None of the main players within the party had any inclination that Rabbitte was about to cut the rope and bring his five-year leadership of the party to an end.
“It came like a bolt out of the blue,” said Eamon Gilmore the Dun Laoghaire TD. “I am surprised and I am disappointed. I would have liked to see him continue on.”
It was the same for Brendan Howlin:
“It took me completely by surprise when he called me this morning. When I spoke to him earlier this summer when I was offered the position (of Leas Ceann Comhairle) he gave no indication.”
It was well known that Rabbitte was crestfallen after the election. Labour had gone in with 20 seats and returned with the same number. In the immediate aftermath, he described it euphemistically as a standstill election but yesterday’s development showed that – personally – it had gone far deeper than that.
As he himself said yesterday: “In the event, Labour won the same number of seats as in 2002 and failed to replace the existing government. As Leader I take responsibility for that outcome.”
But the other net outcome of the general election was that Rabbitte’s leadership was not in doubt. He had defeated Howlin, Gilmore and Roisín Shortall by a whomping majority in 2002. While a small minority of the party had quibbled with electoral strategy, there was no appetite in the party for another leadership contest, notwithstanding the electoral setback, and the question of his leadership was settled.
His colleagues knew that he was disappointed but underestimated its effects. “Sure, he took a hit but I thought that he’d get over it, lick his wounds and continue leading the party,” said a fellow TD yesterday.
While on his annual holiday in the Kerry Gaeltacht, Rabbitte thought long and hard about the election and his own future. His term of office wasn’t up for another year, until the autumn of next year. Yesterday he said it made no sense for him to stay on until then. That would have meant that a new leader had taken over just months before the local and European elections of 2008. He believed that the best time to go was right at the start of the term.
You couldn’t argue with any of that. Sure, if he was going, it was better to go now. But the bigger question was: why go?
Those close to him said that many underestimated the effect of failing to get into government had on him. Yes it was “unsuccessful only by a narrow margin” as he himself said yesterday but that was still failure.
“He gave the leadership every ounce of his being and energy over five years and he did a great job,” said Gilmore.
And having put that effort in, he decided in Kerry that he did not have the appetite to go once more into the breech. He is now 58 and given that Fianna Fail has covered all angles with its own little rainbow, it’s widely accepted that this Government will last its full term and that Brian Cowen will seamlessly succeed Ahern in 2008 (if the Tribunal goes badly for Ahern) or in 2009 or 2010 (at the latest).
And what the Labour Party needs, according to several of its strategists, is a person who has passion and energy, and has “fire in the belly”.
We will come back to that, but Rabbitte’s resignation brought to an end the career ambitions of one of the country’s most intelligent, able, and colourful politicians.
The native of Ballindine in Co Mayo first distinguished himself as a student leader in University College Galway in the early 70s before becoming the President of the Union of Students in Ireland. He later became a prominent official with the ITGWU union before entering politics full-time.
One major legacy problem that dogged him was his membership of Sinn Fein the Workers Party and its connections to the ‘Stickies’ of the Official IRA. But paradoxically Rabbitte joined the party after the split, having been previously a member of the Labour Party (he resigned because of his opposition to the 1973 coalition with Fine Gael).
And though the Workers’ Party (later Democratic Left) never really succeeded in becoming much more than a marginal presence, the party was notable for the quality of its parliamentarians – including Rabbitte, Gilmore, Proinsias de Rossa, and Liz McManus (who is now the acting Labour leader).
Indeed, when DL went into the Rainbow Coalition in late 1994, Rabbitte became a ‘super junior’ and one of the highest profile members of government, deservedly praised for his far-seeing drugs strategy.
An acerbic wit and brilliant parliamentarian, he became a darling of the media because of the ease and brilliance with which he rounded his thoughts and his hilarious put-downs. But there was an occasional arrogance and distance about him that some thought off-putting – and a sense that he could not translate his Dáil form to the streets, and could not relate to ordinary Joe Schmoes in the street in the way that Bertie Ahern did.
But Rabbitte’s performance on the hustings in the election campaign surprised everybody, showing far more appetite for the plod and flesh-pressing on the hustings. And despite going one witticism too far comparing Michael McDowell to a ‘menopausal Paris Hilton’ he was the hands-down winner of the TV debate.
But like all the smaller parties, it just didn’t happen for Labour. Some colleagues (particularly Howlin) put it down to the Mullingar Accord and the deal with Fine Gael. But Rabbitte believed it went deeper than electoral strategy.
“As regards (strategy), I remain absolutely convinced that it was correct to offer the people a choice of an alternative government,” he said yesterday. “It was not successful but unsuccessful only by a narrow margin… It would be a mistake to restrict the debate to electoral strategy.
“Whereas the core values of Labour are timeless and immutable, we must accept that Irish society has changed and we must change.”
Elsewhere he described it as the ‘brand’. Unions no longer wield the same emotional draw. People’s definition of working class, of blue collar, their expectations of politics, of how society should be ordered, has changed radically.
(For Rabbitte's own analysis of the election, follow this link. It is his delivery of the Jim Kemmy Lecture to the Tom Johnson Summer School in Galway)
It’s clear somebody else will have to be the architect of that change. The party can’t really skip a generation like it did in the early 1980s with Dick Spring. It’s too early in their careers for any of its three new TDs. The others, if not of Rabbitte’s generation, are very close to it.
Surprising though the announcement was, Pat Rabbitte was right. If the party wants to renew itself, the time to do is now.