Take me to your leader

No problem! Eamon Gilmore has just taken over at the helm of the Labour Party. Here, in a wide-ranging interview, he talks about Bertie Ahern, the future of Labour, Gay marriage, God, abortion, bias in the media – and a whole lot more besides.

Ireland is changing. Who could have envisaged a day when a mainstream political party would be lead by an agnostic, former student union president, who has experimented with soft drugs and is pro-choice on the contentious abortion debate?

Step forward Eamon Gilmore. Certain politicians and clergy are probably spinning in their graves over the fact that the Labour Party is being lead into the 21st Century by an unashamed liberal thinker, who is unafraid to honestly speak his mind on the key issues.

Born in Galway in 1955, Eamon first became involved in politics with the Students Union at UCG (now NUI Galway). After serving as the President of the Student’s Union there for a year, in 1976, Eamon was selected as President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), and remained in charge until 1978. He was one of a number of prominent USI figures who were associated at the time with Official Sinn Fein.

He then went on to join the Workers’ Party and, after a period as a councillor with Dublin City Council, he eventually won a Dail seat in 1989. Since then, he has been re-elected in ever general election, and is now the sitting TD for the constituency of Dun Laoghaire.

In 1992, Eamon was one of the Workers’ Party deputies involved in the creation of ‘New Agenda’, which subsequently became the short-lived Democratic Left party (Democratic Left merged with Labour in 1999). Between 1994 and 1997, Eamon served as Minister of State at the Department of Marine, when Labour shared power with Fine Gael.

A father of three children, following the resignation of Pat Rabbitte, he was elected leader of the party on September 6 this year.

Jason O’Toole: You have called for the Taoiseach to resign because of questions raised about his private finances in the ‘90s. Is Bertie Ahern guilty of lying to the Mahon Tribunal?

Eamon Gilmore: I don’t believe what I have heard. This is a cock and bull story. You are talking about money that is worth e300,000 in today’s terms – and when you put it altogether – no bank account for five or six years; people producing money that they didn’t count and he didn’t count and the woman lodging it didn’t count and the bank clerk didn’t count; the fact that the lodgement coincidentally happened to be the equivalent of a large Sterling amount; and then there is another lodgement which coincidentally happened to be a large US Dollars amount... I don’t buy his story. Irish people are very fair, very understanding and very sympathetic, but we do not like it when we are taking for gullible fools.

Would the Opposition have done better in the general election if they’d been tougher about the Taoiseach’s financial situation?

Hindsight is always great. I disagree with Pat (Rabbitte) when he said that “We shouldn’t have done it because the previous time we did it we went down in the polls.” There are some things that you have to make a call on – irrespective of whether polls are going up or down for you. There are certain standards that have to be maintained in public life. I do not think that an office holder should be getting large sums of money, whether from friends or business people, or whatever, for personal use. Now, that is my standard. But I don’t go in for the whole kind of “holier than thou”… (pauses) that nobody should ever pay for a lunch or any stuff like that. There has to be a sense of proportion here.

Some would argue that Bertie’s private business is not really any of our business.

We are talking about sums of e300,000. If an office holder takes that, they should have a very good explanation for it – and we haven’t heard a very good explanation. I don’t think it is good enough to say, ‘Ah, look, it is none of our business. That was his own business at the time’. We are talking about the Prime Minister of the country. Ultimately, it is a decision that the people have to make at election time but it is my intention to pursue this issue very vigorously indeed.

What do you make of Bertie Ahern managing to win the vote of confidence last week?

Those who voted for Bertie Ahern will now have to justify that. Brian Cowen made it clear that the Fianna Fail members of the government were doing so out of party loyalty. I think there is a big difference between doing something out of party loyalty and doing something because you believe in it. That rallying call to loyalty doesn’t extend to the Greens, the PDs and the Independents, but yet it was their votes, as it turned out, that caused the no confidence vote to be defeated.

Why do you think newspapers are going so easy on Bertie?

The Sunday Independent in particular is a cheerleader for Bertie and the government. And the Independent group of newspapers backed Bertie, and backed Fianna Fail in three successive general elections. If a newspaper group and a title goes onto the pitch as a player, it is no longer offering fair or objective comment. There is nothing we can do about that because the Sunday Independent will do what the Sunday Independent does, and that is their business. What we have to do is deal with the reality of that. We have to find other ways of communicating and we just have to live with that fact that they are constantly going to be having a thump at us.

Are you suggesting that Labour is getting a hard time from some sections of the media.

Sections of our media seem to support the government in every circumstance and attack the opposition as an alternative. I suppose the Sunday Independent is the best example of it. It is also very transparent. People need to cop themselves on. People can see through what is going on. Outside of Zimbabwe, there are very few examples of democracy where that is happening. Journalists need to ask themselves some very fundamental questions. One: is it serving society, is it serving the idea of a free press, that you always defend the government and attack the opposition? The press is largely in the entertainment business – newspapers have to sell; there are a lot of Irish titles and they are competing with the UK titles – and they will do what they have to do to get the headlines and to sell papers. It’s a commercial business.

Are you saying that we have a very biased press?

We have a free press – free in the sense that it is free of government. Whether journalists in the media are free any more to write what they think or believe is another day’s work. There has been a drift of the press into government service and you sometimes have to wonder when you read what somebody writes and you ask yourself “Is this fair commentary? Or is it another application for a job in the government press office?”

Are you glad to see the back of Michael McDowell?

Not on a personal level. But I am glad to see the end of his politics and I am glad to see the PDs slimmed down to the point of almost non-existence. I think the PDs have been a very right-wing, Thatcherite influence in the Irish body politic. They have – more than any other party – promoted a culture of greed, as opposed to politics of social solidarity. So to the PDs, good riddance.

Do you think that RTE gave unfair coverage to the PDs in comparison to Labour in the general election?

I think that is true. The media generally has given the PDs coverage that is completely out of proportion to their size, even since the general election. They are now a party of two members and they continue to get coverage as if they are a party of 20. The main criticism I would have of RTE was the Late Late Show which they did prior to polling day. They are entitled to do whatever programme they want to do, with whatever panel they choose. But what I found strange was that RTE – when an election is on – operate a stopwatch where they allocate time to each party, proportionate to their size, and they stick absolutely rigidity to it, almost to the point of absurdity. The Labour Party could have a very good news story on a particular day but if it doesn’t fit within the allocation of time which is made by RTE they won’t cover it, or will only cover a certain number of seconds of it, or whatever.

Did they do that with the PDs?

The interesting thing about the Late Late Show was that it was a departure from that very strict time allocation. My view now would be, “that’s over, that’s done with”. But I think that, for future elections, RTE should work on the basis of – if not equal coverage – at least coverage based on the news value what opposition parties are doing. RTE cannot now credibly argue the stopwatch approach to election coverage given what they did with the Late Late Show.

With the advent of technology, does the press have that much influence on politics any more?

It is important that we don’t over-exaggerate the influence the mass media has because the nature of communication is changing. I sometimes read something in the paper and think “God! That is damaging to the Labour Party” – but when you go around your constituency the next day you discover that nobody has seen it or is bothered about it. One of the things that I intend to do as leader is to develop a new strategy and maximise the use of internet and email.

Did you always have political aspirations growing up?

No. Growing up, I was conscious that my family were Fianna Fáil supporters and my grandfather, who had died long before I was born, had a bit of a reputation in the village because he had been involved in the (War of) Independence and had stood for election for Fianna Fáil sometime in the 1920s.

You were the president of the student union in UCG.

When I went to university, I was more interested in the drama society and the social side of university life. It wasn’t really until the end of my first year that I started to take an interest in the student union and that was self-motivated because there was a risk – I went to college to study psychology and we were the first cohort of students doing it fulltime in UCG – that the course was not going to be continued and that we would have to transfer to UCD, So, that stirred us into action. A number of us contacted the students union and arranged meetings and went to see the college authorities.

Would you describe yourself as a bit of a rebel back then?

I think you had to be. I wouldn’t use the “rebel” term, but I went to school in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and it was a very political time. There was the whole civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, there was the Vietnam War, and, of course, this was a very conservative country. You were either radical or you left. That was the choice at the time. The place was backward and it was backward economically. The personal freedoms which people now take for granted were then banned by law. Contraception was banned by law. I think people now don’t realise how bad it was. Women had to give up work if they married – that was up until about ‘71 or ‘72. There was a claustrophobic, repressive culture. This was a priest-ridden country in more senses than one, as we subsequently found out, but it was a very closed, conservative society. The only way to deal with that was by demanding the changes – and those changes we were demanding were radical changes. And we succeeded.

Some people believe that younger generations don’t know how lucky they have it today in Ireland.

I don’t think it is a case of luck. Times change and I don’t go for this kind of, “Oh, God, we had it awful”. What I would say is that the liberal, modern, open society that we have in Ireland today didn’t happen of itself. It had to be fought for. And if we hadn’t fought for those changes, these would not be the modern country that it is today. Ironically, some of the people who are now professing to be great modernisers, great liberals, and part of the modern culture, were hiding behind the priest when we were trying to get the place changed.

Would you be envious of today’s younger generation who don’t have to deal with restrictions with contraceptives?

Oh, God, no! We had fun (laughs).

Do you think sex has been cheapened today?

I think there is a degree to which sex has been commercialised. You will notice the degree of it in advertising, where there is a kind of commodification of sex and of women, in particular. I think that we probably need to re-look at that.

I think Ireland is the most expensive country in Europe when it comes to buying condoms.

It’s a tax on sex! I haven’t done an awful lot of comparative study on that (laughs), but yes, we are. I know there is an issue about the removal of VAT from condoms and that is something I would support – because today condoms are not about contraception but they are about health. On the grounds of public health, the VAT should be removed from condoms.

We seem to have a high level of unplanned pregnancies compared to other EU states.

I think there are other factors at work. I would be more inclined to look at the abuse of alcohol in that area than the price of condoms.

Are people really drinking more?

I am not for a moment suggesting a kind of Matt Talbot approach to alcohol but I think that they way alcohol is used – in some cases, we have moved from a situation where people go have a drink and end up sometimes unwittingly getting drunk, to a situation where people now drink to get smashed, and then try to keep it topped up during the night. That is an abuse of alcohol and that needs to be faced up to. There is a link between alcohol abuse and crime – domestic crime, domestic abuse, domestic violence. There is also a big link between the abuse of alcohol and the demands on our health service. Something like a quarter of admissions to Accidents and Emergencies at weekends are alcohol related. I enjoy a drink, sometimes I enjoy too many, but overall we need to get a balance in terms of our relationship with alcohol. We have to do that individually and as a society.

You must have tried marijuana back in your university days?

I took a few puffs. I just didn’t take to it, so therefore it would be an exaggeration to say that I smoked. I tried it and didn’t like it.

But unlike Bill Clinton, you did inhale?

But literally (laughs) it was only a few puffs. I just didn’t like the taste of it. I just never bothered with it after that.

Did you ever try anything else?

No. No, I didn’t.

Should marijuana be legalised here?

I don’t think legalising marijuana is the way to approach this. We have to look at the emphasis of drugs enforcement (laws). The time of the Gardai needs to be spent on the Class A, the hard drugs, serious drug dealing, and the gangland crime that is linked to that.

In the UK, the police were instructed not to arrest people who were caught in possession of small amounts of marijuana?

I was attracted to what the government there was trying to do – I thought that was sensible. The problem with legalising is that you kind of confirm an approval. (But) our drugs squads would be better off going after the big drug dealers rather than going after somebody who has a small amount of cannabis on their possession for their own use.

You were a member of the Official Sinn Fein, so you were obviously a Republican sympathiser growing up?

Through the '70s what distinguished Official Sinn Fein and what later became the Workers’ Party was its socialism. The two things that attracted me were, first of all, its Socialist outlook, but, secondly, its view – which I think was Connolly’s view – that the country means nothing without its people. I believe that the Workers’ Party through the '70s and the '80s played a major role in for standing up for non-sectarianism and saying, “Look, this kind of sectarian Catholic/Nationalist and Protestant/Loyalist kind of conflict is hugely destructive and what was required in Ireland was a unity of Catholics and Protestants’. The idea of the Republic not as being a place or a piece of land, or to be defined geographically, but the Republic as a thing of people, is a republicanism that I subscribe to this day.

But witnessing Bloody Sunday must have angered you?

You couldn’t but be moved by what happened on Bloody Sunday. It was a slaughter. Yes, it did (anger me) as indeed did Bloody Friday, which was about six months later when the Provos set off a series of bombs in Belfast.

But the Official IRA, which had connections with Official Sinn Fein, were involved in setting off bombs, such as the Aldershot atrocity.

It was all wrong. It was savage. Thankfully, it has now ended. When I become involved in the Workers’ Party in the mid-'70s, the party had a very, very strong position against violence. The Republican split had happened in the early '70s; the split between the Provos and the Official was, I think, ’72; the Official IRA ceasefire was declared; then there was another split in ’74… so my becoming involved was after all those splits took place. It was at a point where the party had completely rejected violence.

So you wouldn’t be too keen on doing business with Sinn Fein?

I don’t intend to do business with any party. We are going to develop the Labour Party. We will cooperate with people – I believe in working with people in the Dail – and there will be tactical issues and so on. But there are going to be no formal alliances with any party.

But on a personal level, is it correct that you don’t like Sinn Fein?

All my life I opposed the Provo campaign of violence and I am glad it is over. Let me be fair about this, I also give credit to people like Adams and McGuinness for the work that they have done in bringing their movement out of the violent campaign in which they were engaged in. I just wish it had happened an awful lot earlier.

Unfortunately, the Workers’ Party’s was tarnished with several controversies, such as Sean Garland and the episode with fake money. How do you think history will judge the party?

People will look at the Workers’ Party in the terms of the contribution it made to maintaining a position for anti-sectarianism in relation to Northern Ireland. They will look at the courage that was displayed by people in the party, particularly in Northern Ireland where they found themselves between Nationalistic extremists and Loyalists extremists. Here in the South, particularly in the '80s, the Workers’ Party probably prevented the emergence of Sinn Fein as a political force in the South at a much earlier stage – at a stage when the Provos were conducting a very nasty sectarian war in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I think history will look very kindly on the Workers’ Party.

But it is a shame that the controversy about Sean Garland...

(Interrupting) I don’t want to get into the kind of individual situations. What happened in the early '90s was that political differences developed and that lead to the formation of Democratic Left.

Do you accept that certain members of the Workers’ Party printed fake money – which presumably was wrong?

It really was not something that I (laughs) knew an awful lot about then, and I don’t know an awful lot about it now! Look, forging money is a crime and my view of that would be – if there is evidence of a crime having being committed, of people forging money, then the information should be given to the Gardai and whatever prosecutions follow from it, follow from it.

Back in 2002, you contested the leadership of the Labour Party but failed, only getting 17% of votes. That must have been very disappointing.

I didn’t perform as well in the leadership election as I would have wished... (pauses) The election was at a difficult time. My stepfather and my mother were not well, and they were living in Galway, so I was doing a lot of travelling up and down to Galway. In retrospect I would have had enormous problems if I had succeeded in 2002 because of my caring responsibilities – it would have been very difficult to combine the two. This time, Pat’s decision took us all by surprise but because back in 2002 I had gone through the whole “Will I?/Won’t I?” (run for leadership), I didn’t have to spend that long thinking about it this time.

I was told that you and he had a conversation with Pat before he went public with his resignation.

It probably took me more by surprise than others (laughs) because I was surprised that Pat did not discuss it with me – and disappointed that he didn’t do so. He told me afterwards that he didn’t because he thought I would have tried to talk him out of resigning. That’s true. I would have.

Why would you talk someone into staying in a job that you would obviously want?

I thought he was doing a good job. There is a lot of stuff being written about the election that I, to be honest, think is very unfair to Pat. He worked his guts out for the general election. The result we got was not the kind of doom and gloom result people have written about. We were disappointed that we didn’t get into government, but we came very close to it. We came within three seats of changing the government. You are talking about two to three hundred votes over three constituencies. That is how close we came.

A leadership contest would have allowed Labour to have a much needed debate about its future – but there wasn’t one.

Well, we have a contest anyway for deputy leader, so that is facilitating internal debate within the party. We haven’t been deprived of that. The change of leadership has brought increased attention to the party. The fact that I was the agreed leader shows that there is a sense of unity in the organisation and a sense of comradeship among party members. I had the opportunity after Pat’s resignation to talk to all the members of the parliamentary party and I am very happy that they all unanimously agreed that I should lead. The starting point is one where we have a united team. I think my role is somewhere between captain and team player/manager.

Some political pundits have commented that you appear to be a watered-down version of the more “radical” Eamon Gilmore who ran for party leader back in 2002?

Well, it is five years on and what I would say is that I am radical in a different way. First of all, our starting point is not were we where five years ago – back then Fine Gael were down to 30 seats, you could feel that there was a Left presence in Dail Eireann which was bigger than Fine Gael. That has changed. Our starting point now is the Labour Party effectively has the Left of Centre to ourselves. Sinn Fein have been reduced in size; the Greens have gone over to the other side – and brought Finian McGrath with them. There are now almost no independent TDs on the Left. So, it is a different situation.

There is a theory that Labour under you will be indistinguishable from Labour under Rabbitte, from Labour under Quinn.

I am going to do it my way. Some commentators have done themselves no service by pre-judging both me and the Labour Party before we have an opportunity of doing anything at all. Look, I am clear about what we want to do (and) I am clear about the way that I intend to do it – and let’s wait and see.

You were recently described as “aloof and defensive”.

I don’t know who wrote that – but whoever wrote that doesn’t know me. I am defensive when I have to be (laughs), but I don’t think I am aloof.

Can you ever envisage Labour being matching FF or even FG in popularity?

I do, yes. The objective is that we get close to 30 seats in the next election and that we build up the organisation in every constituency – we are capable of winning a seat in every constituency. Now, there are organisational things we have to do: to be close to people, to get good candidates, we have to be saying what we are for, as much as what we are against. We have a lot of stuff to do, but I see absolutely no reason why the country can’t have three large parties as opposed to two-and-a-half, as people describe it.

Up until recently you acted as Labour’s spokesperson on the environment, which puts you in the position to assess John Gormley tenure, so far, as Minister for the Environment…

Now, it is early days but check it off: the M3 on day one – at the very least Gormley could have suspended Roche’s order, which was made on the day the government was changed, but he didn’t even do that. He hid behind legal advice. On incineration, it appears they are proceeding with the incineration programme. With the climate change agenda, they have set a target with the 3% reduction per annum. But they do not have agreement in the programme for government to bring in a climate change bill. Without a bill – without putting the reductions on a statutory basis – I don’t see how they can actually achieve the reductions.

Will the Greens achieve anything in government?

There has been some kind of superficial stuff, but not a huge lot of substance. I don’t know what the Greens spent 10 days negotiating with Fianna Fáil – because if you look at the programme for government, it is largely the Fianna Fail election manifesto, and they don’t even appear to have the wit to rephrase chunks of it. There is very little in the programme for government that you can say is a Green agenda or a Green achievement.

Will they regret going into government?

I do expect that there will be occasions when the Greens will have to make a decision as to whether or not they’re going to remain in government with Fianna Fáil. We will present them with opportunities to reconsider their position in government. And we will do that on issues that will go to the heart of Green Party support and what the Greens have always stood for.

What do you make of Trevor Sargent stepping down as leader of the Greens?

I found it a strange kind of dance. It was his decision and I respect it, but I found it all a bit strange. I don’t see the point in, “I’m stepping down as leader but I am still going to be a Minister”. I think if the Greens were going to renege on what they said prior to the election, they should have came straight out with it and said, “We are doing it”. But not engage in this kind of rather odd political choreography.

Do you believe in God?

I’m agnostic. I doubt rather than I believe, let me put it that way (laughs).

Should the Angelus be taken off the air?

If we were starting from scratch, you wouldn’t put the Angeles on television. But to try and remove it now would just upset too many people. I think it is quite tasteful the way it is done; it is a moment of reflection rather than a very religious kind of thing. There are a lot of things on television – like violence – that I would rather see off our screens than it.

Should abortion be legalised?

I’m pro-choice. If abortion wasn’t as available in the UK then it would be much more on our agenda than it is now. Situations where the life of a mother is at risk, where a foetus is not viable, and, in particular, the issue of rape – those areas need to be looked at . The rate of abortion amongst Irish women is very high – that’s a reality. We have a look at honestly whether the availability of abortion services in Ireland would increase or reduce it.

Should same sex marriages be legalised?

The Labour Party produced a Civil Unions Bill in the life of the last Dail, which we moved and wasn’t accepted. We intend to introduce that bill again in the new Dáil. I hope that the government will accept the bill or to do something very similar to it. And if they don’t, it will be something that Labour will do when we are in government.

On a personal level, do you have a problem with same sex marriages?

It is not for any of us to prescribe the relationships that adults form with each other – whether they are of the same sex or with a different sex. What is the job of the State is to have a legal framework in place so that people can make their own choice and order their own affairs. People of the same sex, for example, who are in a relationship that they want to make permanent – in such a way with legal rights and inheritance and all of those entitlements – in my view it is the duty of the State to regulate our legal affairs so that happens. I believe that people should be free to live their lives, to form whatever relationship they have, and get the State out of the bedroom.

But would you approve gay marriages?

As I understand, gay marriage would require a constitutional referendum. I have no objection to it. I have a personal view that people’s private lives are their private lives. The arrangements that people make is their own business. Politically, we have to work with what we have.

Who would be your favourite sex symbol?

Julia Roberts.

What type of music do you like?

A mixture. I have a wide interest. What did I last buy? The Boss. Live In Dublin by Bruce Springsteen. And I like old Blues. Leadbelly.

Photos by Emily Quinn.


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