POLITICS:With its wide range of contributors, this collection of essays marking the Irish Labour Party's centenary is more than just a love-in
Making the Difference? The Irish Labour Party 1912-2012, Edited by Paul Daly, Rónán O’Brien and Paul Rouse The Collins Press, 246pp, €14.99
A CLOSE ASSOCIATE of Joseph Stalin, reporting on the political situation in the United Kingdom, told his master: “Our British party is like a pain; it will not grow, neither will it die.” The same observation is broadly true of the Irish Labour Party for much of its history. In the past 20 years this has started to change, and Labour currently holds the second-highest number of seats in Dáil Eireann.
It is no coincidence that this has occurred in parallel with the decline and near eclipse of Fianna Fáil, which now has only half the number of TDs who sit on the Labour benches. These are strange and dramatic times indeed.
This collection of 15 essays marks the centenary of Labour’s foundation. The idea for the book originated with Mark Garrett, chief adviser to Tánaiste and party leader Eamon Gilmore, and one of the editors, Ronan O’Brien, is special adviser to another Labour Minister, Brendan Howlin.
Mercifully, though, it isn’t a love-in, and the contributions provide a historical perspective as well as a timely opportunity to assess the present state and future prospects of the Labour Party.
A chapter on the party’s early years, by Michael Laffan, is entitled “In the Shadow of the National Question”, a phrase that could be applied to Labour’s entire history.
Although James Connolly’s motion to establish a political wing of the Irish Trades Union Congress was proposed in Clonmel on May 28th, 1912, Laffan points out that for a long time the Labour Party remained “more an aspiration than an organisation”.
Exactly four years later, Connolly would be dead, executed for his part in the events of Easter week. Laffan comments that, having been the principal inspiration for the creation of the Labour Party, Connolly “committed himself to a conspiratorial rising without social content”.
The debate about Connolly’s chosen course of action continues. Arguably, he gave the Labour movement a degree of credibility in republican circles that it would otherwise have lacked. On the other hand, his untimely departure from the scene deprived the movement of a great source of energy, enthusiasm and high intelligence. No doubt the subject will be fully explored in this decade of centenaries.
Another issue still under debate is whether the party should have abstained in the 1918 general election. “Labour must wait” was the catch cry, and Laffan writes that any attempt to compete with Sinn Féin would have been an embarrassment.
He goes on to point out, however, that in local elections for urban areas only 17 months later, Labour got 18 per cent of first preferences, compared with a mere 27 per cent for Sinn Féin, and became the largest opposition party on Dublin Corporation.
Ciara Meehan describes how the party rejected a subsequent plea from Eamon de Valera to stand aside in the 1922 general election. Labour won 17 seats in the Third Dáil under the leadership of Tom Johnson.
Niamh Puirséil observes that, while Labour TDs castigated the Free State government’s summary executions of republican prisoners, they were in turn denounced and even personally threatened as traitors by opponents of the Treaty.
It would be more than a quarter-century before Labour entered the corridors of power, as a member of the first interparty government in 1948, which fell apart three years later over Health Minister Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme.
David McCullagh tells us how the conciliation efforts of the Labour leader William Norton won the praise of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who was worried about “leftist Labour elements, which are approaching the point of publicly ordering the Church to stand out of social life”.
The more recent closure of the Vatican Embassy and Labour’s generally secularist approach to education and other issues must have “John Charles” and, perhaps, Norton turning in their graves.
Norton’s successor was Brendan Corish, and it was he who made the ringing declaration at the 1967 party conference that “the 70s will be socialist”. This was later turned around by the cynics, who said: “The socialists will be 70.”
But for a brief period leading up to the 1969 general election, many elements in the Labour Party genuinely believed its time had come.
Those were the heady days of the 1960s: civil rights, May ’68 in Paris, Martin Luther King and anti-Vietnam War protests.
Kevin Rafter writes that “there was a real sense in Labour circles that the party was on the verge of an historic breakthrough”. This newspaper’s political correspondent Michael McInerney helped write Corish’s 1967 conference speech.
Labour may have had a “friend at court” in The Irish Times, but Rafter points out that this was not reflected in the paper’s news reporting of the election, which gave spacious coverage to Fianna Fail’s red-scare warnings about a “red sunset” and “Marxist infiltration”.
Rafter, himself a former political journalist with this newspaper, concludes that, while its editor Douglas Gageby had a liberal and progressive outlook, he was also an admirer of Charles Haughey, who played a key role in the Fianna Fáil campaign. The columnist John Healy was an even greater Haughey fan, and Rafter believes their combined influence outweighed that of McInerney and other Labour sympathisers.
The wide range of contributors to this book also includes Diarmaid Ferriter, Eunan O’Halpin, Stephen Collins, Jane Suiter, Senator Ivana Bacik and Eamon Gilmore, who proclaims his ambition for this century: to see Labour as the largest party in the State, playing the lead role in government.
Given the difficulties facing the present Coalition, this aim seems less than realistic in the short term, but the party has come a long way since Connolly’s bland and mildly worded founding motion, 100 years ago. Labour isn’t waiting any longer, it seems.
Deaglán de Bréadún is an Irish Times Political Correspondent