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Mudguard: the time-honoured role of the Labour Party.

By Anthony Coughlan.

Like most Labour and Social Democrat parties Labour was originally established by the Trade Unions to advance the political interests of trade unionists and workers generally. When founded in 1912 it had the joint name of  the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress. The British Liberal Government had promised Home Rule. James Connolly, James Larkin and William O’Brien wanted Labour to play a full role in the eagerly expected Irish Parliament.

Most trade unions in the Republic are affiliated to Labour, but most trade unionists and workers voted for Sinn Féin in the 1916-21 period, in later decades for Fianna Fáil, and these days they are moving towards another Sinn Féin again.

Labour’s failure to get the votes of its natural working-class constituency is due to its ”economism” and the perception that it has historically been “anti-national”. The economism refers to Labour purporting to concentrate on seeking economic improvements for workers, while leaving the big political issues to the two “bourgeois” parties that came from the 1922-23 Civil War.  The anti-nationalism refers to the fact that the main Irish political issue of the past century has been the establishment of an Irish State, maintaining that State’s independence and sovereignty and seeking Irish reunification. Labour has failed to make these issues its own and left them instead to the same Civil War parties and to various shades of Republicanism.

James Connolly’s main contribution to political thought was to show by his writings and his participation in the Easter Rising that Labour, the political Left and people who claimed to be socialists should seek to be the foremost advocates of national independence – in that way winning hegemony over the nation as a whole. Sadly, his successors as Labour leaders either did not understand him or failed to follow him.

Labour opted not to contest the hugely important 1918 and 1921 elections, the first elections in which women had the vote and which determined people’s politics for generations. If in 1918 Labour had opted to abstain from Westminster as Sinn Féin had pledged to do, it would have won for itself an influential and possibly a determining role in the dramatic events that followed, leading to the establishment of an Irish State. Belfast’s workers were Unionists, Southern ones were Nationalist. Labour sought to maintain the organisational unity of the All-Ireland Trade Union Movement  by ceding the whole field of politics to Sinn Féin. As Peadar O’Donnell put it: “We lost the whole of Ireland for the sake of Belfast”.

In the 1930s when the Republican Congress movement tried to push Fianna Fáil in a more Republican and anti-imperialist direction from the left,  Labour proclaimed that it stood for the “Workers’ Republic” and would have no truck with any mere “Republic” that was not socialist. When that moment had passed, it hastily dropped the slogan “Workers’ Republic” in face of criticism by the Church authorities of the day, which saw that as communism.

For most of the seventy years since the end of World War 2 the Labour Party under successive leaders – William Norton, Brendan Corish, Michael O’Leary, Dick Spring, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbite and Eamon Gilmore – has been said to be more “the mudguard of Fine Gael than the vanguard of the proletariat”. By forming a whole series of coalitions with Fine Gael, the more conservative of the Republic’s two main parties, Labour has periodically revived Fine Gael by putting it into government, while enabling Fianna Fáil to renew itself in opposition. Labour spokesmen like to deplore the dominance of Irish politics since the 1920s by the so-called  “Civil War parties”. They do not realise that it is Labour’s own policy choices that have been primarily responsible for this.

I recall putting this point to the late Noel Browne, who was Minister for Health in the first such Coalition, that of 1948-51. “You are quite right” ,he said. “I remember James Dillon saying to me shortly after that Government was formed: ‘Last year we had only a few dozen people at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis. This year the hall was packed to the door.’ I then realised”, said Browne, “that what we had done was revive Fine Gael”.

When that particular coalition collapsed over the Mother and Child scheme in 1951 Fine Gael increased its first-preference vote, while Labour and other smaller coalition parties were devastated. The same pattern has repeated itself several times since. The political law of coalition government seems to be that the larger party gets the credit for whatever good voters see the coalition as doing, while the smaller party gets the blame for Coalition failures.

And the reason for this successive love affair between Labour and Fine Gael? Sean O’Casey put it aptly when he said of Labour’s participation in that 1948-51 Coalition: “Their posteriors were aching for the velvet seats of office”.

If Labour had stayed aloof from Fine Gael following the 2011 election it would be well positioned now to become the largest party in the State in the upcoming general election. But its leaders could not wait. Better to be Tánaiste today than potentially Taoiseach tomorrow.

There was one moment when Labour’s trade union affiliates asserted themselves in a national direction – when Ireland’s membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) was being decided in 1972. The late Michael Mullen, a former Labour TD who as a young man had been in the IRA, led the ITGWU (now SIPTU)  and through it the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, in opposition to EEC membership for Ireland. This forced the  Labour Party leadership reluctantly to go along.

I remember the coordinating meetings we had for that campaign. We used to meet in Mullen’s office on the top floor of Liberty Hall. Mullen and Ruairi Roberts of the ICTU represented the trade unions, Brendan Halligan and Justin Keating the Labour Party, and Raymond Crotty and I the non-party EEC opponents. Then following the May 1972 Accession Treaty referendum, with its big vote in favour of EEC membership, Labour fell again into the arms of Fine Gael. Various jobs were parcelled out in the 1973 Coalition Government and in the decades since Labour has emulated Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in embracing supranationalism and protesting its europhilia.

A break in Labour’s love-affair with Fine Gael occurred in 1992 when Dick Spring coalesced briefly with Fianna Fáil, making Albert Reynolds Taoiseach. Having over 100 Dáil seats between the two parties gave Reynolds the confidence to back the IRA peace process vigorously, as a Fine Gael-Labour coalition under John Bruton would never have done. Then in 1994 Dick Spring withdrew his support for Reynolds on the pretext that Labour voters were unhappy with its involvement with Fianna Fáil. By changing sides in the Dáil Labour put Fine Gael into office over the Harry Whelehan affair without the need for another election.

What is left of Labour’s radicalism today? In recent decades its various male leaders have taken to wearing red ties when they appear on public occasions. They presumably see this as symbolising something.

As regards policy Labour has compensated for its eschewal of radicalism in economics by spearheading what one might call the “life-style politics” of the liberal agenda. This appeals to some amongst Ireland’s middle classes, but tends to leave working-class people cold. Currently this means Labour advocating gay marriage, a policy it has succeeded in foisting on Fine Gael to help cement the current Coalition. One wonders what James Connolly, who strongly opposed the “free love” doctrines of August Bebel and Daniel De Leon when he lived in the United States, would have thought of this latest development in the party he helped found in Clonmel just over a century ago. •