15 years of crisis, achievement and controversy take their toll

 

The 25-year-old longhaired bearded Irish barman on New York's upper east side in 1975 is unlikely to have imagined the circumstances in which he would return to the same bar, the Mad Hatter, 21 years later.

He turned up there last year after spending five days in New York as Tanaiste, minister for foreign affairs and chairman of the EU's General Affairs Council representing the EU at the UN. He brought his officials to have a few beers and chicken wings in the bar where he had worked as a young man.

The manager and staff warmly greeted their former colleague and gave him a few souvenir T-shirts before he headed outside to the limousines bound for the Government jet waiting at John F. Kennedy Airport.

Dick Spring's career and success owe something to chance: his father's retirement in 1981 from the seat the trade union official had held for 38 years gave Dick an easy route into the Dail.

Nobody could have predicted that Michael O'Leary would quit the Labour leadership in a huff the following year and that the make-up of the parliamentary party would ensure that 32-year-old Dick Spring would succeed him.

Nobody could have predicted either that, almost immediately, the electoral arithmetic would make him Tanaiste, only five years after serving beer in the New York bar.

But you make your own luck as well. He grew into a shrewd political battler very quickly. He had to in order to deal with the weekly rows with his government partners and his internal party critics.

He was transformed from a divisive figure in Labour to the leader of the most united Labour Party in recent history. Finally, he led his party to its greatest electoral success and its greatest influence in Irish political life.

However, he ultimately failed where all other Labour leaders have failed, in the attempt to emerge from a period in government with electoral credit for the party's achievements.

If the 1992 winning of 33 seats was his greatest triumph, the party's loss of half those after its most successful period in government was his greatest disappointment. Yet he would have won a mandate to remain as leader had he sought it, and he will go into Labour's history as its greatest leader so far.

Superficially Dick Spring appeared to follow the classic Irish route into politics through inheriting his father's positions. His route through Trinity, the Irish Bar, the New York bar and back to Tralee was more circuitous than is traditional.

Politics and sport were dominant factors in his home background. He first addressed political meetings in public while still at school. "He was very good at them even then," his late father once recalled. "Everyone who heard him speaking said he was going to go somewhere."

He made his name in sport first, playing hurling and Gaelic football for his county and rugby for Ireland, winning three caps. He had captained the Trinity College rugby team and played at club level for Lansdowne, London Irish, Constitution and Tralee.

Sporting success is a family characteristic. His father was a Kerry footballer who won all-Ireland medals in 1939 and 1940. His elder brother, Arthur, is an amateur golfer of note and his other brother, Donal, also played rugby for Ireland.

His sporting career was cut short in December 1991 by a serious car crash. It took 20 minutes to cut him from the wreckage of his State car. He thought he might never straighten up again and spent a long time in hospital and on crutches, living with steel pins in his back for over a year. Even now his gait and stance sometimes betray an uncomfortable back.

Born in Kerry in August 1950, Dick Spring was educated at CBS Tralee, as a boarder at Mount St Joseph's College, Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and at Trinity College Dublin and Kings Inns. He got a dispensation from the bishop to attend Trinity, as was then required by the Catholic Church.

He later said he applied for the dispensation to please his parents and would have just gone anyway had he not had them to consider.

Although a student of the radical late 1960s, he had no major involvement in student politics. Having obtained a law degree, he went to Kings Inns to study to become a barrister and was called to the Bar in 1975.

But then he headed for New York, where he worked as a barman and a waiter for two years. "I wanted to get away from Ireland for a while," he said later. "Also there was the fact that practising at the Bar is not the most lucrative of professions when you first enter it and I wanted to try to save some money for when I came back and started working as a barrister."

One night a Trans-America air hostess named Kristi Hutcheson of Hampton, Virginia, walked into the Mad Hatter. They were married just a year later. He spent a period in Aspen, Colorado, bar tending by night, skiing by day, before coming home.

When he came back in 1977, he practised both in Dublin and on the south-western circuit.

Almost immediately, the process of succeeding his father as North Kerry's Labour TD began. He was elected to Kerry County Council and Tralee Urban District Council in 1977. In 1981 he won the Dail seat by just 144 votes, retaining the seat held by Dan Spring since 1943.

Labour was immediately in government and Dick Spring was appointed Minister of State at the Department of Justice. The government fell in February 1982, but circumstances propelled Spring's political career forward very fast indeed.

In November 1982, at the age of 32, he was party leader, defeating Michael D. Higgins for the post by 12 votes to two within the parliamentary party.

He took over a divided and demoralised party. In the previous 17 months, Labour had lost two leaders, Frank Cluskey when he lost his Dail seat in June 1981 and Michael O'Leary who resigned as leader in late 1982 and joined Fine Gael shortly after a party conference in Galway rejected his electoral strategy.

Spring was thrown immediately into a general election in November 1982 and Labour came back with 16 Dail seats, having gained three, but it lost the seat of its chairman, Higgins. Spring became tanaiste and minister for the environment in a coalition with Fine Gael, although within a year he had moved to the Department of Energy.

For Dick Spring, the next four years were ones of extraordinary and constant political crisis, for which his reward was an agonising wait before learning he had retained his Dail seat by just four votes. Spring went public regularly to state his party's support for increased capital taxation, for wealth tax, property tax, for a national development corporation, his personal opposition to the abortion amendment, his party's support for a divorce referendum.

His party regularly lost such confrontations, leading to growing internal dissension and bitterness and ultimately a lengthy internal power struggle.

Party conferences were bear pits, with an unremitting internal conflict over whether the party should be in government at all. There were constant public clashes with the trade-union movement amid a series of job losses, cutbacks in public expenditure and continuing tax impositions on the PAYE sector.

Throughout that government, too, there was a constant refrain about his North Kerry Dail seat being in danger. Unemployment in Tralee and in Kerry was at over 20 per cent and competition from Fine Gael's Jimmy Deenihan was becoming intense. Spring was away attending to national business, as back home usurpers nibbled at his electoral base.

Spring and Fine Gael ministers argued regularly and in public. Alan Dukes and John Bruton were particular Labour betes noires. At his party's 1984 conference, Spring referred to "members of the cabinet who would find it difficult ever to agree with me".

He found himself making excuses for each of that government's budgets. Public spending cuts affected Labour's traditional constituency hardest, and sections of his party accused Labour ministers of selling out their principles. Spring recognised the difficulty.

Referring to the February 1993 budget, he said: "It will not be easy for Labour Party members to subscribe to it, for those who support us to accept it. Nor indeed was it easy for us in government to agree to it."

Internally he lost a battle over the procedure to be used in selecting two replacement Dublin MEPs. Two anti-coalitionists, Brendan Halligan and Flor O'Mahony, won the contest. Party backbenchers regularly criticised government policy. Frank Cluskey resigned from the cabinet. Michael Bell resigned the party whip. Spring publicly denounced Dukes and Bruton on several occasions and clashed with Austin Deasy over land tax and Paddy Cooney over neutrality. Trade unionists called on him to leave government.

Each year up to 1987 brought further confrontation over the level of cutbacks needed for the next budget. Party conferences and meetings brought regular denunciations of Labour in government and near-defeats for the leadership on key issues.

The party was hammered in the Dublin Central by-election of 1983. In 1984 it lost all four European Parliament seats it had won in 1979. It was hammered in the local elections of 1985. All this overshadowed government achievements, notably the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

A party Commission on Electoral Strategy recommended a "go-it-alone" policy for at least 10 years, unless a coalition could be formed on the basis of a list of non-negotiable demands. In January 1987 Spring finally led his ministers out of government over proposed spending cuts.

The February 1987 election was the one in which he held on by just four votes, a traumatic event which left a deep and lasting impression on him. Labour dropped just two seats, from 14 to 12, but with some deputies scraping home on the final count.

That year, 1987, also saw the arrival in the Dail of Emmet Stagg, a left-wing deputy from Kildare and long-time critic of coalition. The anti-coalition group in the party began to manoeuvre against Spring.

First they proposed that in future the Labour leader be elected by the party's annual conference, not by the parliamentary party. They lost by just a handful of votes at the party conference to a compromise put forward by Spring which ultimately allowed for the leader to be elected by postal vote of members.

Mervyn Taylor defeated Ruairi Quinn for the position of party chairman. Stagg captured the position of vice-chairman.

Confrontation grew in 1988, and Stagg publicly attacked taxation proposals made by Spring. He led a walkout from an administrative council meeting of nine members, saying they were protesting at Spring's leadership style.

The 1989 conference in Tralee represented the height of the dissidents' campaign, and they lost. Spring successfully proposed the expulsion of members of the left wing tendency, Militant, from the party. His candidate Niamh Bhreathnach won the vice-chairmanship from Stagg.

The most significant change was the decision of the 100-vote trade union bloc to support Spring in the crucial votes. That and the expulsion of Militant meant the dissidents could never muster the majority needed to take control of the party. Opposition to Spring dissipated.

It was the turning point in his political career and for his party. Power had shifted from the organisation and its structures to himself and those around him.

Now firmly in control of his party, Spring's reputation rose and rose over the next three years.

Labour went from 12 to 15 Dail seats in the 1989 general and, from the first day the new Dail met, Dick Spring set about establishing himself as the real leader of the Opposition.

He scored regularly in the Dail against the government, and against the main opposition party, Fine Gael. It was he, not the Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes, who recognised that Charles Haughey should not remain as Taoiseach after he had lost the vote for Taoiseach in the Dail.

He outmanoeuvred and outshone Fine Gael in revealing and then opposing the government's plan not to reappoint the Ombudsman Michael Mills, and he led the opposition to the government's broadcasting Bill.

His greatest impact was in his contributions on the Goodman affair in which he incessantly harried the government. He led the debate on the Greencore affair, the X case and the abortion referendums. In July 1990 he was re-elected unopposed as party leader.

The party gained in public image and in the polls. His selection of Mrs Mary Robinson as the party's presidential candidate in 1990 provided a massive morale boost for the party when she was elected. Major gains in the 1991 local authority elections, as the party increased its vote from 6.5 per cent to 11.4 per cent, laid the foundations for the spectacular 1992 winning of 33 Dail seats.

Nobody had expected as impressive a result in 1992, and Spring's public stature was seen as the decisive factor. The new parliamentary party gave Spring a mandate which allowed him to explore whatever options for government he liked.

Fine Gael set preconditions for entering government with Labour, and Spring responded with a verbal mugging of John Bruton at a meeting in the Shelbourne Hotel. It was a statement of the new Labour confidence but the first of several acts that earned him the reputation for "arrogance".

He agreed a coalition deal with Fianna Fail under Albert Reynolds, although many of the new Labour voters had felt that in voting Labour they were putting Fianna Fail out of government.

The deal gave Labour real power, however, with most of the Programme for Government appearing to have been written by it and six ministries ceded to the party, ensuring it was well placed to implement key policies.

Ironically, while this represented the party's greatest success in winning power, it also marked the end of Spring's rise in popularity and public stature. Within three months his personal satisfaction rating in an Irish Times/ MRBI poll had halved to 36 per cent. Labour support fell three points to 16 per cent.

The government's appointment of programme managers, special ministerial advisers and other assistants had brought strong negative publicity and criticism, as did ministers' use of the government jet. The growth of the budget and staffing of the Tanaiste's office attracted similar publicity.

Spring's appointment of his sister Maeve as his personal assistant aroused particular controversy. He had appointed her to a similar position when he became Tanaiste in 1983 without any fuss and she had been employed to look after his constituency affairs ever since.

He also appointed a programme manager, three advisers and a personal secretary from outside the public service, appointments which were criticised as jobbery by the opposition.

The controversy was indicative of how the perception of Spring had changed. The public perception of him as arrogant grew. The controversy also copper-fastened his suspicion and distrust of the media, which reported extensively and critically on the appointments.

Throughout the period of government with Fianna Fail, Labour complained that its achievements in government were not being noticed. It felt the media were only interested in writing about the flying hours of the government jet, advisers and the fact that Spring stayed in the Waldorf Astoria hotel when visiting New York.

Reforming legislation on ethics in public life, family law, equality, free third-level education and many other issues was being produced regularly, but the party was getting little credit.

The 1994 European Parliament elections resulted in another setback, with the party winning just one seat. To make matters worse, that seat was won by Bernie Malone, the woman who had effectively defeated her party leader's wishes by defeating his candidate, Orla Guerin, first in the selection convention and then in the election itself. It was seen not as a victory, but a slap in the face for the "arrogant" Spring.

The relationship between him and Reynolds was never warm. Latent tensions between the two which had first appeared during the beef tribunal re-emerged and exploded when the tribunal report was published.

The breakdown in trust meant that when the controversy over Harry Whelehan's appointment as President of the High Court overlapped with the scandal over the mishandling of the Brendan Smyth extradition case, Fianna Fail had little goodwill to call on from Spring.

The government limped on long enough for it to see the announcement of the first IRA ceasefire. As Reynolds continued his efforts to persuade and woo the republican movement, Spring took on the role of presenting Dublin's acceptable face to unionists. Despite private tensions, the two managed to carry on the double act most effectively.

In a deft political manoeuvre, Spring would change his role when he went into government with John Bruton's Fine Gael, reassuring the republican community at a time when they feared Reynolds had been replaced by a unionist Taoiseach.

But the government was almost over. Following an extraordinarily complex series of political manoeuvres, Spring turned his back on Fianna Fail and negotiated a coalition government with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.

The subsequent rainbow coalition was undoubtedly Spring's, and Labour's, best period in government. There were no internal tensions and no walkouts.

Spring earned a serious international reputation as minister for foreign affairs and in particular while chairman of the EU's General Affairs Council during the Irish EU presidency in the second half of last year.

He played a key role in Northern Ireland policy. His party, through Ruairi Quinn, controlled the key Finance ministry for the first time. Mervyn Taylor piloted almost the entire "unfinished business" of the liberal agenda through, including a divorce referendum. Michael D. Higgins put a Labour stamp on arts, culture and broadcasting policy.

Labour ministers were the driving force behind that government's policy platform, yet this did not bring any greater glory to Dick Spring and his party. His decision in 1992 to spurn John Bru ton had left a lasting image of arrogance. His 1994 decision to spurn Albert Reynolds seemed to enhance, rather than reduce, that image.

Despite Labour's slide in the polls, Spring retained his authority within the party. Last April he was confident enough to rule out a post-election coalition with Fianna Fail without asking the parliamentary party or the conference to decide, a decision again denounced as "arrogant" by his critics.

The results of the June election left Labour with 16 Dail seats, a figure only emulated once before, in 1982.

Even after a period of wielding such power, the party had failed to win electoral credit for achievements in government. Gaining 33 Dail seats in 1992 gave it real hope that it had transformed its level of influence in Irish political life. Last June's result revived the fear that 1992 was just an aberration and that Labour could revert to its traditional bit part.

The failure of the party's presidential candidate, Adi Roche, to make a substantial impact has added to that fear, suggesting that Mary Robinson's victory was an aberration as well.

Dick Spring has spoken since the early 1980s of the toll political life has taken on his family life. Tralee is a long way away if Dublin is your place of work. The journey literally nearly killed him in the 1981 crash. One of his children took ill while he was at the Amsterdam summit last June.

The cumulative effects of such incidents and the routine demands of political leadership are understood to have influenced his decision to quit.

Dick Spring leaves a party facing a major task in rebuilding morale and attempting to rebuild its electoral base in those constituencies where it lost seats. But the factionalism has gone, and the party is united in saluting him as its greatest leader and almost united in regretting his departure.