The Irish Labour Party 1922–73

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

The Irish Labour Party 1922–73
Niamh Puirseil
(University College Dublin Press, €28)

William O’Brien 1881–1968
Thomas J. Morrissey SJ
(Four Courts Press, €55)

In the introduction to her history of the Labour Party, Niamh Puirseil remarks that her subject ‘seems more than a little ashamed of its past’. This is true enough, though this reviewer would argue that Labour’s members of today have no justification for looking down on their predecessors. More certainly, Irish Labour is anomalous not so much in Irish politics as among its fellow west European social democratic bodies. These two books do try to fill certain gaps in explaining this, and the first of them is reasonably successful.
Niamh Puirseil has produced an invaluable reference work for anyone interested in her subject. It brims with facts presented in an easy style spiced with a pleasant ironic humour. Labour’s strategy in the early 1930s is described as ‘a diligent pursuit of blandness’ (p. 58); the Communist Party was ‘never exactly popular at the best of times’ (p. 87).
Inevitably there are some mistakes. Sinn Féin did not argue successfully that ‘Labour must wait’ in the 1918 general election; it had no need to do so, as Labour was trying to remain above the national struggle. Peadar O’Donnell did contest a Dáil election, albeit from a prison cell, and was returned, despite open Communist support, as abstentionist deputy for County Donegal from 1923 to 1927. Seán Lemass’s new economic turn in 1959 depended on planning only as a fig-leaf for the real strategy of bringing in foreign investment (already begun by Labour’s Norton), a contradiction that would lead to planning being abandoned in 1970. Some mistakes of names are made too, but, in a narrative of 311 pages, the total number is relatively small and can be corrected in the next edition.
More serious is a certain lack of direction in this work. Puirseil’s aim is not to ‘look at what Labour ought to have been, merely what it was: how it operated in the context of Irish society and political culture as it developed from the foundation of the state to more contemporary times’. Certainly she succeeds. Nor are her conclusions wrong:

‘How is the success or failure of a political party to be judged? In votes, transfers and seats? Or in the prosperity, health and security of a country’s citizens? Judged on the former, Labour does not fare well. Judged on the latter, its conclusions, its results are possibly worse. Offering little and delivering less, Labour received the support it deserved’ (p. 311).

What is missing is any serious political analysis of the underlying causes of this failure. Puirseil is too balanced. She is properly scathing of Labour’s political record, but doubts whether it had any alternative. She sees the result of the 1927 Jinks division that thwarted Labour’s best opportunity to have its leader head a government as a ‘lucky escape’ for the party (p. 24). The accusations of disruption used to expel left-winger Sheehy-Skeffington ‘were, in fact, true’ (p. 95). Above all, ‘had Labour heeded O’Casey’s call of “More courage”, it would not have gained more votes’ (p. 319). For Puirseil, the answers to its failure lie in its lack of charismatic leaders and adequate organisation.
This must be challenged. Charisma can be achieved as well as endowed; Noel Browne’s undoubted possession of it stemmed less from personality than from his work in eradicating TB and his stand for Ireland’s mothers and children. In any case, Fine Gael’s most naturally charismatic leader was the disastrous Eoin O’Duffy, yet that party kept well ahead of Labour despite challenging Fianna Fáil for the inheritance of the first Dáil. As for organisation, its absence in a body that contained many proven capable organisers requires more explanation.

The root of this failure goes back to the period of the book’s first and weakest chapter. On page one, Brendan Halligan is quoted as relating Labour’s weakness to ‘the national struggle and its aftermath’ and to the party’s industrial working-class base. The first of these is thrust with the first decade of the book’s formal time scheme into 25 pages out of 311. Puirseil may be influenced by her view that too much attention has been paid to Labour in the Troubles after 1916. It remains true that some of the most important facts of that period are ignored or suppressed. She does not investigate what the original form of a united party and trade union congress involved. In particular, Thomas Johnson’s presidential address to the 1916 Sligo annual meeting of the Labour Party and TUC is unmentioned, although it presented the disastrous strategy, rather than Sinn Féin’s mythical order, that kept the movement from claiming state power when that power was up for grabs.
After 1922 the book ignores the other part of Halligan’s quotation. Admittedly, he was wrong to imply that Labour was bound to fail because of Ireland’s industrial underdevelopment: extensively, if not intensively, it was as developed as contemporary Russia. Nonetheless, Labour acted as if it could rely only on industrial and rural workers, making no serious appeal to small farmers. Chapter 1 does not mention its inability to relate to the land annuities campaign in the late 1920s and its retributive loss of representation in counties Mayo and Donegal, where it has never won a seat since. Later, no serious examination is made of attempts to forge a Labour–Clann na Talmhan alliance.
Besides these factors there is a handicap that Irish Labour has in common with its fellows abroad. To ensure permanently ‘the prosperity, health and security’ of one’s people, a party may have to be prepared to sacrifice ‘votes, transfers and seats’ for the immediate term. Left-wing parties are inclined to forget this and submit to the tyranny of the last election result. (Right-wing parties are more aloof from democracy and less ready to succumb.) Arguably, had Labour stuck with its independence to educate the electors on socialism after its 1969 failure it might have done better subsequently. Instead it sought power at all costs, not just out of personal ambition, it may be conceded, but also to get limited reforms. Despite these criticisms, the book is a good read and a valuable source of factual information.
This cannot be said for Fr Thomas Morrissey’s life of William O’Brien. Though he states correctly that ‘a first biography of William O’Brien is overdue’, he has left a second one necessary. Puirseil’s weakness is excessive neutrality; Morrissey is excessively partisan.
O’Brien was a major, at times the major, figure in the Irish Labour movement between 1910 and 1946. At different times president, secretary and treasurer of the Labour Party and TUC, he was also, from 1924 to 1946, general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), the predecessor of SIPTU. In the mid-forties he split party and congress. As regards individual responsibility for Irish Labour’s problems, he must bear a major share.
How this happened must be at the centre of any biography. A pre-1914 trinity upheld the old socialist exhortation, ‘educate, agitate, organise’: Connolly the educator, Larkin the agitator and O’Brien the organiser. After 1916 O’Brien was alone, without anyone to balance his conviction that the greatest of the virtues was organisation in its prevailing syndicalist form and that the first priority was to protect the ideal organisation, the One Big Union, the ITGWU, and his position therein as its protector, even at the expense of agitation and education, or, eventually, of the Irish labour movement as a whole.
Though Morrissey seems to agree with O’Brien, he does not try to defend this vision against that of many of his opponents. Instead, he gives detailed but selective reports of his subject’s individual initiatives, often quoting at length from the records, and defends his personal qualities. His subject ‘read extensively and widely’ (p. 61). ‘To portray [him] as a master of intrigue [was] part of a deliberate discrediting campaign by his opponents’ (p. 145). Evidence is given that he was ‘a gracious and affable man with great patience to one who had a great deal to learn’ (p. 399). Even in this, the historian in Morrissey limits his will. He can produce nothing to show his subject’s learning beyond aphorisms. He allows himself to quote a close friend, Maureen MacPartlin, that O’Brien was ‘a great intriguer’ (p. 233). He admits that O’Brien ‘removed close friends if they appeared to pose a threat to his power and control of the union’ (p. 190).
O’Brien is criticised, mildly, too for his feud with his predecessor as Congress secretary, P. T. Daly, and, to a lesser extent, for his treatment of the ITGWU’s assistant secretary, J. J. Hughes. What is not mentioned at all is O’Brien’s attack on the militant activists in the ITGWU before Larkin’s return, nor his rather sadistic disciplining of Cathal O’Shannon to make him his political left cover. Three particular episodes are revealing. Morrissey does disprove the charge that O’Brien drove Connolly from Ireland in 1903. Then, however, he repeats without verification his subject’s assertion that Connolly admitted being wrong in the clash. From this it is implied that it was correct for O’Brien to move to end payment on the party printing press and leave Irish socialism without an organ to counter Arthur Griffith’s capitalist message until 1910.
Morrissey’s account of the Troubles after 1916 is as inadequate in over 100 pages as Puirseil’s is in ten. Admittedly, he does not repeat the ‘Labour Must Wait’ myth, explaining that O’Brien failed to participate consistently in the independence struggle because his ‘sharp analytic mind [sic] told him that Labour was too heterogeneous and divided politically to provide a basis for national independence’ (p. 153), a statement that does not display the author’s own sharp analytic mind. Furthermore, he shows implicitly the real reason for O’Brien’s reluctance to act by quoting at length from his 1918 presidential address to the TUC, which reveals his belief in organisation in itself as the means for Labour to advance, regardless of its use in any struggle. He follows the ITGWU leaders in emphasising the great increase in their union’s membership after 1916, and ignores the fact that this was a mushroom growth that could not withstand the capitalist counter-offensive backed by a consolidated bourgeois state after 1921. With all his faults, the returning Larkin recognised this two years later, after many militant activists had been fired to protect the union apparatus. His reaction made matters worse, giving his opponents a false alibi, yet their strategy had made defeat inevitable.
Finally, as regards O’Brien’s own initiative in splitting the labour movement two decades later, Morrissey’s account should be rejected for Puirseil’s. His narrative excludes the fact that the Labour Party’s expansion was ended by the split, the charge that O’Brien rigged its Dublin selection conference for the 1943 general election (he avoids mentioning even O’Brien’s feeble denial) and the fact that his subject raised the Communist (as distinct from the Larkin) issue only after the party split. He uses unquestioningly the provocateurs’ reports on Communist infiltration, although they are, where verifiable, as often as not inaccurate and tend to show the inability of the infiltrators to take over the larger body.
Niamh Puirseil’s book is a valuable addition to Irish labour historiography; William O’Brien’s political biography remains overdue.

D. R. O’Connor Lysaght is the author of The story of the Limerick Soviet (3rd edn, 2003).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568