A political poison-pen-letter about the role and influence of Dermot Ryan, an adviser to Ivana Bacik, has sparked much intrigue in Labour this week.
yan has worked part-time as a consultant to Bacik since she became leader a year ago, and he is due to finish up after next weekend’s party conference in Cork.
The anonymous letter, typed in all capital letters, lays the blame for Bacik’s poor performance as leader at his door — while claiming he is being forced out by named individuals, and that he is not happy about this.
Labour says the letter’s claims are “completely untrue and we regard them as defamatory”. The party, which has previously criticised Sinn Féin’s propensity for issuing libel writs, issued a legal warning to this newspaper in response to queries about it.
“Absolute bullshit, a total lie,” said one of those named in the letter of its contents.
‘On March 29, Labour will table a motion of no confidence in the Government’
Ryan, who is not commenting, had always intended stepping back after next weekend’s conference. He is understood to also regard the letter’s claims as untrue.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Bacik describes the letter as “anonymous poison vitriol” — and is full of praise for Ryan.
“What I will say is Dermot Ryan ran my campaign in the by-election in Dublin Bay South. He is a superb strategist and continues to be a superb strategist.
“We’ll continue to work closely in a less formal setting. The paid contract with the party was until after the conference,” she says.
Bacik has received her fair share of anonymous vitriol over the years.
“Pro-choice campaigning was not easy and we were under a lot of threat, we got an awful lot of hate mail.
“At that point, it was posted anonymously, often with excrement in it. Now it’s the same vile stuff — but it’s now online.”
Whether Bacik has failed as party leader or not is a subjective call, and perhaps one too early to make.
‘Hollymania’ has done little to alleviate the sense of existential crisis around Labour
It is clear however, from successive opinion polls over the last year, that she has done nothing to move the dial for Labour.
The most recent Ireland Thinks survey had Labour on 3pc, bordering on statistical insignificance — while the Social Democrats took off, hitting the heady heights of 9pc support under new leader Holly Cairns.
‘Hollymania’ has done little to alleviate the sense of existential crisis around Labour, with one prominent member recently confiding in this correspondent that the oldest party in the State could fold within a few years, if not sooner.
This month marks exactly 10 years since the Meath East by-election, where Labour’s vote cratered in what was the first sign that its actions in government with Fine Gael had infuriated voters. It is a point from which it has never recovered, despite four leadership changes and two general elections since then.
Bacik came to power a year ago, after Alan Kelly was forced out by the rest of the parliamentary party in a surprise coup sparked by anger over an internal appointments process and (to a much lesser extent) the party’s failure to gain any ground in the polls.
One insider describes a long period of “post-traumatic stress” after the leadership change. Kelly disappeared from Leinster House for a long period but has been a more visible presence in recent months, most notably around the Patient Safety Bill.
He was, says Bacik, “stunning” in representing the late Vicky Phelan.
It is rumoured that Kelly, who has been more active locally in recent months, could run for Labour in Ireland South in next year’s European elections having previously served as an MEP.
In more private moments, the former cabinet minister is said to have confided in colleagues of his concerns about Labour’s electoral strategy and questioned whether the party is prepared for the next election in certain constituencies.
But people who speak with him insist he is not grumbling or fomenting discord. He did not respond to a request for comment this weekend.
Despite some in Labour hoping he will not run again in Tipperary at the next election, Bacik says he will.
“Oh absolutely, yeah, I spoke with Alan just about it this week,” she says.
And is he running?
She “absolutely” expects every other Labour TD to run again.
The long-serving parliamentarian has spent the last year building what she describes as the “foundations” of the party, meeting councillors, local area reps and activists around the country.
“No candidate coming forward now to run for Labour could be accused of being opportunistic. These are people who share our values — many women, I must say, which is very heartening, who’ve got great track records,” she says.
Bacik declines to say how many members have joined the party since she became leader, other than to say it has been a “good showing of new members”.
“I’m not going to give you an exact figure. We’re certainly very encouraged by the numbers joining us,” she says guardedly.
She has also sought to foster closer ties with the SDLP in the North after its alliance with Fianna Fáil — characterised as “friends with no benefits” by one SDLP source — fell apart last year.
Bacik says there have been “extensive discussions” with the SDLP on collaboration on an all-Ireland basis. She does not rule out a future merger and says closer collaboration will be discussed at the conference.
The next 12 months are likely to make or break Labour
“What we want to do is ensure we have a very close working relationship,” she says. “I think we share a vision across the island of building a 32-county social democratic government, and that’s a clear unity of purpose that we have.”
An SDLP source downplayed talk of any merger, given its fraught experience with Fianna Fáil. “We really are getting on well and will work together. We’re just cautious about big moves in that regard for obvious reasons,” they said.
The next 12 months are likely to make or break Labour — particularly if the Social Democrats surge takes hold.
Bacik is adopting a more pugnacious approach in a bid for relevance. Last Thursday she wrote to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asking him to adopt a Labour bill to extend the eviction ban until there are four consecutive months where homeless numbers fall — the sort of evidence-based decision-making that homeless advocacy groups have been calling for.
“If they don’t do that, then I think we are going to have no choice but to put down a motion of no confidence in the Government — and that’s not something we in Labour would do lightly,” she says.
“We haven’t done it for a long time. But the groundswell of hardship that this unexpected decision taken by the Government has caused is extraordinary.”
Barring an unlikely U-turn by the Coalition, it means Labour will table a motion of no confidence in the Government on Wednesday, March 29 — two days before the eviction ban is due to expire — in what will likely be a febrile political atmosphere.
Bacik believes the expiration of the ban in less than a fortnight’s time will be “catastrophic” for families, and could even collapse the Government.
“I think there is huge discontent among backbenchers. Just look at the Green Party, obviously there’s very high-profile unhappiness there — but there’s also discontent among government backbenchers, and of course it’s Independent TDs upon whom the Government must also rely,” she says.
She talks of being approached by a young mother on Housing Assistance Payment who was turned down by 300 different landlords, and of some of her own friends “on high salaries in good jobs” who are having trouble finding rental accommodation.
“These are awful, awful stories that make us all angry when we hear them from people directly,” she says.
“It is also what we’re hearing from those working in homeless services, those working in the councils, and we’re hearing it from government backbenchers, too — so I think it’s a warranted decision.”
‘We have a track record in Labour of not being content to sit on the sidelines’
The aggressive approach is, one could argue, a far cry from the “positive politics” message she preached when she last spoke to this newspaper. But Bacik insists the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
“It is about positive politics, it’s about trying to make a difference, but that doesn’t mean docile, or, you know, bland politics. I would be as adversarial as anyone and as critical of government as anyone else in opposition where the need arises — and it’s clearly arising here.”
But it’s not just the Coalition in her sights. Bacik takes aim at Cairns, after the new Soc-Dem leader ruled out a future merger with Labour, saying it had betrayed the trust of the Irish people.
“I think that only serves the right, it only benefits the right, it doesn’t benefit the left to have division among the left,” she says.
“We have a track record in Labour of not being content to sit on the sidelines and shout and critique, but rather to go in and roll up our sleeves and try and propose constructive solutions.”
This change in approach may well be Labour’s last dance. Though Bacik clings tightly to her by-election success two years ago as evidence the party is not on the brink of extinction.
“The by-election is the only electoral contest we’ve seen since 2020 and Covid and we confounded pretty much all the pundits.”
So not dead yet?
“Alive and kicking, she says. “Alive and kicking.”