- 03 Mar 16
Where now for the Labour Party, after an electoral annihilation the scale of which outstripped all their worst fears?
Here we are, doing an 1980s Special Issue of Hot Press and the sense of deja vu in the political arena is amped up to '11'. When Hot Press launched in June of 1977, we were coming to the end of the reign of one of the worst governments in the history of the State, a Fine Gael coalition with Labour, which had Liam Cosgrave as its Taoiseach and Brendan Corish as Tánaiste.
It is chastening to recall that Labour’s slogan in the 1969 election had been, “The ‘70s Will Be Socialist.” It was on that premise that the entire Stokes family voted for the party. But Fianna Fáil successfully played the ‘red’ card, branding Labour as communists, and bizarrely they dropped four seats nationally, ending up with just 18 TDs. Four years on, in 1973, the party took 19 seats. Fine Gael increased their numbers to 54 and their combined 73 gave them a majority in a 144-seat Dáil.
The presence of socially progressive individuals like Garret Fitzgerald, Michael O’Leary and Justin Keating in the coalition cabinet notwithstanding, it turned out to be a creepily conservative arrangement. In many ways, Cabinet meetings might have doubled as gatherings of the national steering committee of the Knights of Columbanus, with the Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave famously scuppering the Government’s own attempt in 1974 to introduce legislation making contraception available to married couples.
The 1970s was a deeply traumatic decade in Irish history, with the eruption of the bloody and murderous IRA campaign of guerrilla warfare in the North, which spilled over into the South in a number of different ways, dominating the theatre of politics to an inordinate degree. However you viewed what was happening in the North itself, it was essential that the Irish State – with all of the resources at its disposal – should stand above any form of coercion, bullying, torture, abuse or fitting-up of political activists.
In this regard, the government elected in 1973 failed dismally.
The horrible truth is that the Coalition of 1973 to 1977 presided over an era in which what was dubbed The Heavy Gang were given more or less free rein within the Gardaí. By the time the government went to the country, in 1977, a wave of bile and resentment had reached boiling point. In particular, many people who had voted Labour in 1973 felt
grotesquely betrayed, especially by the role of the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien.
It had been a Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, Gerry Collins, who first availed of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act 1960, to prevent the broadcasting of anything that might have been deemed to be inimical to the security of the State. Under a Ministerial order, issued in 1971, Collins instructed RTÉ not to broadcast: “Any matter that could be calculated to promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engages in, promotes, encourages or advocates the attaining of any particular objectives by violent means.”
That this was intended to proscribe coverage of the activities of the IRA could not have been in doubt. However, neither Collins nor the Fianna Fáil government of which he was part had the bottle to nail their colours firmly to the mast.
Against that background, the RTÉ political reporter Kevin Kelly interviewed the chief of staff of the IRA, Seán Mac Stíofáin, for the RTÉ Sunday news programme, This Week. Kelly ended up in jail for his troubles, when he refused to confirm the identity of the voice on the tape as that of Mac Stíofáin. That didn’t prevent the IRA leader being charged, and he was found guilty before the non-jury Special Criminal Court.
In 1976, Conor Cruise O’Brien – more arrogant than his predecessors if nothing else – made the decision to amend Section 31 and to issue a new order, censoring individuals speaking on behalf of particular organisations – most notably Sinn Féin. In effect, RTÉ was precluded from interviewing spokespersons for either Sinn Féin or the IRA – or indeed any of the other paramilitary and subversive groups that were active at the time.
O’Brien also went further, attempting to extend censorship into the press, threatening to use the Offences Against The State Act to prevent newspapers like the Irish Press from publishing material – including letters to the editor – which might be deemed to be in support of the ‘armed struggle’. O’Brien’s attempts at censorship provoked strong resistance from national newspapers, including the Irish Times. In the long run, O’Brien’s reputation here was irreparably damaged, his name forever associated with censorship and repression.
It wouldn’t have taken much of a campaign then, to unseat what was a deeply unpopular government. And yet Fianna Fáil went the whole nine yards, promising to abolish both rates and motor tax. In what was now a larger, 148-seat Dáil – 75 were required to form a government – they romped to a single-party regime with 84 seats, gaining 19, while Fine Gael lost 12 and Labour three. There were only four independents in the entire Dáil.
Jack Lynch regained power for Fianna Fáil – but at a terrible cost. So daft were his party’s economic policies that by 1981, the country was effectively bankrupt – or that was how we understood it then. As economic crises go, it was in the halfpenny place beside what confronted us in 2007. But it was brutally real at the time, and Charlie Haughey used the opportunity to oust Jack Lynch as leader of Fianna Fáil and as Taoiseach.
The 1980s really began in Ireland in 1981. It was a turbulent period of rising unemployment and political chaos. The 1981 election, held in June, saw Fine Gael and Labour win 80 seats and Fianna Fáil 78 out of 166. The result was a minority coalition government, which quickly ran aground when the Minister for Finance, John Bruton, attempted to put VAT on children’s shoes. Limerick independent Labour TD, Jim Kemmy, voted against the measure and the government was history.
The election in February 1982 also produced a hung Dáil. Fianna Fáil had 80 seats against 78 for the outgoing coalition, but Charlie Haughey secured a working majority by negotiating the support of the independent TD Tony Gregory, as well as independent Fianna Fáiler Neil Blaney in Donegal and the three new Workers Party TDs.
Again, the administration was short-lived, the government falling when Tony Gregory and the Workers Party TDs withdrew their support. In the ensuing election, in November 1982, Fine Gael emerged with 70 seats and Labour – under new leader Dick Spring – took 16. It was more than enough to form a government – which this time lasted the full five-year term.
It is fascinating to look at these numbers – and recognise just how far the once-mighty of Irish politics have fallen. Fianna Fáil are determined to present their performance in the 2016 election as a triumph – but they had once seemed almost unassailable in their domination of the Irish political landscape. Fine Gael had been the undisputed heirs apparent and Labour effectively mopped up the more left-leaning votes – and increasingly also became the reliable, liberal voice of the new emerging Ireland.
It was the 1980s which first saw the real fragmentation of that three-party stranglehold. The erosion of the big parties support began as a response to what was happening in the North, with the old Official IRA delivering electable socialist candidates in their Workers Party incarnation. The extent to which Charlie Haughey danced with independents like Tony Gregory may also have encouraged the emergence of lone wolves. However you interpret it, since then there has been an increasing fragmentation, with local candidates emerging, many of whom are dedicated to little more than representing the interests
of specific pressure groups on the national stage.
Compared to the 84 seats they won in 1977, Fianna Fáil’s latest tally of 43 seems rather pathetic. Fine Gael’s likely 52 is marginally more respectable. But Labour are in effect on their knees, with the party’s worst performance in an election for aeons yielding just six TDs at the time of going to press. Fascinatingly, the troubles in Northern Ireland are at the heart of Labour’s difficulties. In the Republic, Sinn Féin was a tiny minority party in 1977 – and remained thus in 1981 and 1982. But the Provisional IRA’s military campaign gave Sinn Féin a foothold in Northern Ireland – and the party has built on that, gradually bringing what it learned in the six northern counties to bear on politics in the Republic. The big question now, following the 2016 general election, is: will Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil finally bite the bullet, and agree – in the national interest of course – to put the civil war of the 1920s behind them for once and for all, and form the centreright government which the electorate seems determined to support? That would provide a stable government, potentially for five years, with Sinn Féin taking on the mantle of main opposition party, on the basis of their 23 or 24 seats.
And looming out there too will be that great swathe of independents and left activists. Some of these, including Clare Daly, People Before Profit's Richard Boyd Barrett, Mick Wallace, Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats, Ruth Coppinger of the Irish Socialist Party and more, will make a significant contribution in terms of the genuine engagement they bring to national political issues. But many others have little or nothing to offer in the Dáil other than being a pest to whoever happens to be in government, mostly on behalf of their own constituents.
And as for Labour: how great a miscalculation was it to decide to go into Government in 2011? It looks right now as if it would not have been possible to make a worse decision for the party itself. Over the five intervening years, they immunised sections of their support base and in particular public servants from the worst ravages of the collapse in the economy. But as a result, they have been decimated electorally, overtaken by Sinn Féin – and the party’s founder James Connolly has in effect been relegated to the position of also-ran in the year of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising.
Well, what’s done is done and there is no way back from that. Labour will have to regroup and work out what the way forward is – if indeed there is one. But more importantly, for now, the question remains: will people in the main parties play sillybuggers and plunge the country into a damaging re-run of the uncertainty of the 1980s? Or will they finally realise that they are ideologically so close that they really ought to join forces?
In our pre-election issue, we put on the record the likely downside of a FG/FF coalition. If it happens, as it surely must, the liberal agenda will be moth-balled: we can forget about the repeal of the 8th Amendment; they will leave control of the schools in religious hands – and so on. But, as ever, whether they intended it or not, this is what the people have voted for.
The sooner Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael get on with it the better..