Of all the changes in Irish politics across the last decade the Labour Party’s eclipse as a significant political force and principal agent of change is one of the most striking . What happened and what lessons does it have for observers and those in the arena?
Thirty years ago this week, the politics of Ireland shifted when Labour rode a wave of fierce public desire for change in the general election, winning almost 20 per cent of the vote (twice its trend level of support) and returning with the then-unheard-of total of 33 Dail seats.
After much agonising and wrestling with its conscience (against which, as the cliche goes, it prevailed), Dick Spring — the party’s driven, irascible, visionary leader — formed a coalition with Fianna Fáil. It governed capably for two years before collapsing in a welter of mistrust. Labour then formed a new coalition — without an election — with Fine Gael and the small left-wing party Democratic Left, known as the rainbow government. That administration also governed competently until the summer of 1997, when it was dumped out of office by Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil.
That 1997 election was a fork in the road for modern Ireland. With the decline of Labour, Ahern and his Progressive Democrats partners under Mary Harney — and crucially, with Charlie McCreevy as minister for finance until 2004 — ran the country from the centre-right during the Celtic Tiger boom years, first growing the economy spectacularly with tax cuts and pro-business policies but then inflating a disastrous financial and property bubble. You know how that ended; we all partied, as someone once said.
Why did Labour lose? Recalling that time in the Examiner this week, Fergus Finlay — the key figure in Spring’s backroom — wrote that Labour allowed a narrative to gain traction that it was happy in government with anyone. In fact, at the time, the popular narrative was that Labour’s sin was to enter government with Fianna Fáil, having assailed it from opposition and that it was never forgiven for this.
An examination of polling at the time flatly contradicts this; Labour’s numbers had recovered by late 1994 after more than two years in government with Fianna Fáil but fell steadily after it entered government with Fine Gael. Labour was hammered in 1997 because on one hand it was half apologising for coalescing with Fianna Fáil, but on the other it did not find a way to take credit for the rainbow government’s successes (which were widely perceived, actually). Instead, Fine Gael got the credit, winning seven extra seats. Labour failed to make a case for itself.
Labour deluded itself that it was punished in 1997 for the 1992 coalition with Fianna Fáil, a belief easily disprovable by the polls
Fifteen years on, Labour returned to government in 2011 after the economic crash, this time on an even greater wave of support, with even more seats. You know the rest; electoral disaster inevitably followed in 2016 — a crushing defeat from which the party has still not recovered politically or, perhaps, psychologically. It is now a minor player in Irish politics, banished by a rampant Sinn Féin to the fringes of Opposition, where it jostles for relevance with the Social Democrats and the megaphones of the far-left. What would Spring, Finlay, Willy Scally, Greg Sparks and the rest of them think of it all?
What can we learn from this history lesson? There are a few things.
First, there is the obvious one: make sure you learn the right lessons. Labour deluded itself that it was punished in 1997 for the 1992 coalition with Fianna Fáil, a belief easily disprovable by the polls. This was a grudge masquerading as analysis and everyone believed it for years.
Secondly, a party must make a case for itself. So must any government. Labour has been apologising for austerity since 2016; it might really be time to admit that strategy isn’t working. That coalition with Fine Gael lost its way after 2014, when Labour was too quick to dump its leader Eamon Gilmore, panicking after hairy local and European elections. Having mended the national finances through EU-IMF Troika-imposed, but locally administered, austerity the Fine Gael-Labour government lost all sense of purpose and forward momentum; it just waited in fear for the verdict of voters, which duly arrived.
After the 2016 election — when it could have entered government again — the party slunk away to lick its wounds. It’s still licking them. But if you don’t believe in yourself, how do expect the voters to?
It remains to be seen if the change in the Taoiseach’s office will rejuvenate the administration and imbue it with fresh purpose and direction
The current Government is now at the halfway stage — a dangerous point for all administrations. It remains to be seen if the change in the Taoiseach’s office will rejuvenate the administration and imbue it with fresh purpose and direction for its remaining period in office. If it doesn’t, then it will be in trouble.
But politics is an adversarial business too. And that maybe is the third lesson from Labour’s last 30 years — you have to take the fight to your opponents. Spring was a fearsome hounder of former Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey, once describing him as a “cancer that is eating away at our body politic”, while Gilmore did the same job on Brian Cowen, accusing him at the height of the economic crash of committing “economic treason”.
Sinn Féin’s recent difficulties relating to the evidence in the Special Criminal Court trial of Gerard Hutch, where its former councillor Jonathan Dowdall is centrally involved, have excited Government TDs and Ministers, imbuing them with a new sense of their opponent’s vulnerabilities. It will not damage Sinn Féin in a significant or lasting way with many of the young voters who are flocking to its message on housing, cost of living, low pay and public services. But it has convinced Government TDs and Ministers that they can take on Sinn Féin; and that in itself changes the political dynamic.