Labour in the Irish Republic (in 1991)

Labour in the Irish Republic

Pat Maloney is a prominent trade unionist in Cork City and the editor of the fortnightly paper Labour Comment. As a resident of the Irish Republic he is also able to be a member of the UK Labour Party, unlike trade unionists in Northern Ireland. In this article he describes how proportional representation guarantees the weakness of Labour politics in the Irish Republic, and explains the bankrupt nationalism underlying the Eire Labour Party’s cynical attitude to the Northern Ireland working class.

In the 1987 Eire General Election, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Leader of the Labour Party, Dick Spring retained his Kerry North seat by four votes.

Despite being extremely supportive of a two-candidate strategy in this year’s Local Government elections, Mr Spring was determined not to repeat the history of 1987: he decided to run on his own for Tralee County Council, topping the poll and exceeding the quota of 1,812 by 1,148 – more than adequate to secure the election of a second Labour Party candidate in this four-seat electorate. Mr Spring’s limp excuse was that no other Labour member was interested in running in this, the most industrialised area of County Kerry, despite the party running dual candidates in both Killarney and Listowel.

A similar situation occurred in the city of Waterford, when the Labour Party parliamentary spokesman on education, Deputy Brian O’Shea, exceeded the quota by 500 votes but without a running mate, enabling the Workers’ Party of Ireland to take two seats in the same ward.

In Cork city, the party put forward eight candidates, won six seats – a gain of one – but made little advance by way of expanding the party’s electoral base. In the 1985 elections, Labour put forward 12 candidates.

The local party machine in its endeavour to ride roughshod over local party workers had no compunction whatsoever in creating a paper ‘branch’. Pleas to Dick Spring for an enquiry fell on deaf ears. This led to the resignation of a number of prominent and long-standing active members, including the present writer, who publishes the only regular Labour paper in the Republic, Labour Comment. The outcome of the election and the increased vote for Labour vindicated the stand taken by those who resigned.

If the Irish Labour Party is to assert its authority on the Left in Ireland, it must demonstrate much more political nerve and mettle. It is sheer political folly to deny a disgruntled electorate the necessary Labour Party candidates, and, through caution, timidity and naked careerism see votes destined for Labour go straight to the Workers’ Party and Independent Left candidates, thus further fragmenting the Left vote in Eire.

The very nature of the Eire electoral system – multiple-member seats based on Proportional Representation and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) – almost ensures that Eire Labour will never develop into much more than a minor party in the state.

A serious study of that system by our comrades in UK Labour might compel them to look at their own “first-past-the-post” system more sympathetically, before embracing any alternative system based on PR. In recent months, individuals from various parties in the Republic have been highlighting · the urgent need to reform the electoral system, but the Irish Labour Party, the Workers’ Party of Ireland and the left in general are totally opposed to such a reform.

The bane of political development in Eire lies to a great extent in the present PR multiple-member seat system. The state is divided into 42 electoral areas of constituencies, each of which elects from three to five members according to its population. It is a total political cop-out. A loyal Labour Party supporter in Cork North-Central (five seats), if he is to exercise his full political franchise may have no choice but to vote for Labour, Workers’ Party Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sin Fein.

Whilst a single-member seat based on PR could initially cost the Eire Labour Party seats, in the long term, such a system can only benefit the party and develop a greater Labour consciousness amongst the electorate, by making them either choose Labour or the others; at present they can have both.

The Eire Labour Party often complains that it is not taken seriously enough by Irish voters. But does Irish Labour ever take itself seriously? Many workers and democrats would say no. The Eire Labour Party, which was founded by Connolly and Larkin, amongst others, in 1912, claimed itself as a distinctive, independent political party with its own programme and ideals representing the interests of all workers. It aimed “to win control by democratic means the machinery of the state in order to establish an all-Ireland democratic workers’ republic based on socialist principles.”

At the National Conference of the party held in Killarney last April, it took party leader Dick Spring less than one hour to overturn completely the old aims and ideals of the party in order to present a more ‘corporate image’ of the party in the future. The true feelings of the present leadership were spelt out by Cork North-Central deputy, Gerry O’Sullivan: “the party has shed its narrow working class image which … has stunted its electoral progress over the years.”

The reality of life for Eire Labour, of course, is that they have never at any time in the history of the state succeeded in gaining a major share of the ‘narrow working-class’ vote. The bulk of the working-class vote .has gone to Fianna Fail. The highest vote the Labour Party has ever attained was in 1969 with 17.02%.


Recently, the party spokesman on Justice, Deputy Michael Bell (Louth) caused a mild political ripple amongst the more ‘sophisticated’ Catholic-nationalists when he declared that those in Northern Ireland who do not want to work towards a united Ireland should “go back to the British mainland“. Deputy Bell continues,

“The British are responsible for the problems in Northern Ireland; they stole the land from the Irish people. No matter how long or short the present situation continues the fact remains that the Northern part of this country is part of the Irish nation and will always remain so.”

The party leader, Dick Spring, reckoned that his parliamentary colleague, Bell, “went over the top” but, in truth, Bell was only blurting out in blunt fashion what party leaders like Spring, Quinn and Barry Desmond MEP have been muttering for years. But a different viewpoint has been expressed by the party vice-chairman, and Mayor of Limerick, Deputy Jim Kemmy. As reported in The Cork Examiner (19.8/91),

“Mayor Kemmy said there was no such thing as ‘the historic Irish nation’. The border was based on the economic realities of the situation and not on historical fiction. The myth of an ‘historic Irish nation’ was created by projecting backwards through the centuries the Catholic nation that emerged no further back than the year 1840. The partition of Ireland was the outcome of the growth of two distinct Irish communities, each with its own economic life and culture, its own religion and view of history and each with its own closely-knit identity.”

For the past decade a virtual gag has been applied at every Party conference to prevent any serious debate on the Northern Ireland issue. Dick Spring alone speaks ex cathedra on the National Question. It was three years before he has the courage actually to place the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement before a national conference of the party and even then he had not the courage or confidence to put it honestly and directly.

Until the 1960s, the Eire Labour Party took its own constitutional aspiration towards a united Ireland seriously by organising in Northern Ireland, albeit in predominantly nationalist areas such as Derry, Newry and West Belfast. But since that time and, more particularly, since 1970, it has left the Northern Ireland working class to the tender mercies of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

The SDLP is the party of comfortable middle-class nationalism which risks nothing for its objectives. There is no Labour Party element in the SDLP. In recent British General Elections its deputy-leader, Seamus Mallon MP, has expressed the wish that Mrs Thatcher and the Tories should be returned – their return, of course, being in the interest of Catholic Nationalism.

Along with the SDLP, the Eire Labour Party is emphatically opposed to the UK Labour Party organising in Northern Ireland. The presence of the UK Labour Party might threaten the sectarian basis on which the SDLP survives. It is incredible that thousands of workers in Belfast and Derry have no difficulty belonging to trade unions, most of which are affiliated to the DK Labour Party, and that tens of thousands Catholic and Protestant workers ‘opt in’ to pay the political levy, yet these same workers are denied the right to join the Labour Party which will ultimately govern their own lives and that of their families.

Before Clare Short MP once again advocates that Northern Ireland trade unionists should vote SDLP, and then wonders why they do not, she should visit Dublin around party conference time. She will see the ‘socialist’ SDLP being welcomed one week as a fraternal sister party by Irish Labour at their conference. The following week she would see the SDLP deputy-leader, Mr Mallon, being welcomed by Mr Haughey as a fraternal delegate to the Fianna Fail conference. On the third week Clare Short would see the SDLP leader, John Hume MP, being welcomed as a fraternal delegate by the even more Tory Fine Gael Party.

It would appear that Catholic Nationalism has the insidious capacity to fool most British socialists all of the time. It certainly doesn’t fool Protestant workers, or, indeed, the great majority of Catholic workers in Northern Ireland.


This article appeared in September 1991, in Issue 25 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at