Some came to praise their party, not to bury it

 

Mr Pat Brady, who chaired the Democratic Left conference, appealed to delegates to conduct the debate in "a comradely manner". Someone got up to object to standing orders. For a few minutes it was all so familiar: another conference of a party of the left was getting under way.

But the delegates were in the Shelbourne Hotel not to conduct a traditional conference but to wind up their party. Glittering chandeliers were reflected in the mirrors that covered the walls. Christmas lights shone and flashed from Christmas wreaths hanging around the room.

Much of the debate was low key and quiet, with many delegates treating it as a social occasion, hanging around in an area at the back of the hall talking to old friends. There was some expectation but considerable sadness.

Most speeches were in favour. The senior party figures insisted it was not an end but a beginning. Mr Eamon Gilmore, who had headed the DL negotiating team, declared that they were now going about "the unfinished business of Connolly: to put the left in power."

For the party's two most senior and respected Northern Ireland activists, Mr Seamus Lynch and Ms Mary McMahon, it was a particularly emotional occasion. The new party will not organise in the North.

Mr Lynch and Ms McMahon may remain as members registered at Labour's Dublin head office, but they will not now have any local organisation.

The veteran Donegal activist, Mr Seamus Rodgers, drummed up a warm and sustained round of applause for them when he referred to "my fellow Ulster men and women who kept the flame of sanity alive there." It may just have been the light, but it looked as if something welled up in Seamus Lynch's eyes.

The most emotional speech of the day came from Ms Patricia Condron of Maynooth. She described a 20-year personal and political journey through Fianna Fail, the Workers' Party and DL, losing her religion while studying liberation theology in Maynooth, the selling of Easter lilies and much campaigning.

She struggled through tears to finish her speech. She could not join the Labour Party, she said, it was a move too far. "There's something missing - it's passion."

However, had she crossed St Stephen's Green to the National Concert Hall she might have been surprised at the amount of passion in evidence. Mr Ruairi Quinn gave a trenchant ideological critique of the Government.

He challenged the "they're all the same" view of politics, positioning his party as a radical, left-wing organisation. "We will invest in people's needs," he said. "The other parties won't."

However, the pro-agreement side did not have a monopoly on the passion. Councillor Brian Fitzgerald of Meath made the strongest, most cutting attack on the proposed merger at either conference.

The merger "has the potential to tear this party asunder, because I never thought I would live to see the day when we would be asked to vote to dissolve the old Labour Party of 86 years and form a new party."

Democratic Left, he said, had "absolutely no principles. They went from Sinn Fein to Official Sinn Fein/IRA to Sinn Fein the Workers' Party, the Workers' Party, New Agenda and Democratic Left, leaving a trail of destruction in every party they have been part of. They have no home now, so they are prepared to crawl to us."

He maintained that three Democratic Left deputies had been just about to join Labour anyway, and he would have been happy to see that. "But I do object to allowing them share the running of our party. I do not believe the organisation will work. I do not believe a shared leadership can work when we need strong leadership.

"I do not believe Proinsias de Rossa will represent the traditions and ethos of the Labour Party."

Appealing to Mr Fitzgerald to give the merger a chance, Mr Derek McDowell remarked: "It isn't easy to embrace your onetime enemy as your friend."

Former Wicklow TD Mr Liam Kavanagh clearly saw the point. He said there was a housing crisis in Wicklow and noted that "this is 11/2 years since we had a DL Minister for Housing". The DL Minister responsible for housing was, of course, his constituency rival and soon-to-be colleague, Ms Liz McManus.

Over at the Shelbourne she was being somewhat more global, using the word "historic", throwing in some liberty, equality and solidarity, and quoting the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. "We are comrades and that does not mean that we always agree with one another. It doesn't even mean that we always have to like one another," she said.

Doubtless Liam Kavanagh had the same idea in mind when he said: "I never wanted to win a seat for the Labour Party as much as I do now. But by heck I hate going in as a running mate for Democratic Left."

Others who will face the prospect of strong DL candidates joining their local Labour Party ticket, such as Ms Niamh Bhreathnach (Dun Laoghaire) and Mr Eamonn Walsh (Dublin South West) were in favour of the merger. Mr Walsh, who will now be Mr Pat Rabbitte's running mate, said: "It is the people who will decide who is in Leinster House, not whether Rabbitte is on my tail or on my ticket."

The media got it in the neck from Mr Eamon Gilmore for concentrating on personalities rather than policies, which is exactly what many of the speakers did. It was Mr Des Geraghty of DL who brought the debate firmly back to policy and ideology, mentioning not just the `s' word, but the now almost extinct `m' word as well.

He was old enough to call himself a socialist, he said, but "our socialism has to be translated into terms that people understand." He appealed to DL members not just to vote for the deal but to join the new Labour Party and make the project work.

"Let nobody be afraid to call themselves a Marxist in the new formation," he declared. "We do not want a `New Labour', a wishy-washy thing in which we will have to walk away from our working-class roots."

DL had a secret ballot and got 89 per cent in favour. Labour held a show of hands and had over 90 per cent support. Ruairi Quinn predicted a "wonderful radical voyage."