31 October 2002 Edition
The politics of being Pat
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
Why wouldn't the membership of the Labour Party plump for Pat Rabbitte as their leader. He is, after all, one of the most high profile, media adept members of the party. Just as Fine Gael dumped John Bruton because of his dismal performance in the public eye, why shouldn't the Labour faithful reverse this logic and pick their most media friendly representative as leader.
Not only does Rabbitte present well, he is everywhere. Magazine columns, news bulletins and those ubiquitous talk shows, he is always ready, safety catch off, armed with a rapid fire of quips, put downs and metaphors in abundance.
Rabbitte's quick wit and understanding of the power of the sound bite, long before that word had currency this side of the Atlantic, have made him into a powerful media asset.
Pat's media persona is persuasive. You could forget quite easily that he was ever a minister in government or at times even an elected representative. He has that everyman voice, the investigative political journalist, partisan but informed, opinionated but passionate.
The slick media performances might have dazzled the Labour membership but they also point to a larger problem. What are Pat's politics?
Pat's media profile is just that, only Pat's. He never mentions his current political label. His political journey from Labour Party member to a supposedly radical trade union official to local councillor for Sinn Fein the Workers' party, to Workers' Party TD, New Agenda dissident, Democratic Left minister in a conservative government and now Labour leader are all colours of this long-lived chameleon.
The policies or party image are never really promoted by Rabbitte. He only promotes Pat. Such a strategy has worked in the past for Labour. Dick Spring, having taken the party to the brink of disaster as part of a right-wing conservative coalition driven by cutbacks and stumbling from crisis to crisis, reinvented himself and reversed Labour's electoral slide.
First Spring softened and diluted any remaining radical edge in his party and then seeing the shark's circling Haughey and Fianna Fail's corrupt old guard he metamorphosised into the voice of moral outrage.
This led to the Labour surge of 1992 and a return to government where surprise, surprise, there was a complete absence of the Labour agenda in policy formulation, unless they want to take credit for yet another tax amnesty, tax cuts for the rich, no minimum wage, a growing housing and health crisis. We could go on.
Spring is sufficiently well thought of that it wouldn't come as a surprise to see him appointed EU Commissioner, or to the court of auditors, presidential candidate etc.
So back to Pat, who seems destined to take the Spring strategy again with Labour. He will show a tireless zeal and dedication to his new job, which will be in stark contrast to Ruairi Quinn, who must have been the most invisible and least motivated party leader in recent years.
The only question is, just who will Pat Rabitte bring Labour back into government with? He has renounced Fianna Fáil quite publicly but last week sat quiet as Ruairi Quinn used his dying hours as Labour leader to forge what Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin called "a sordid deal".
Rabbitte didn't seem to mind allowing Ahern abscond from Leinster House. He probably thinks it gives more time to for him to take centre stage.
Rabbitte is in government, albeit as a silent bedfellow, but he likes to have the simpler rationalisation. It has divided the left opposition in the 26 Counties and shown that the Labour Party haven't faced up to the political realities of the last election, which saw them fai to gain a single seat, despite the DL merger.
Rabbitte's call this week for an all-party motion calling for the disbandment of the IRA, claiming that this would tell it to "get off the backs of the people for once and for all", is a clear sign that there is only room on the left for Pat.
It seems that Rabbitte's Labour will be more Conor Cruise O'Brien than Connolly. This is a shame.
I'm sure Pat will do well as Labour leader; whether Labour will do well is another question.
Rabbitte and the Flood Tribunal
It was not until former Fianna Fáil Press secretary and political lobbyist Frank Dunlop exposed the details of his cash for planning votes slush fund that it was also revealed Pat Rabbitte failed to inform the Flood Tribunal that he had received a cash payment from Dunlop. Dunlop was seeking support from councillors to rezone land in Quarryvale, west Dublin, where the Liffey Valley shopping mall was built.
The Flood Tribunal had written to Rabbitte and other councillors in December 1999. Dunlop's revelations to the Flood Tribunal began in May 2000. Rabbitte had taken £2,000 from Dunlop in 1992 before the Leinster House election. He later returned the money to Dunlop.
The former Workers' Party leaders Tomas Mac Giolla claimed in a May 2000 radio interview that, "It was a matter of serious disquiet in 1991 when our three councillors on Dublin County Council, Mr Rabbitte, Mr Eamon Gilmore and Mr Don Tipping, departed from the vital council meeting before the vote on the Quarryvale rezoning proposal took place".
Rabbitte said he had to be in Leinster House to support a Local Government Bill and hung up on the radio show after being asked by presenter Myles Dungan why he had told a programme researcher that he had not received money from Dunlop.