One of the most engrossing political sagas of the current Dáil has been the venomous relationship between the Labour leadership and the party’s maverick Galway East TD Colm Keaveney.
The defection of five TDs in the first two years of Government and a nosedive in successive opinion polls has left Labour leader Eamon Gilmore in an unenviable position and, under normal circumstances, he could really use the support of the party chair.
As Gilmore scrambles to scoop water out of his sinking paddle boat, however, Colm Keaveney has been piddling into the vessel from the pier.
Last weekend, the Tuam-based TD launched his latest invective against the Labour leadership in the form of a diatribe posted on his blog (www.colmkeaveney.ie/blog/ ), in which he claimed that the party had lost its bearings and called for a change of attitude at the top. He wrote:
“Labour in Government has now lost our bearings. Its role in influencing the debate within Irish politics and society towards a more just, equal, and tolerant Ireland is being lost through compromise and a failure of nerve by those in leadership position.”
Meanwhile, Dep Keaveney stubbornly refuses to relinquish his position as chairman despite having been described by Eamon Gilmore as “an opposition TD”. The arrangement that the two men have reached, to allow them remain side by side on the National Executive, is like that of the tiger and the Indian in the Oscar-winning Life of Pi.
Political spectators have enjoyed the internecine bloodbath and Dep Keaveney’s penchant for the dramatic, but few have thought to look at the broader picture, and conceive that there may be method to the Galwayman’s madness, aside from settling old scores.
The voice of the grassroots
Dep Keaveney challenged the party’s choice for the chairmanship last year when he went up against Galway West TD Derek Nolan, and ultimately surfed to victory on a wave of dissatisfaction amongst grassroots members at the Labour leadership.
He has continued to harness that vote and has represented himself as a mouthpiece for disaffected supporters and a defender
of traditional, uncompromised, Labour values.
His bilious attacks on Gilmore and Labour’s performance in Government, therefore, are not merely the manifestation of residual bitterness, nor are they unmeasured attacks aimed at garnering media exposure.
As though they were seated at opposite ends of a seesaw, as the leadership’s reputation in the eyes of Labour voters declines; Dep Keaveney’s status amongst the party grassroots soars. The more disillusionment that grows within the ranks of its voters, the more disaffected supporters will move towards the Tuam man’s own brand of Labour.
This places Dep Keaveney in a formidable position. The leader of the Labour Party is democratically elected by ordinary members of the organisation, and the following Dep Keaveney has accumulated, by humming along to the tune of grassroots disaffection, could prove vital for any pretenders to Gilmore’s throne.
If, during the remainder of the lifetime of this Government, Gilmore is deposed and a scramble for the leadership ensues, candidates will have to court the votes of those members who Dep Keaveney counts amongst his flock.
The Tuam TD could emerge as kingmaker in such a scenario and the next Labour leader might well offer him a way back into the party in return for his endorsement and support. Indeed, Keaveney would likely demand a senior position for his trouble.
Of course, it is entirely possible that Dep Keaveney could throw his hat in the ring in the event the leadership comes up for grabs. If the opportunity does not arise until after the next election, however, he may find himself scrapping for the leadership of a decimated party.
In this scenario, the leadership might well carry all the prestige of that of the PDs in its latter days.
An arid future?
Unfortunately for Dep Keaveney, however, all politics is local. While he may have blossomed as a national politician and parliamentarian, his electoral roots are planted in arid ground.
His grandiose plans for ascendancy are contingent on him retaining his seat in Galway East, where more than 20,500 people have been lost to the new Galway-Roscommon constituency and the number of seats has been reduced by one to three.
There had never been a Labour seat in the rural constituency of Galway East and in 2011, at the height of the party’s popularity, Dep Keaveney only just managed to edge across the line thanks to a mammoth transfer from his running mate, Lorraine Higgins.
It was a lacklustre electoral performance from the Tuam man. He garnered 7.2 per cent of first-preference votes, which was actually marginally lower than his previous best which he polled at his first attempt in 1997.
It took an unexpectedly large haul of votes from Higgins – who was on the ticket as the sweeper candidate – and a remarkable transfer of the bulk of those votes to Dep Keaveney to get him across the line ahead of his local rival, Fine Gael’s Tom McHugh.
It is almost inconceivable – given the reduction in the number of seats, the loss of 20,500 people from his support base in the north of the county, and the nosedive of Labour in the polls – that the now-Independent TD could retain the seat that he won by such a narrow margin in 2011.
It appears the only thing that might save him is if he succeeds in re-entering the Labour fold in a senior position, that voters might think worth keeping in the constituency.
This means the battle for grassroots support in seeking to retain the chairmanship this autumn will be a fight for Dep Keaveney’s political life. It will also be a massive challenge for Eamon Gilmore in seeking to re-establish his authority as leader.
It is likely to be the climax of a fascinating political saga and the Galway East TD will most likely be dusting off his copy of Latin For Dummies as he prepares to make it a spectacle.