Labour’s sound bites and put-downs took the place of serious debate on contentious issues

Opinion: The old guard chose to ignore Michael D Higgins’s warning

Centre, front, the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave Fine Gael, with  Brendan Corish, tánaiste and Minister for Health and Social Welfare, in 1973.  Photograph: Pat Langan/ THE IRISH TIMES

Centre, front, the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave Fine Gael, with Brendan Corish, tánaiste and Minister for Health and Social Welfare, in 1973. Photograph: Pat Langan/ THE IRISH TIMES


Reflecting on his experience as a minister in this State’s second coalition government from 1954 to 1957, the Labour Party’s Brendan Corish, who served as minister for social welfare, recalled, “I used to lie awake at night, worrying about the unemployed.” In 1960, Corish took over the leadership and adopted an anti-coalition stance. He attempted to give his fractious, divided party a coherent national identity, lurched it to the left, insisted Labour was the natural party of social justice, injected it with new blood and eventually led the party back into government with Fine Gael in 1973. He was now back on familiar ground as minister for health and social welfare, the areas he regarded as most important for Labour, to the extent that he even turned down the offer of the finance ministry. Under his watch, advances were made in reforming the social welfare system, including a reduction in the qualifying age for old age pensions, and provision for deserted wives and unmarried mothers.

As his colleague Michael O’Leary remembered, Corish “worried excessively . . . he never learned to accept the personal sacrifice required in leading a small, quarrelsome, personality-driven band of deputies whose only brush with reality occurred at 20-year intervals with involvement in coalition government”.

Career of Corish

The career of Corish highlighted many of the difficulties associated with the Labour Party since its foundation in 1912, including where to position itself ideologically, its attitude to government and other parties, internal discipline and divisions, and then what to do if in government.

Corish was no political saint – one of his colleagues acidly remarked that he should have done less worrying and more to alleviate unemployment thereby ensuring better sleep – but he took risks in how he positioned the party, did not let his ego dominate, and at least he worried about things Labour ministers should worry about. In contrast, the rise and fall of Eamon Gilmore suggests his generation of Labour ministers have slept far too soundly at night, without earning such comfort.

For all his bluster about Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way, Gilmore was engaged in a cautious balancing act in the run-up to the 2011 general election, by asserting, “we are not Fianna Fáil and we are not Fine Gael. We have a distinctive view of Ireland. I’m open as to how best to achieve certain ends. It really is a question of what works.”

It was decided, it appears, that “what works” is power. As his predecessor Pat Rabbitte, put it in 2007 when he relinquished the leadership, “lust for office” needed to remain central to the party.

There is nothing wrong with desiring power, but judging by their public and private interventions, some of the old guard in Labour became intoxicated with power to the point of obnoxiousness. They demonstrated a sneering contempt towards those in their party who could not, in principle, support unjustifiable attacks on carers in society, or the breaking of promises on child benefit, or the medical card fiascos. What was devised by Labour’s old guard was a dishonest mantra of TINA (there is no alternative) and the claim that Labour was now part of, in Rabbitte’s words, a “national government”. This was nonsense; we have a two-party Coalition Government, not a national government. This preoccupation with closing down discussion made clear the lack of interest in debating contentious issues of public concern, or listening.

For all his lambasting of those he insisted were merely pirouetting on the plinth at Leinster House, Rabbitte has devoted far too much time to crafting soundbites and put downs. The treatment of Nessa Childers was also illustrative of this style and tone and it is revealing that while Labour has failed to get any of its candidates elected to the European Parliament, Childers, who stood up to bullying by the old guard, kept her seat as an Independent. Joan Burton was also treated poorly at the outset of this Government, as the old guard let its testosterone get the better of it; Burton, like Childers, also retains a high public standing.

The old guard chose to ignore the warning of Michael D Higgins in 2007, when he was party president, that Labour should not capitulate to a version of economy and society which the larger political parties maintained is the inevitable and only one, and that “Labour will be judged more by its adherence to principle . . . than by its capacity to manage the models of its political opponents”.

Became leader

Gilmore made his own declaration that same year, after he became leader: “I believe that every person is equal. It is as simple as that. That’s what makes me a democrat. That’s why I am a socialist.”

The current self-serving narrative of Labour in office implies that such declarations were made redundant by the economic crisis; that Gilmore took a risk in the national interest by going into government and has now paid the price. This ignores the reality that there has been no attempt to offer “a distinctive view of Ireland” by Labour over the past three years.

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