 1950s.

In a world recession, we have moved from the chaos that followed the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, and our own banking crisis, handled with ignorance and carelessness by the previous administration, to a relatively cogent set of political principles that we should all be thankful for.

Of course, there are grave problems. The dole queues, the emigration of skilled workers, the mortgage crisis, the further and closer regulation of banks, the freeing up of investment for jobs, the equalising of opportunity and of privilege within and outside the public service, and the self-governance of elected representatives over their pay and expenses, all require further and urgent attention.

But nothing better is on offer than the present administration and we should recognise this and ensure that the hiccups – for that is what they are – get tackled, leading Labour back to a more dutiful, more logical and more coherent contribution to the State's welfare. In my view, the party is in a mess, arguing unnecessarily within itself, unsure of direction and purpose. There is no better time than Christmas to find a fresh interpretation of how we should go forward, one that puts the onus on giving rather than taking.