17 April 1997 Edition

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Spring renews marriage vows with Fine Gael

Anton O Mordha was in Limerick last weekend for the Labour Party's annual conference

Dick Spring says that Labour will be fighting the next general election to prove that it makes ``the vital difference''. Speaking at the party's conference in Limerick, he told delegates that the battle of the election would be between the ``centre left'' government and a ``centre right'' opposition.

Earlier the Labour leader ruled out entering government with either Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats. While the party can hardly claim to have a radical left-wing identity, the decision to place all the Labour eggs in the rainbow basket makes the party look something of an ``adjunct to Fine Gael'' as one delegate put it to An Phoblacht. And although the PDs were much criticised over the weekend, Spring's declaration could allow them to participate in the next government. A Sunday Tribune poll indicated that 49% of delegates were opposed to ruling out coalition with Fianna Fáil, and several Labour ministers are understood also to take this view. However the poll probably underestimates the hostility of most members to Fianna Fáil.

This hostility has little to do with policies and everything to do with personalities. Most Labour Party members seem to think that Fianna Fáil is corruptible in a way that Fine Gael is not. Disgraced ex-Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry's extension has had little impact on this attitude, while Labour's dependence on transfers from Fine Gael must also be a factor.

Those concerned with John Bruton's handling of the peace process will find few concerned one way or the other in the Labour Party. As an issue it seems to have had little impact.

A fringe meeting organised by the Donegal North East branch on Labour Politics in Northern Ireland was attended by only a handful. An Phoblacht was the only media presence. Having been rejected by the British Labour Party, the northern Labour groupings are now trying to interest their Southern counterparts. Vainly, it would seem. This is all the more surprising given the positive involvement of Dick Spring and other Labour representatives in the peace process and on prison issues. During his concluding address to the conference, Spring reaffirmed his strong support for an inclusive negotiated settlement:

``I hope that the British government, whether new or old, is able to take the high road of inclusion - of ensuring that everyone committed to politics is invited to the table when the talks resume. No more preconditions, no more hurdles to be overcome. It's time to stop creating barriers to the solution that we all know is within reach, if only we can talk''.

This outlook is hardly in tune with John Bruton's and Proinsias de Rossa's stance.

For those looking for some alternative to Bruton's mismanagement of the peace process and Mary Harney's monetarist economic policies, Dick Spring ironically, highlighed the alternative: the election of TDs from outside the `mainstream' parties. He specifically mentioned the Greens and independents and their impact on the possible combinations for a future government. However in Cavan/Monaghan and Dublin Central, Labour will be looking more closely at Sinn Féin's candidates Caoimhghín O Caoláin and Christy Burke.

Neutrality issue avoided

The most positive decision of the Labour Party conference was to unanimously support the provision of a Language Equality Act to protect the rights of Irish speakers in the 26 Counties. Motions in support of Gaelscoileanna were also passed, which will hopefully have some influence on Education Minister Niamh Bhreathnach.

A motion reaffirming the party's commitment to neutrality and calling for the rejection of NATO's so-called Partnership for Peace (PfP) was referred back to the party's executive. Supporters of the motion which could have been embarrassing to Foreign Minster Spring say it could not have been passed with an election looming. But in a positive development the chairperson of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance and proposer of the motion, Roger Cole, was elected to the party's general council on the first count.

Amongst the other issues discussed at the conference was crime, where an ill-judged motion in support of internment for drug dealers was overwhelmingly defeated. Willie Hamilton, chairperson of Donnycarney Against Drugs told delegates that it was a disgrace to hear the word internment at a Labour Party conference. The role of communities was referred to vaguely but no real appreciation of their recent role was obvious.

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