100 years and beyond

The Labour party was formed a century ago. In that time it has been as famous for its failures as its successes, but now that it has been overwhelmingly placed in government what does the party need to become if it is to meet the needs of the Irish people? In Making the Difference? a selection of historians, journalists and political figures have been brought together to look over Labour's record and answer that question. By Ed O'Hare.

There has been a Labour party in Ireland for 100 years and throughout all that time it has been characterised by struggle. Firstly there has been the external conflict between the party and the painfully cautious, regressive and, until quite recently, Church-dominated institutions that controlled the development of the society in which Labour sought to establish itself. Labour's efforts to change Irish life have seen its supporters labelled as everything from radicals to communists to anarchists and its still far from uncommon in the deeply conservative arena of Irish politics for them to be branded as hopeless dreamers and ineffectual fantasists. The party has also been famous for its damaging internal conflicts, which have seen it lose political momentum over and over again. Both of these difficulties affirmed the traditional view that the reality of the Irish political system was the choice between two parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with room for no other.

Only Labour's jaw-dropping gains in the last general election made many finally reconsider this view of things. If, in the wake of Ireland's economic collapse and the subsequent bailout, the Irish political landscape has changed fundamentally, Labour looks set to remain a major political player for many years to come. All the same, if it really is going to rescue Ireland from one of its darkest hours, it needs the people not only to vote for it but to believe in it as a political force. To do this we must understand it. Therefore, what the Labour party needs to do is take stock of its situation, look at its history and see what it tried to do, where it went right, where it went wrong, and rethink how it can best go about implementing its three central ideals - equality, justice and tolerance - in the context of current realities of Irish society.

Luckily this is precisely the intention behind Making the Difference?, a sparkling new collection of essays to mark the Labour party's first 100 years. However, any fears that this collection might amount to no more than a catalogue of Labour's 'greatest hits' are quickly dispelled.  Although a project conceived by the Labour party leader's office Making the Difference? is an unauthorised  publication. As the introduction observes, what was desired was “an acute and, at times, critical analysis of [Labour's] past” and as a “tribute to its long-standing and occasionally problematic respect for diversity of opinion” the collection does not refrain from looking at Labour's failures and mistakes as well as its achievements. In keeping with the view that dissent is the sustaining force of politics, Making the Difference? aims to provide a platform for a set of opinions which will “most likely, infuriate, frustrate and displease” readers.

This independent editorial ethos means that a broad range of figures, both from within and without the party, have been invited to contribute. While some of these try to show the hitherto unappreciated extent of Labour's successes, equal attention is given to its shortcomings, and this makes Making the Difference? a far more intriguing and valuable publication than it might have been. Also, given the momentous nature of the ocassion a suitably stellar cast of contributors has been assembled to provide essays that carefully analyse key aspects of the Labour story. This means that overall this book is not one but three things: a comprehensive history of the Irish Labour party, a lively and dynamic debate about how it has attempted to uphold the liberal, socialist agenda in the treacherous waters of Irish political life, and a timely forecast of the battles Labour will soon have to fight.

How Labour came to exist is the subject discussed in the first two essays in this collection. William Murphy gives us a vivid portrait of life in the Ireland of 1912, detailing the then state of the nation and showing how signs of social, political and industrial change were gradually appearing. Ronan O'Brien's essay examines Labour's origins at the Irish Trade Unions Congress, considering the party as a representative body for workers which evolved out of a long process of argument and counterargument rather than being just the brainchild of any one individual. The turmoil that surrounded the expected introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill, and the part this played in Labour's formation, is the topic of Michael Laffan's essay, which goes on to look at how the National Question continued to shape the party's development.

How Labour first entered the political fray is recorded in Ciara Meehan's essay. Labour did not contest the 1918 and 1921 elections because it believed that an unchallenged Sinn Féin stood the best chance of securing independence for Ireland, but once the Free State had been created Labour decided it was time for it to participate in the running of the country. Although initially very slow, Meehan charts how public confidence in Labour built up steadily, eventually seeing it become the official opposition. Looking beyond the national agenda, William Mulligan's essay sets the Irish Labour party alongside the other socialist groups which emerged throughout Europe early in the 20th century. The aftermath of World War One saw, in Mulligan's words, a “dramatic expansion of the state and therefore the agenda of politics,” and by comparing it with its brother movements across Europe he reveals that Labour's attempts to improve the lives of ordinary people were far from short-sighted.

Just how socialist was the original Labour party? This is the question Niamh Puirséil endeavours to answer in her essay. The party initially became a haven for Left-leaning thinkers of many stripes but this alliance of Marxists, Trotskyists and other revolutionaries was never easy. The rift between the need for representation of the socialist Left and the reluctance of radical intellectuals to compromise their views has, in Puirséil's opinion, given the Labour party its famously fractious image. As Brendan Behan once said, you were guaranteed that the first thing on the agenda of any Labour Party meeting would be a split. Continuing the assessment of why it took Labour so long to progress, Paul Daly looks at the problems, self-created and otherwise, which have hampered Labour's efforts to gain real political power. Now that it has achieved this, Daly sees Labour as facing a crucial question. Where, he asks, “does Labour see itself in Irish politics – as the leading Left party opposing conservative policies and willing to sacrifice power to realign politics or alternatively as a natural party of government, the fulcrum for coalition formation around which every other party must turn?”

In 1996 Ruairi Quinn declared that Ireland was a “post-Catholic pluralist Republic” but the party's attempts to take control out of the hands of the Church continues today. In his essay Diarmaid Ferriter charts this history, revealing that the Catholic hierarchy consistently outmanoeuvred Irish socialists in the first 40 years of the Labour party's history, exposing many Labour members as unwilling to publically give up their faith. The present coalition is not the first occasion that Labour has been in power, and David McCullagh looks over the fortunes of previous Labour governments. His essay proves that while Labour has never been short of new ideas and distinguished candidates it has inevitably been sidelined while sharing office and has fumbled successive opportunities to re-launch itself. Much of the damage Labour has suffered has come from its media image as much as its political opponents. Kevin Rafter's essay illustrates that even Labour's attempts to get positive coverage in the Irish Times, a more liberal publication which was gaining influence in the years when Brendan Corish tried to revitalise the party, almost always backfired.

Much of Labour's time in office in the 1970s was, in the words of Eunan O'Halpin, devoted to “managing the three subtly interconnected issues of Northern Ireland, Europe and bilateral relations with the United States.” This era saw Labour figures like David Thornley, Justin Keating and Conor Cruise O'Brien participate in directing Irish foreign policy and although it was coloured by many controversies, in particular the scheme to encourage Americans to take an active involvement in Northern Ireland, O'Halpin concludes that Labour's contribution to furthering the cause of peaceful negotiation has been overlooked. The other great debate which characterised these years was that surrounding Ireland's entry into the EEC. Stephen Collins’s essay again hinges on the necessary compromises which saw Labour members eventually advocate this move.

The last three essays are given over to assessing where Labour stands today. Jane Suiter's essay follows Labour's abandonment of some of its more ferociously anti-capitalist stances and notes how these gave way to its embracing of entrepreneurial, capitalistic attitudes. In this way, she explores the party's flirtation with the Third Way political paradigm which became the model for many similarly orientated parties across Europe. Ivana Bacik's essay concerns the party's dedication to the liberalisation of Irish society. Examining the party's chequered campaigns to bring in access to contraception, abortion and increase the rights of women, Bacik argues that only during its last 14 years in opposition has the party developed what she calls “a more distinctly radical social agenda”. Rounding off the collection is Eamon Gilmore's essay, in which he gives a similarly open and frank view of Labour's record. He writes that, above all, Labour must remember that “fairness is about liberating people”, but he observes that the obstacles to liberty are not always obvious. Therefore, he contends that the challenge for Labour is “to find ways of meeting, within the framework of universal provision, today's citizens’ expectations of individual choice.”

In many respects Making the Difference? is the story not only of the Labour Party but of the growth of modern Ireland. In its account of how the party has progressed we can observe how this nation has transformed massively in the last 100 yeas. It is a chronicle of some of the most momentous events, arguments and decisions in this country's history and for this reason the book will be of great interest to students, historians and anyone with a passion for Irish politics. To answer the question posed by its title, and more generally to remind ourselves of where we have come from and where we are going, every Irish person should read it. {jathumbnailoff}

Making the Difference? The Irish Labour Party 1912 – 2012. 

Edited by Paul Daly, Rónán O'Brien and Paul Rouse.

Published by the Collins Press.

240 pp