Labour can look back on proud record
The party’s endurance in our political system is no mean accomplishment
THIS WEEKEND the Irish Labour Party gathers in conference while in government for the first time in 15 years. It also gathers just a month short of the centenary of the foundation of the party itself.
Given the constitutional, economic and social shifts which Ireland has undergone, Labour’s endurance in our political system is no mean accomplishment. The party has many real achievements over its first century, not least the role it played as an effective and responsible parliamentary opposition in the early years of the Free State.
Labour’s history has also, however, been characterised by disappointments, and most strikingly by the failure to achieve an electoral breakthrough which could have reconfigured the divide in Irish politics.
Labour has comforted itself with an analysis that the nationalist convulsions and then the Civil War divisions that marked the founding of this State robbed the party of what would otherwise have been a central, perhaps even dominant, position in Irish politics.
Even today the online version of the party’s official history puts much emphasis on how Labour sat out the formative parliamentary elections of 1918 and 1921. Labour did this, it reminds us, in order to facilitate a clear-cut decision by the electorate on the national question and to avoid the risk of a split in the wider trade union movement which was organised on an all-Ireland basis.
In so doing the party paid a price because these elections, which coincided with the arrival of universal adult suffrage, moulded the party system for decades to follow.
This analysis is accurate to a point. It explains why Labour underperformed in elections in its early decades.
The best opportunity for a Labour breakthrough came, however, in the 1940s. By then de Valera’s Fianna Fáil had long been in power and had moved to the right. The constitutional change of the 1930s and the consensus on neutrality during the second World War had dulled the Civil War tensions. Fine Gael appeared in Joe Lee’s words to be “drifting into oblivion”. Social and economic dissent was palpable.
Labour wasted the opportunity. In the 1943 election Labour had doubled its Dáil seats to 17. In the first week of 1944, however, five TDs left the Labour Party to found National Labour, claiming that their former party was “now infested with communists”. As a result, to paraphrase Niamh Puirséil, the window of opportunity which had opened wide for the Labour Party in post-war Ireland was slammed shut by its own hand.
The split into Labour and National Labour was a forerunner for the tensions between the rural conservatives and urban liberals within the party, which, along with divisions between pro-coalitionists and anti-coalitionists, were to convulse and sap the party over the following decades.
The healing of rifts in the trade union movement and the experience of inter-party governments in the 1950s served to reunite the Labour Party.
By the end of the 1960s international shifts, and the attraction to its ranks of some of Ireland’s most high-profile urban intellectuals, convinced Labour that its decade had finally come. It argued confidently “the seventies will be socialist”. They were to be nothing of the sort. Labour actually reduced its seat share from 22 to 18 in the 1969 Dáil election.
Labour grasped the opportunity for coalition government in the mid-1970s, where Brendan Corish led it with distinction.
It went into government with Fine Gael again in the early and mid-1980s.
In the late 1980s the then leader Dick Spring dominated the parliamentary opposition; making sufficient waves to generate the “Spring tide” of 1992 which saw the Labour Party win a record 19 per cent of the vote.
It then went into government with Fianna Fáil for the first time, where it made a significant contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process and led the way on equality legislation and in political reform. After the peculiar collapse of that Spring-Reynolds government, Labour switched to govern with Fine Gael. From 1995 to 1997 it had control of the Department of Finance, where it showed an economic competence and moderation.
Notwithstanding these achievements, however, Labour’s vote collapsed again in 1997, and it returned to its usual perch at or about 10 per cent.
The merger with Democratic Left in 1999 gave Labour a badly needed injection of energy and of personnel, two of whom have since gone on to lead the Labour Party.
Some in Labour argue that the long hoped-for shift in the axis of Irish politics has now emerged from the economic crisis and the political tumult of the last four years. This crisis has given rise to the collapse of Fianna Fáil but, as the late Peter Máir and others have pointed out, it has not moved many Irish voters on the political spectrum.
Labour did better than ever in the 2011 election, but of the Dáil seats lost by Fianna Fáil more went to Fine Gael than Labour. Some also went to Sinn Féin, which from now on will be a real threat on Labour’s left flank.
In Galway Labour will reiterate that its focus is on the present and on the country’s uncertain future. It should also allow itself some moments for reflection on the Labour Party’s proud, clean, but in ways frustrating history.