THE REAL TANAISTE
At a meeting of Labour's Parlia¬mentary Party following the an¬nouncement of his resignation from the Cabinet, Frank Cluskey received a standing ovation. Tributes were lavished on him, and according to one member present, the atmosphere was such that if anyone had criticised his action, "they would have been torn to pieces". The reaction of the Parliamentary Party gives some indication of the strength of Cluskey's support within that group. As a former Labour leader, he lost neither his influence nor authority over the party when he was replaced by Michael O'Leary subse¬quent to the loss of his Oail seat in the June 1981 election. His seconding of O'Leary's motion at the Gaiety conference the same month ensured a pro-coalition majority. Despite his clear position in favour of coalition, Labour dissidents and left-wingers from all over Dublin flocked to can¬vass for him in the February 1982 election. He regained his seat, and has since remained in the unique position whereby he is held in respect by both the left and the right of the party.
At the party's Galway conference in October 1982, Cluskey emerged as the dominant figure, the real leader of Labour in all but name. It was he who was responsible for the decision to call a special conference after the next election to decide on whether or not to participate in Government. His motion defeated both those proposed by Michael O'Leary (in favour of coalition) and by the Dublin Regional Council (anti-coalition). Without his intervention, the latter motion would almost cer¬tainly have been passed.The following month, shortly after the November ]982 election, the special conference met in Liinerick and voted for coalition. Once again, Cluskey was instrumental in determining that vote. He more than anyone else was directly responsible for convincing the party's wavering middle ground to support the coali¬tion option. lIe changed the party's tenns of reference on the coalition issue. He said that the key question was not when to go in but when to get out. The novel and rather adven¬turous idea that Labour had the op¬tion of withdrawing from coalition had never formed part of the major policy debates on the issue during the 1970s. It was sufficiently persuasive in November 1982 to convince the hundred or so waverers to vote in support of coalition.
In the present Coalition Government, Frank Cluskey was given one of the four senior Cabinet positions, that of Minister for Trade, Commerce and Tourism. He went into the Cabinet as the only Labour member with previous experience of Government, and with the reputation of a fighter, gained during his period as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Social Welfare during the 1973-'77 Coalition. He was on the point of resigning from that Govern¬ment on more than one occasion, but he invariably won the issues on which he fought.
As a member of the present Govern¬ment, he consistently took a tougher line in opposition to Fine Gael than did his Labour colleagues. lie adopted a strong position against what he perceived as the trend of Fine Gael policy towards increasing the priva¬tisation of the public sector. In June of this year he made a speech at one of his constituency meetings clearly outlining the dangers of such a trend. A tree can be pruned in such a way as to destroy it, he said, or to make it flourish. The latter approach was theonly one to be taken in relation to the country's public sector. He regar. ded this speech as an important warning to Fine Gael that there was a point beyond which Labour would not go.
The first real indication of his dis. satisfaction with the Government came during the Clondalkin disput -last month. It was he who played the crucial role in the settlement of the dispute, proposing the formula which was acceptable to the unions involved and subsequently pushing it through Cabinet. But during the negotiations, he was reported by senior trade unionists to be disillusioned with Government, and looking for an excuse to resign. The same sources claim that he was on the brink of resigning over the Clondalkin issue itself. Frank Cluskey will not com. ment on the accuracy of those reports, saying that anything which occurred at Cabinet level is confidential. Previous to CJondalkin, however, there had been indications of a certain unease felt by both Cluskey and his Labour colleagues in Cabinet. In October, shortly after Garret Fitz. Gerald announced the necessity of cutting pUblic expenditure by £500 million, Frank Cluskey refused to attend a Cabinet meeting and pre¬vailed on the other Labour memben to do likewise as a gesture of protest. Dick Spring relied heavily for ad. vice on Cluskey at Cabinet level, and Cluskey, as Labour's most experienced Minister, was happy to give it. His relations with Spring are said to be good, and it is not seriously thought within the party that his resignation stemmed from a desire to challenge Spring's leadership. There is no doubt that he will now become a focal point for Labour members who disagree both with the coalition strategy and with Government policy, but he has not in the past accommodated hiviews and actions to those who have supported him, and there is no reason to presume that he will do so in the future. He is at present firmly com¬mitted to labour remaining in coalition, and any decisions he takes as a back-bencher will be made in that context.
The split at Cabinet which led to Frank Cluskey's resignation can be defined in straight-forward left. right terms - the extent to which private enterprise should profit from State funding of the development of a natural resource. The State is inves¬ting over £126 million in Dublin Gas, a company which on the stock ex¬change is worth only £2 million, in order to finance the conversion to natural gas from Kinsale. In return, the- Government receives 29% of the company's shares, the power to appoint four of its twelve directors, 56% of the profits, and an additional tax on excess profits accruing to the private investors.
Private interests, however, stand to make a sizeable profit in spite of thedeal, and under the terms negotiated the Government will not have control over the price of the gas to the con¬sumer. Frank Cluskey found the deal unacceptable. The area was not within his ministerial brief, but he could not agree that State money should be used to contribute to the private wealth of the individual investors who controlled the company. He wanted Dublin Gas to be nationalised.
The position which he adopted in total accord with Labour Party policy, and has been since the Resour¬ces Protection Campaign was formed by prominent Labour mem bers in the early 1970s. The control of natural gas, and of all of the country's natural resources, he says, is an issue of funda¬mental importance to the future of the nation. It is one which he says would have passed unnoticed by the pUblic had he not taken a stand on it. "My resignation", he states, "will undoubtedly influence greatly what way resources will be disposed of in the future. It means that such matters will not go by unnoticed again."
Frank Cluskey's resignation on an issue of principle has given him immense moral authority in the party and has served only to strengthen his stature as Labour's influential elder statesman. It will also have the effect that his every move and word will be closely watched by the media, by his own parliamentary colleagues, and particularly by Fine Gael, to whom it has come as a nasty shock that there is at least one Labour member of Cabinet prepared to take drastic action to defend the party's and his own principles.'" resigned", says Cluskey, "to allow me to speak out openly on issues that arise, particularly those on natural resources. What I did mean that hopefully such issues won'tby unnoticed again. I think that at the! presen t time it is not in the national interest to have another election - but that doesn't mean at any price, and rt can't mean at any price if governmenl is to have any meaning. There mUSt be a bottom line, and on the issue of Dublin Gas my bottom line Waf reached. I took .the action that I did so as to alert the general pUblic in I way which would not necessitate th! fall of the Government,"Frank Cluskey's action has been supported by, the Workers' Party, by Young Fine Gael and by mem bers Ii his own party. It is, however, one which is fraught with contradictions. He resigned on what he regards as an issue of critical importance to the nation's future, but he neither asked nor wished that his party colleagues do likewise, and none followed his lead. But regardless of his wishes, the issue of Dublin Gas and its implications for future Government policy in the area of natural resources is either an important point of principle for Labour. or it is not. The party's policy on the matter indicates clearly iliat it is. The fact.
That Cluskey was alone in the stand he took on it must of necessity reflect on the integrity of his party colleagues in Cabinet, and on their commitment to implementing the most basic points of Labour policy.That Cluskey himself did not wish them to take a stand on what he had identified as a crucial issue is, to say the least, contradictory. Furthermore, the standing ovation which he received from the Parliamentary Party indicates a degree of ambiguity within that group. combined perhaps with a hint of guilty consciences.
Frank Cluskey has, temporarily at least, skiJlfully salvaged the conscience of Labour without toppling the Government. He has given a clear warning to Fine Gael to tread warily,particularly in the area of privatisation of the pUblic sector. He has stated unequivocably that any future action he may take will be within the struc¬tures of the party. It is clear that were he again to take a similar stand on an issue of principle, his considerable level of support within the Parliamen¬tary Party could result in the Govern¬ment's collapse. As one senior Labour Party member put it: "No one will do anything in the Labour Party any. more without finding out how Frank is likely to react to it." In taking a step back from formal power Frank Cluskey has taken on the mantle of the Real Tanaiste.