Labour and Fine Gael: Out of tune

Despite Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte's united public front, the Fine Gael and Labour frontbenches have clashed on most of the key portfolios. By Justine McCarthy

Michael McDowell has dubbed it the "Mullingar Accordion", but Fine Gael and Labour intend proving the axiom that old fiddles play the sweetest tunes. But to do that, they have to convince the electorate that they are singing from the same hymn sheet.

The more time that elapses before polling day, the louder the clang of the putative partners' policy differences. Sneers of Labour Lite and New Labour being Old Fine Gael are not merely the stuff of soundbite ribaldry. They are rooted in reality. The ashen faces of various Labour big guns attested to that after Enda 'Dirty Harry' Kenny's hang-'em-flog-'em-'n'-fling-'em-in-the-drunk-tank address to the Fine Gael faithful last spring.

Even those who had enthused about their deal with the devil as a piggy-back ride on Fine Gael's rising coat-tails had to accept that the sop of surrendering Labour's identity threatened to turn into a full-scale radical character transplant. The Greens' Paul Gogarty tapped into the full horror of the sci-fi vista when he christened the Mullingar Accord "the Dolly Alliance".

So far, the preponderance of media analysis has obsessed over the personalities of the two Mayo-born party leaders, nice Enda Kenny and garrulous Pat Rabbitte. The differences, however, are more fundamental than skin-deep. The two frontbenches have clashed on most of the key portfolios, making it likely that, should the Accordion coalition come to fruition post-polling day, it will sound as harmonious as an orchestra tuning up for separate repertoires.



Bruton & Burton may sound like a pair of Pinewood Studios matinée idols, but there's no prospect of romance blossoming between Richard and Joan. These two are as ideologically polarised as a big game-hunter in pursuit of an endangered species. Labour's dream of increasing capital gains tax has already got a resolute thumbs-down from the Fine Gael finance spokesman. While Burton has doggedly exposed the inequities inherent in the tax-breaks regime, her bolshie disapproval, for instance, of stud farm tax exemption ekes no sympathy from the Big Farmers' Party, who fulminate that its removal would damage the industry.


For Olivia, on the right, the word "privatisation" has the ring of the holy grail, but, to Labour's trade union rump, it stinks of a sell-out. There was, for instance, no meeting of minds as to whether private enterprise or the State should develop the second terminal at Dublin Airport. So sit back and watch the sparks fly between the transport spokeswomen. They've already had a tetchy exchange in the Dáil over the sale of Aer Lingus, and rumours abound that they have been sighted lurking in the corridors of power, rolling up their sleeves to do battle in the looming debate about part-privatising Dublin's bus service.


Jim, pictured right, the west Cork solicitor, introduced his private members Criminal Law (Home Defence) Bill before the summer holidays, removing burglars' rights to sue householders. The Labour Party abstained from voting on the doomed initiative. There are rumbles of disagreement too on the proposed tightening up of the asylum laws, just as the two parties took contrasting positions on Michael McDowell's emergency legislation on statutory rape.


From his perch keeping an eye on Moscow, Washington, East Timor and Timbuktu, Labour's greatest would-be president-that-never-was guards his reputation as the party's global conscience like a dog with a bone. The Foreign Affairs portfolio (combining certain defence issues) is a minefield (you might call it the Hawkins House of the Mullingar Accordion). Labour, for instance, abstained from voting on the government bill to dilute the triple-lock of accountability in sending Irish troops on missions abroad. Something Fine Gael whole-heartedly supported. Michael Dee wrote epic dirges denouncing the invasion of Iraq and the use of Shannon Airport, while Fine Gael would have been more willing to raise the stars-n-stripes than a protest.


In the Meath by-election, Fine Gael's Shane McEntee, the boyish newcomer who unapologetically parks his rugged 4x4, emblazoned with his name in gold lettering, in the Leinster House car park, lambasted the government for not running the bleeding-heart conservationists off the Hill of Tara and getting on with building the M3. Dominic Hannigan, the Labour candidate and a member of Meath County Council, wanted the motorway rerouted and the Hill protected. As the reconstruction of Ireland's infrastructure chugs on, the road ahead looks distinctly rocky for the respective environment spokesmen, O'Dowd, above right, and Gilmore.