History of the Labour Party (Ireland)

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James Connolly, Irish republican and socialist leader, died 1916

The Labour Party has been part of the political scene in the Republic of Ireland throughout that state's existence. Although never attracting majority support, it has repeatedly participated in coalition governments.

The party was established in 1912 by James Connolly and others as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress. It intended to participate in a Dublin Parliament that would follow passage of the Home Rule Act 1914, which was suspended on the outbreak of World War I. Connolly was executed following the Easter Rising in 1916, and was succeeded as leader by Thomas Johnson. The party stood aside from the elections of 1918 and 1921, but despite divisions over acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty it did well in the 1922 elections, initially forming the main opposition party in the Dáil Éireann (parliament) of the Irish Free State.

The subsequent years were marked by rivalry between factions led by William X. O'Brien and James Larkin, with William Norton becoming leader. Between 1932 and 1938 the Labour Party supported Éamon de Valera's minority Fianna Fáil government. From 1948–1951 and from 1954–1957 the Labour Party entered government alongside Fine Gael and other parties, with Norton as deputy prime minister. During this period the party also stood for elections in Northern Ireland, after a split in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In 1960 Brendan Corish became the new Labour leader. As leader he advocated and introduced more socialist policies to the party. Between 1973 and 1987 Labour three times more went into coalition governments with Fine Gael. Dick Spring became leader in 1982, amid growing controversy within the party over these coalitions and the growth of parties to the left of Labour.

In 1990 Mary Robinson became President of Ireland with Labour support. After mergers with the Democratic Socialist Party and the Independent Socialist Party, Labour performed well in the 1992 general election and formed a coalition with Fianna Fáil, with Spring as deputy prime minister, then in 1994 without a further election joined a coalition with Fine Gael and Democratic Left (the “Rainbow Coalition”). After defeat in the 1997 general election, Labour merged with Democratic Left, and the former Democratic Left member Pat Rabbitte became leader in 2002. Rabbitte implemented the “Mullingar Accord”, a pre-election voting pact with Fine Gael, but this did not lead to greater election success for Labour in the 2007 elections, and Rabbitte resigned to be replaced by Eamon Gilmore. The 2011 general election saw one of Labour's best results, with over 19% of the first-preference votes. Labour once more entered a coalition government with Fine Gael, and the Irish presidential election later that year saw the Labour Party's candidate, Michael D. Higgins, elected as President. However, Labour in government experienced a series of dismissals and resignations among its members in the Dáil. In 2014, Gilmore resigned as party leader after Labour's poor performance in the European and local elections, and Joan Burton was elected as the new leader.


Proclamation banning a public meeting called by James Larkin in Sackville Street, Dublin, August 1913

In the first decade of the twentieth century, considerable debate took place within the Irish Trade Union Congress on whether the organised trade union movement in Ireland should take part in political activity. James Connolly, and James Larkin as the leaders of the new and dynamic Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), led the calls for political action and representation for trade unionists. Opposition came from northern trade unionists and others who wanted links with the British Labour Party, and from supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The catalyst for the launch of a congress-sponsored party was the introduction and successful progress of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912. At its meeting in Clonmel in 1912, the congress took up the question of a political party. James Connolly presented the resolution that the congress establish its own party. He argued that since Home Rule was imminent and would take place once the House of Lords' delaying powers were exhausted in two years' time, that this period should be used to organise the new party. Connolly's resolution was carried by a wide margin with 49 voting for; 19 against; and 19 abstaining.

The congress also supported the introduction of salaries for members of parliament, public funding of elections and female suffrage. The founding of the Labour Party was disrupted by personality differences between Larkin and his fellow leaders, including Connolly. Nevertheless, the 1913 congress meeting under William O'Brien's chairmanship instructed the executive to proceed with the writing of a party constitution.

The proposed constitution limited party membership to affiliated trade unions and councils only and excluded individual membership and other involvement, such as by co-operative societies and socialist groups. Thomas Johnson argued that Labour would be "swamped" by farmer co-operatives and that individuals might join through trade councils. Connolly argued that there should be just one body and that a separate Labour Party as in Britain would encourage the "professional politician". The ITUC decided to add "and Labour Party" to its name and became the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party (ITUC and LP). At the 1914 Congress, it was agreed for the first time to seek the reconstruction of society: "the Congress urges that labour unrest can only be ended by the abolition of the capitalist system of wealth production with its inherent injustice and poverty." Curiously, the ITUC and LP took no part in the 1913 lock-out struggle in Dublin, and Labour did poorly in local elections in Dublin in January 1914.

The ITUC and LP was seriously troubled by the proposals in 1914 to exclude certain Ulster counties from Home Rule as this would undermine the potential of the new party by excluding the substantial industrial areas of north east Ulster. Fourteen of the 34 urban seats in the Home Rule parliament were to be in Belfast alone. The start of the First World War in the summer of 1914 transformed the political situation in Ireland. The Home Rule Bill became law but its operation was postponed until after the war. The official Labour position did not directly oppose Irish support for the British war effort, but it was critical of the war in general terms. Labour skirted the issue in an attempt to avoid division between unionist and nationalist trade unionists. Larkin opposed the war before he left for the USA and Connolly condemned John Redmond's support for Irish nationalists involvement in army recruitment. Gradually, Labour opposition to the spectre of conscription moved the party's position closer to that of the separatists. To avoid making a decision on the war, Labour called off its congress in 1915.

James Connolly was the only leading Labour figure to take part in the Easter Rising in 1916. His execution after the rebellion left the labour movement in some disarray. Liberty Hall, the physical symbol of the labour movement, was destroyed, and the files of the ITUCLP were seized. Many trade union leaders, in Dublin, who had not taken part in the Rising were interned, such as William O'Brien, but they were released later when the British realised that they had no direct involvement. Their absence allowed non-nationalist leaders to come to the fore, especially Thomas Johnson, who was not charismatic, but was a moderate and hardworking man.

Despite his English background, his sheer diligence and devotion to his duties gave him the leading position in labour politics for the next decade. He managed to persuade the authorities to release the trade union leaders in time for the congress meeting in Sligo in August 1916. In his chairman's address, Johnson avoided taking a stand on the Rising and instead called for a minute's silence to honour the memory of Connolly and his comrades. He mourned the dead in the trenches and expressed personal support for the Allies. Johnson's stance in refusing to accept any responsibility for the Rising was regarded as a success as it avoided division between north and south, and laid the stress on economic and social issues.

Early history[edit]

William O'Brien, prominent figure in the Labour Party from 1917

In Larkin's absence and Connolly's demise, William X. O'Brien became the dominant figure in the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union joining it in January 1917, and quickly becoming the leader of that union and wielding considerable influence in the Labour Party. O'Brien, along with Johnson, also dominated the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party. O'Brien took a leading role in the growing separatist movement that would become the revitalised Sinn Féin. The Labour party, now led by Thomas Johnson, as successor to such organisations as D.D. Sheehan's, (independent labour MP.'s) Irish Land and Labour Association (ILLA), found itself marginalised by the preeminence that Sinn Féin gave to the national question. De Valera and others expressed sympathy for the labour movement's objectives but made clear that Labour must wait. The congress-party strongly opposed the moves to introduce conscription into Ireland in 1918 and a twenty four-hour strike was successfully called on 23 April 1918. Only the Belfast area ignored the strike call. That spring, Labour announced that it would take part in the General Election to be held immediately after the war ended. De Valera and other Sinn Féin leaders were highly critical of what they saw as a divisive step by the ITUCLP. At the congress held in August 1918, the executive reported that Labour's hour of destiny had struck and it found the movement ready. O'Brien urged the development of electoral machinery. At this moment, the first signs of the split between O'Brien and the Larkinites became evident. PT Daly, the protégé of Larkin, was locked in a struggle with O'Brien and was beaten by 114 votes to 109 for the post of secretary of the Congress. Daly was later to be purged by O'Brien from the leadership of the ITGWU, setting the scene for a long-lasting split in Irish trade unionism. Following the congress, Labour was finally forced to deal with the issues of national self-determination and abstention from parliament.

Sinn Féin entered into discussions with Labour to secure its abstention from the forthcoming election. Labour was again faced with the dilemma that it might win some seats by entering into a pact with Sinn Féin at the price of alienation of northern unionist workers. Labour offered a radical election programme. Among other objectives, it declared that it would win for the workers the collective ownership and control of the whole produce of their work; adopt the principles of the Russian Revolution; secure the democratic management of all industries in the interest of the nation; and abolish all privileges which were based on property or ancestry.

In the end, a special party conference voted by 96 votes to 23 that the ITUCLP would not contest the 1918 general election, to allow the election to take the form of a plebiscite on Ireland's constitutional status. Sinn Féin went on to gain 73 of the 105 seats in the General Election and convened the First Dáil in January 1919. The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil was jointly drafted by Sean T O'Kelly of Sinn Féin and Thomas Johnson of Labour. Despite being eventually pruned of much of its socialist content, some of the original radical elements survived. Sinn Féin paid its debt of honour to the Labour Party for its abstention by including in the Programme that every citizen was to be entitled to an adequate share of the produce of the nation's labour; the government would concern itself with the welfare of children, and would care for the aged and infirm; and it would seek "a general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour".

Labour took part in the 1920 local elections and won a significant role in local government for the first time. It gained 394 seats compared to 550 for Sinn Féin, 355 for the unionists, 238 for the old nationalists, and 161 independents.

In 1921, the ITUCLP again agreed with Sinn Féin that it would not take part in the election for the new Southern Ireland parliament envisaged by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. This left the field clear for Sinn Féin to treat these elections as the election to the Second Dáil. As a result of these decisions, the party was left out of the Dáil during the vital years of the independence struggle. Following the Truce of July 1921, Labour was not involved in any way in the subsequent negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, by which a new Irish Free State would be established as a Dominion of the British Empire equivalent in status to Canada.

Labour in the Irish Free State[edit]

The Anglo-Irish Treaty divided the Labour party. It did not take an official stand. From his American prison cell, Jim Larkin opposed the Treaty while the only Labour member of the Dáil, Richard Corish of Wexford spoke and voted for the Treaty. Johnson, never a republican, privately supported the Treaty, while O'Brien did not oppose it. Following the approval of the Treaty by the Dáil in January 1922, the executive of the ITUCLP succeeded at a special conference held in February, in passing a motion to participate in the forthcoming General Election. Successful Labour candidates were required to take their seats in the new Free State Dáil, and a reformist programme was adopted.

Johnson and the other Labour leaders tried to stop the slide to civil war to no avail, including holding a one-day national strike across the 26 counties on 24 April. Labour candidates were nominated for the election on 16 June, despite the difficulties of poor organisation, internal opposition to participation and limited finance. When The Collins/De Valera Pact was agreed on 20 May, the pressure on the party was intensified. The Pact provided for the pro and anti Treaty sides to have one agreed slate of candidates with a coalition government to be established afterwards. Other parties and groups, including Labour, were asked to stand down again in the national interest. Effectively, the old Sinn Féin was about to deny a democratic election from being held and to prevent the public expressing their preferences. While de Valera had a notable success in persuading Patrick Hogan, a future Labour Ceann Comhairle, from standing in Clare, 18 other Labour candidates resisted the pressures on them from the IRA and went forward for election. These were perceived as pro-Treaty, and when Michael Collins repudiated the Pact four days before the election, it benefited the Labour Party as well as the pro-Treaty party. Seventeen of the eighteen Labour candidates won seats, with the 18th losing only by 13 votes. Some candidates had nearly twice the quota but had no running mates to transfer their surplus votes.

As well as being a triumph for the Labour Party, the election confirmed the popular acceptance of the Treaty. The Civil War broke out shortly later, between the IRA and the new National Army, and ravaged the country in the following months. The new Dáil did not meet until September preventing Labour from having any influence over events. Public opinion and voting habits crystallised in a deeply polarised fashion in this period between the two sides of the national movement, and led to the effective marginalisation of the Labour Party and of social and economic issues that was to last for the rest of the twentieth century.

When the third Dáil eventually met in September, Labour attempted to amend the new Free State Constitution to remove the elements imposed by the Treaty but pragmatically accepted the new order when it was adopted. The Labour deputies took the controversial oath of fidelity to the British monarch, viewing it as a formality.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, an economic slump and collapse in union membership led to a loss in support for the party. In the 1923 election Labour only won 14 seats. However, from 1922 until Fianna Fáil TDs took their seats in 1927, Labour was the major opposition party in the Dáil. It attacked the lack of social reform by the Cumann na nGaedheal government. Johnson became the leading figure in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the leader of the Opposition to the new Government.

In 1923 Larkin returned to Ireland. He hoped to take over the leadership role he had left, but O'Brien resisted him. Larkin sided with the more radical elements of the party and in September that year he established the Irish Worker League.

In 1932 the Labour Party supported Éamon de Valera's first Fianna Fáil government, which had proposed a programme of social reform with which the party was in sympathy. In the 1940s it looked for a while as if Labour would replace Fine Gael as the main opposition party. In the 1943 general election the party won 17 seats, its best result since 1927. But further aspirations were disappointed as the party was damaged by internal division for the remainderof the decade.

The split with National Labour and the first coalition governments[edit]

The Larkin-O'Brien feud still continued, and worsened over time. In the 1940s the hatred caused a split in the Labour party and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. In 1944 O'Brien left and founded the National Labour Party. O'Brien also withdrew the ITGWU from the Irish Trade Unions Congress and set up his own congress. The split damaged the Labour movement in the 1944 general election. It was only after Larkin's death in 1947 that an attempt at unity could be made.

During this period the party also occasionally stood for election in Northern Ireland, on occasion winning the odd seat at both the Westminster Parliament and Stormont Parliament in the Belfast area. However the party is not known to have contested an election in the region since Gerry Fitt, then the party's sole Stormont MP, left the party to form the Republican Labour Party in 1964.

From 1948–1951 and from 1954–1957 the Labour Party was the second-largest partner in the two inter-party governments. William Norton, the Labour leader, became Tánaiste and Minister for Social Welfare on both occasions.

Labour under Brendan Corish, 1960 – 1977[edit]

In 1960 Brendan Corish became the new Labour leader. As leader he advocated and introduced more socialist policies to the party. Between 1973 and 1977 the Labour Party formed a coalition government with Fine Gael. The coalition partners lost the subsequent election in 1977. Corish resigned immediately after the defeat.

The 1980s: coalition, internal feuding, electoral decline and regrowth[edit]

From 1981 to 1982 and from 1982 to 1987, Labour participated in coalition governments with Fine Gael. In the later part of the second of these coalition terms, the country's poor economic and fiscal situation required strict curtailing of government spending, and Labour bore much of the blame for unpopular cutbacks in health and other social services. In the 1987 general election it received only 6.4% of the vote, and its vote was increasingly threatened by the growth of the Workers' Party. Fianna Fáil formed a minority government from 1987 to 1989 and then a coalition with the Progressive Democrats.

The 1980s saw fierce disagreements between left and right wings of the party. The more radical elements, led by figures including Emmet Stagg, opposed the idea of going into coalition government with either of the major centre-right parties. At the 1989 Labour conference in Tralee a number of socialist and Marxist activists, organised around the Militant newspaper, were expelled. These expulsions continued during the early 1990s and those expelled, including Joe Higgins went on to found the Socialist Party.

These rows ended with the defeat of the anti-coalition left. In the period since, there have been further discussions about coalitions in the Party but these disagreements have primarily been over the merits of different coalition partners rather than over the principle of coalition. Related arguments have taken place from time to time over the wisdom of entering into pre-election voting pacts with other parties. Indeed, former radicals like Stagg himself and Michael D. Higgins now themselves support coalition.

Mary Robinson and coalitions of different hues[edit]

In 1990 Mary Robinson became the first President of Ireland to have been proposed by the Labour Party, although she contested the election as an independent candidate. Not only was it the first time a woman held the office but it was the first time, apart from Douglas Hyde, that a non-Fianna Fáil candidate was elected. Mary Robinson became one of the most outspoken and active presidents in the history of the state. In 1990 the Party merged with the Limerick East TD Jim Kemmy's Democratic Socialist Party and in 1992 it merged with Sligo–Leitrim TD Declan Bree's Independent Socialist Party.

At the 1992 general election on 25 November Labour won a record 19.3% of the first-preference votes, more than twice its share in the 1989 election. The party's representation in the Dáil doubled to 33 seats and, after a period of negotiations, Labour formed a coalition with Fianna Fáil, taking office in January 1993 as the 23rd Government of Ireland. Fianna Fáil leader Albert Reynolds remained as Taoiseach, and Labour leader Dick Spring became Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

After less than two years the government fell in a controversy over the appointment of Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, as president of the High Court. The parliamentary arithmetic had changed as a result of Fianna Fáil's loss of two seats in by-elections in June and Labour negotiated a new coalition, the first time in Irish political history that one coalition replaced another without a general election. Between 1994 and 1997 Fine Gael, the Labour Party, and Democratic Left governed in the so-called Rainbow Coalition. Dick Spring of Labour became Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs again.

Merger with Democratic Left and recent electoral performance[edit]

Labour presented the 1997 election, held just weeks after spectacular victories for the French Parti Socialiste and Tony Blair's New Labour, as the first ever choice between a government of the left and one of the right, but the party, as had often been the case following its participation in coalitions, lost support and failed to retain half of its Dáil seats. A poor performance by Labour candidate Adi Roche in the subsequent election for President of Ireland led to Spring's resignation as party leader.

In 1997 Ruairi Quinn became the new Labour leader. Negotiations started almost immediately and in 1999 the Labour Party merged with Democratic Left, keeping the name of the larger partner.

Quinn resigned as leader in 2002 following the poor results for the Labour Party in the general election, when the Labour Party was returned with only 21 seats, the same number of seats as it had held before that General Election. Former Democratic Left TD Pat Rabbitte became the new leader, the first to be elected directly by the members of the party.

In the June 2004 elections to the European Parliament, Proinsias De Rossa retained his seat for Labour in the Dublin constituency. This was Labour's only success in the election.

Pat Rabbitte and the Mullingar Accord[edit]

Politicians Pat Rabbitte, Michael D Higgins and Derek Nolan of the Irish Labour Party in 2010

Following the 2005 endorsement, by the Labour Party conference in Tralee, of a pre-election voting transfer pact with the Fine Gael party in 2005, the party saw increased co-operation between the party leaders, Pat Rabbitte and the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, as well as the party's front benches.

Following on from the Mullingar Accord, an election pact preceding the 2004 Local and European elections, where Fine Gael benefited largely, a number of mutually acceptable and compatible policy documents were published in the lead up to the elections. The two parties formed the "Alliance for Change" in the run up to the election and pursued joint policies and economic constings in major policy areas. However though Fine Gael gained 20 seats in the election in 2007, Labour's vote continued to stagnate at 10.13%, a marginal decline from 2002 and it returned with 20 seats, one less than before.

Rabbitte resigned as leader in August 2007, a year ahead of his six-year term came to an end. Éamon Gilmore, Deputy for Dún Laoghaire replaced Rabbitte, and expressed a preference for an independent strategy, emphasising the need for Labour to concentrate on itself, rather than following media interest in its alliance with other parties.

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