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Friday 23 August 2019

Andrew Lynch: From Mao to Now. Who is the real Eamon Gilmore?

As Labour soars to new highs in the polls, our political commentator profiles the party leader

EAMON Gilmore has not wasted his summer. In a few weeks the Labour leader will publish a book called Leading Lights, a tribute to the people who have inspired him throughout his life. The list includes his grandmother Ellen, the pioneering civil servant TK Whitaker and the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Just like Dr King, Gilmore has a dream. It involves him making history at the next General Election by becoming the first Labour Taoiseach in Irish history. Just a couple of years ago, the idea would have sounded crazy -- but as the opinion polls have consistently shown, it is now a real possibility.

So what do we actually know about the man who could potentially lead this country for the next decade?

We know that in spirit at least, he is a true socialist. A follower of Mao Tse-Tung in his days as a student radical, Gilmore comes from the Workers Party/ Democratic Left wing of the Labour party that was once notorious for its links to Soviet Russia. While nobody thinks he's a Galway version of Fidel Castro, he would certainly be the most left-wing Taoiseach we've ever had.

Bizarre

We know that he is a tough competitor who absolutely hates losing. An Offaly friend of his recalls attending the 1981 All-Ireland hurling final with him, when the Faithful County beat Galway with a goal in the dying minutes. His friend jumped for joy, then turned around to commiserate -- only to find that a sickened Eamon had stormed off home without a word.

We know that he is a brilliant Dail performer, with an uncanny ability to articulate the public's anger over our current economic woes. He cut through the waffle over Bertie Ahern's bizarre personal finances by declaring, "Taoiseach, I think you told the tribunal a cock-and-bull story."

The one thing we don't know is what Gilmore would actually do with power if he ever makes it to the Taoiseach's office. He has adopted a consistent strategy of keeping his cards close to his chest, lambasting the Government but making few policy commitments.

Although Labour have accepted the basic budgetary targets set out by Brian Lenihan, which means they agree that €3bn needs to be taken out of the economy this year, they are frustratingly vague on what they would actually tax or cut to reach this magic figure.

Behind the scenes in Leinster House, Gilmore is now commonly described as "the new Bertie Ahern" -- a double-edged compliment if ever there was one. On the plus side, it means that he is one of the most talented politicians of his generation, with a powerful ability to relate to ordinary voters. A more negative interpretation of the Bertie comparison is that he doesn't stand for anything concrete.

Like Bertie Ahern, there was little in Gilmore's background to suggest that he would become a political phenomenon. He was born in 1955 and grew up on a small farm in Caltra, Co Galway, where his father died when he was just 14 months old.

Gilmore became politically active at University College Galway, where the authorities threatened to stop teaching his psychology course. He set up a lobby group, became a passionate debater at the students' union and ended up being elected as president of USI (Union of Students in Ireland). This prompted him to move to Shankill in Dublin, where he has lived ever since with his wife Carol and their three children.

Nuclear

Gilmore continued his political education with the ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers' Union) and was elected to Dublin City Council in 1985. He won a Dail seat in Dun Laoghaire four years later and has held it comfortably ever since. His only experience of government is as Minister of State for the Marine in John Bruton's Rainbow coalition between 1994 and 1997, when his biggest achievement was the banning of nuclear ships from Irish ports.

When the Labour leadership became vacant in 2002, Gilmore was the early favourite. On that occasion, however, he ran a lacklustre campaign and ended up coming a distant third. Five years later he had learned his lesson, staking his claim early on and being quickly elevated to the position without a contest.

While Gilmore has soared in the public's estimation, the Government has become visibly frustrated by his saintly image. They were infuriated when he refused to support the banking guarantee, although the jury is still out on that one. They were even more angry when he sat on the fence over the Croke Park Agreement, saying he was terrified of offending the unions.

Blues

Right now, Gilmore's biggest fear must be that Labour have peaked too soon. Their threadbare policies will come under more scrutiny as the election draws nearer. Even if the party falls short of their more ambitious targets, however, Gilmore would still have his pick of portfolios in a FG-Labour coalition -- with the smart money suggesting that he'd opt to become Minister for Finance.

In private, Gilmore is friendly, self-confident and a good listener. Most colleagues like and respect him, which is something that could not be said of his predecessors, Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn. He likes Blues, regularly cooks dinner for his family and is passionate about the GAA. If he has a personal failing, it's that he can sometimes seem a bit humourless.

Eamon Gilmore has spent the summer writing about history. From now on, he intends to make some history of his own.

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