What has been the Meaning of the Labour Party?

by burtenshaw


Phil Prendergast MEP has kicked off what I expect to be a prolonged and tedious ‘public conversation’ about the future leadership of the Irish Labour Party.

Tellingly Prendergast’s critique of Eamon Gilmore focuses not on the austerity policies he has supported nor on the decision to enter government with Fine Gael in the first place but rather on his failure to inflict hardship competently without losing support. Apparently Gilmore has been guilty of a “chronic inability” to deal with crises in government. Joan Burton – who has used her Department of Social Protection brief to oversee the workfarisation of welfare in Ireland, introduce cuts to dole payments for young people, set the Gardaí on welfare recipients, normalise unpaid labour, impoverish lone parent families, cut rent supplement in the middle of a devastating housing crisis, etc., etc. – is “dynamic” by contrast.

Prendergast’s position isn’t surprising. As I said in my last blogpost the politics of the Labour Party are more-or-less what their constituency wants. The dissenters we will hear from in the coming weeks, particularly those who are about to lose their seats, want Labour to continue to do what they are doing – just a little better.

But, of course, there will also be people who hold out hope that Joan Burton’s ascension will herald a more left-wing Labour Party, one that returns “to its roots”. For these folks, I’m afraid, disappointment lies ahead. And I think it’s worth expanding on my previous post to discuss why.

On the subject of Burton herself, Richard McAleavey put it very well: “only the most deluded Labour loyalist or lap-frotting political correspondent will imagine that Joan Burton would substantially change the Labour Party or its policies… Burton taking over would only prolong both the delusions of the party faithful and political anoraks, whose calling in life is to pretend that electoral horseraces are the lifeblood of democracy.” But the real reason why Labour won’t change appreciably under her tenure isn’t limited to her deplorable politics – it’s that Labour’s current position is, in fact, true to its roots.

If we’re to see a revival of left-wing politics in Ireland it’s important to be clear what the Labour Party represents, not just in the present but historically too. There are many examples over decades of the nature of Labour’s politics of mediation: working to subdue resistance, protect the status quo and facilitate the reproduction of Irish capitalism. But nothing illustrates this better than its formative period, the truth of which also helps to dispel the myth that it was the party of Larkin and Connolly.


The Labour Party was founded as the political wing of the trade union movement in 1912 by Connolly, Larkin and the more conservative William X. O’Brien [See edit]. In truth, and this is avoided by many commentators, Connolly and Larkin represented a minority faction in the leadership of the labour movement at that time. The period before the Dublin Lockout in 1913 usefully juxtaposes the position of the conservative majority and radical minority in that leadership. When the British government banned assembly in the city centre intended to protest William Martin Murphy’s ban on union organising the Labour Party and trade union leadership organised a march in protest to Fairview instead – a toothless charade. Larkin and the minority of radicals organised to appear in Sackville Street despite them, an occurrence which produced Bloody Sunday.

In the run up to 1916 too the leading figures in the Labour Party tried to reign in the Citizen Army’s activities. O’Brien, to his credit, gave Connolly cover – supporting his army in the defence of striking workers beforehand. But thereafter the leadership of the Labour Party, who hadn’t supported the Rising, distanced themselves from Connolly and the ICA and the ITGWU released a statement reducing them to mere tenants in Liberty Hall and pointing out that “not more than half the Citizen Army were members of the ITGWU”.

In 1919 the workers of Limerick took over the fourth largest city on the island. At the beginning of the Irish War of Independence the IRA tried to liberate Robert Byrne from RIC custody in the city after a hunger strike, resulting in the death of both Byrne himself and a police constable. In response the British military imposed martial law on the city – a move the Limerick Trades and Union Council responded to with a general strike and the establishment of a Soviet. It printed its own money, organised the workplaces, and distributed food throughout the city. As Conor Kostick outlines in his book Revolution in Ireland the Labour Party and trade union leadership were crucial in the undermining this experiment in workers’ democracy – rejecting their plea for a national general strike and containing widespread popular support among workers to advocate for a settlement with the authorities.

Imagine: a nationwide general strike at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. It really could have changed the course of history.

485228_472415239480007_1184584005_n (1)

But instead, as it had done consistently, the Labour Party spurned the opportunity to lead in Ireland’s revolutionary decade. When we remember Éamon de Valera’s alleged injunction that “labour must wait”, it is often forgotten that this mantra was embraced by the leadership themselves.

But the Labour Party was to organise a general strike some three years later – in protest at the occupation of the Four Courts by the anti-Treaty IRA. While Jim Larkin had denounced the signing of the Treaty from his jail cell in New York the Labour leadership, ever keen to maintain the status quo, supported it. The Treaty copper-fastened the counter-revolutionary alliance between Irish capitalists, bourgeois nationalists and the Church that signalled the final nail in the coffin of the socialist dream of Connolly and Larkin, O’Casey and Markievicz, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington and Liam Mellows.

As the Citizen Army man put it in Ken Loach’s Wind That Shakes the Barley, “‘the simple truth [is that] this Treaty puts Ireland into the hands of Murphy, Griffith and their like, who are copper-bottomed capitalists that will continue to exploit the landless, the unemployed and the poor every bit as much as their British counterparts.”

When the Left and progressive forces lost the battle in the revolutionary era a century ago we were betrayed by a complicit Labour Party. And, our own failings not withstanding, Labour have played a crucial role in making sure we never contested power again subsequently.

In fact, William X. O’Brien, who eventually dropped all pretenses of radicalism to become the predecessor par excellence to Jack O’Connor, was proud of the Labour Party’s role in the foundation of the reactionary Free State and their partnership with Fine Gael of the day, remarking: “I heard W.T. Cosgrave say on one occasion that we showed a good display of courage and thought that the Dáil could not have functioned if we had not been elected and gone into it.” He subsequently resisted Jim Larkin’s attempt to gain leadership of the party on his return from exile in 1923 – sidelining, suing and eventually ejecting him.


Last night I came across this excellent graphic by Michael McBride of Liam Mellows – who was executed by the ancestors of those who the Labour Party share power with. It prompted me to dig out this essay by Mellows, written while he was awaiting execution, which begins by characterising the role of Labour at the time of the Civil War.

The People’s Republic (1922)

The Irish Labour party held a large demonstration in Dublin to protest against ‘militarism’, that is against the Volunteer soldiers who were standing in defence of the Republic against British Imperialism and its dupes in Ireland. The Irish Labour party did not define its attitude to British militarism when the Treaty was forced down the throats of weak-kneed Republican deputies under the threat of “immediate and terrible war”. The Treaty was accepted by those deputies and their followers “under duress”. The Irish Labour party, swallowing all its pretention to be out for a Worker’s Republic, has also accepted the Treaty and is now working cheek-by-jowl with the imperialist and capitalist groups in Ireland through the Free State’s so called parliament in an attempt to crush the Irish Republic in blood.

The means at their disposal for the new military have been given them by the British Government. The Irish Labour party talked glibly of a Worker’s Republic! It still pretends to have as its objective the establishment of such a state. Veiled threats of ‘a big stick’ it intends to wield some day are thrown out for the credulous. Professing to be against militarism its leaders try to delude the movement into believing that at some future date they will head a revolution.

Labour played a tremendous part in the establishment and maintenance of the Republic. Its leaders had it in their power to fashion that Republic as they wished – to make it a Worker’s and Peasant’s Republic. By their acceptance of the Treaty and all that it connotes – recognition of the British monarchy, British Privvy Council and British Imperialism; Partition of the country and subservience to British capitalism – they have betrayed not alone the Irish Republic but the labour movement in Ireland and the cause of the workers and peasants throughout the world.

It is a fallacy to believe that a Republic of any kind can be won through the shackled Free State. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The Free State is British created and serves British Imperialist interests. It is the buffer erected between British Capitalism and the Irish Republic.

A Worker’s Republic can be erected only on its ruins. The existing Irish Republic can be made the Worker’s and Peasant’s Republic if the labour movement is true to the ideals of James Connolly and true to itself.

The Irish republic represents Independence and the struggle has a threefold significance. It is political; it is intellectual; it is economic. It is political in the sense that it means complete separation from England and the British Empire. It is intellectual in as much as it represents the cultural expression of the Gaelic civilisation and the removal of the impress of English speech and English thought upon the Irish character. It is economic because the wresting of Ireland from the grip of English capitalism can leave no thinking Irishman with the desire to build up and perpetuate this country an economic system that had its roots in foreign domination.

Ireland does not want a change of master. It would be folly to destroy English tyranny in order to erect a domestic tyranny that would need another revolution to free the people. The Irish Republic stands therefore for the ownership of Ireland by the people of Ireland. It means that the means and process of production must not be used for the profit or aggrandisement of any group or class.

Ireland has not yet become industrialised. It never will if in rejecting and casting off British Imperialism (and its offspring the Free State and Northern Parliaments) the Irish workers insist that a native imperialism does not replace it. If the Irish people do not control Irish industries, transport, money and the soil of the country then foreign or domestic capitalists will. And whoever controls the wealth of a country and the processes by which wealth is attained, controls also its government.

Ireland, if her industries and banks were controlled by foreign capital, would be at the mercy of every breeze that ruffled the surface of the world’s money-markets. If social capitalism flourished a social war such as now threatens practically every country in Europe would ensue. Ireland therefore must start with a clean slate. The Irish Republic must be the People’s Republic.

EDIT: Niamh Puirséil, author of The Irish Labour Party 1922–73, corrects me that while “the ITUC passed a motion to establish a party in 1912, a party wasn’t actually established until 1914.” I had been relying on the 1912 date because Connolly, Larkin, prominent left-wing historians and the party itself use it as their date of foundation but I’m happy to defer to her superior knowledge in this area.

I’m confident that the political lineage I describe here is consistent.