Labour has been sleeping partner in shaping history

Fri, Apr 20, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:AT ITS conference last week, the Labour Party put on a good show to celebrate its centenary year. It is in government again and its Ministers look comfortable there.

It has more TDs than at any time in the past; it is now the second-largest party in the State. It won the presidential election again and even won a byelection, something governing parties haven’t done for some time.

But Labour might be hard-pressed to pick out highlights from its first 100 years. The political commentator Noel Whelan damned the party with faint praise, saying it should be proud of its constructive opposition. He suggested it should be proud for having survived through such a turbulent time. But presumably we want more than this from our parties: survival and constructive opposition.

Labour has long been a small party in Irish politics – the half a party in Ireland’s 2½-party system. For this it usually blames the Civil War and associated politics. The argument is the party system was founded on the division in the Civil War and Labour, not being part of that, never really got into the action.

This is a convenient excuse for the party, but it is hardly sustainable. In fact, Labour’s best-ever election was in 1922. It has never equalled the 21 per cent of the vote it got then. Indeed, much of what the Civil War was fought on – the Oath of Allegiance – ceased to be important after Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil.

A political party, to make a claim for its importance, must surely be able to point to events or changes in direction that would not have happened without it. We can debate about what those events might be, but I’ll suggest the following: the 1916 Rising, the establishment of the new State, the move to free trade under Seán Lemass, the accession to the EEC, the liberalisation of Irish society in the 1980s, the attempt to get Ireland’s finances under control in the late 1980s and 1990s, the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the current financial crisis.

Labour has not really been at the centre of any of these. While it might claim some aspect of the Rising due to James Connolly’s involvement, Labour was not central to the nationalist insurgency that changed the course of Irish history.

When the new State was formed following the War of Independence and the Civil War, it was the precursor to Fine Gael, Cumann na nGaedheal, which established and bedded down the institutions that led to an unusually calm democratic performance.

Despite some efforts to bring in some welfare measures for the poor from the 1920s to 1950s, the protectionist policies had failed to such an extent that emigration was shockingly high and the population continued to fall.

Lemass engineered the next great shift in public policy with the liberalisation of the Irish economy. His energetic ministers helped Ireland enjoy something of an economic mini-boom in the 1960s. In the 1970s, while Labour convulsed over its coalition policy, Ireland joined the EEC, and arguably made the biggest move to modernisation in its history. Labour was not exactly ravaged in the same way as its sister party in Britain was, but it caused some internal problems.

In the 1980s, it was probably Garret FitzGerald who most recognised that Ireland was ready for some social liberalisation, and if he didn’t quite succeed in delivering it, it was at least on the agenda. While Labour was broadly supportive, it was not central. At the same time, that government did nothing to get the economy under control, and it was a Fianna Fáil government that introduced policies that would lay the ground for the economic boom.

At that time, Fianna Fáil started to bring official sanction to a policy that would bring an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Labour was a sceptical supporter of the process, but it was not a driver. More happily it can say that it had nothing to do with the economic bust that Ireland is forced to endure at the moment, although we might note that Labour was offering tax cuts in 2007, so it was hardly a critical voice.

One of the reasons Labour might not be central to these milestones is that it has been in opposition for long periods, and when in government it is with Fine Gael, a centre-right party much larger than it. But it has been Labour that has given Fine Gael a lifeline.

Labour had a chance to change the basis of the Irish party system in 2011. By remaining in opposition, it would have been the main opposition party, doing what the left can do best: opposing cuts. It might be true the electorate wanted a “balanced” government, and would have been angry had there been an unstable one, but Labour could have called Micheál Martin’s bluff and forced Fianna Fáil to support government cutbacks in a reverse of the 1987-1989 Tallaght strategy.

Instead it chose government and so gave Fianna Fáil a lifeline and allowed Sinn Féin to become the main voice on the left. And this is why Labour might spend the next hundred years as just a half a party.

Eoin O’Malley is a lecturer in Irish politics in Dublin City University

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