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24 May 2007

Interview: Dick Spring

Veteran Labour politician Dick Spring talks to newstatesman.com about the Irish election, Bertie Ahe

By Tom Marchbanks

For the past few weeks the Irish Republic has been in the middle of election fever – although you’d scarcely know it judging by the coverage over here in Britain.

The serving prime minister, Bertie Ahern, has been in power for 10 years and among some sections of the electorate at least there is a sense of fatigue – or so says veteran Labour politician Dick Spring.

For some time now commentators have been drawing parallels between Ahern and Blair. The two leaders worked closely together on Northern Ireland, came to power about the same time and have enjoyed a period of buoyancy in the economies of their respective countries.

But now, says Spring, “The two leaders are running out of runway.” Indeed he argues that both men govern a public who want a new leadership.

That’s not to say that Ireland hasn’t transformed in the past decade. “It’s unrecognisable,” says Spring before going on to cite the new multicultural dimension to Irish society and its economic successes.

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However, all this has a serious downside – growing levels of crime, failures on health and “broken promises on education”.

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The economic growth itself is leaving people behind, “it has no heart, no sense of community and people are worried about its management,” he says.

On Northern Ireland, Spring doesn’t share the UK’s optimism about Sinn Féin/DUP power-sharing in Stormont.

It’s true that successes across the border have created something of a feelgood factor in the 2007 Irish elections but, at the same time, plenty of Irish citizens are all too aware that Adams and Paisley’s parties are “total opposites with no agreement on economic policy”. The future is by no means certain.

Meanwhile in the Irish general election campaign, Sinn Féin have been playing at “Che Guevara” politics according to Spring, trying to squeeze votes from the typical Labour Party constituency among the young and working class.

To foreign eyes Labour’s 10 year coalition with the Conservative Fine Gael party may seem a strange alliance.

“It’s unfortunately a development of Irish politics,” he says before explaining Ireland has been dominated by a single party, Fianna Fáil, so a coalition has been essential to provide the electorate with any hope of an alternative.

In any case, Spring adds, Fine Gael have moved “into middle politics” and Labour remains committed to focusing on “the doorstep issues, which change the lives of ordinary people”.

So what does he think the future will hold for his country? Well apparently there’s a new buzz phrase in Irish politics: the ‘soft economic landing’.

But the question remains on how better public services can be attained without significant increases in expenditure and that doesn’t seem very likely without significant increases in tax revenue.

Spring was an Irish international rugby player before he decided to follow his father into politics. He rose through the ranks quickly, becoming the leader of the Irish Labour party and Irish Foreign Minister. After 23 years in politics, he retired but in recent weeks has been hitting the campaign trail for Labour