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Leinster Leader 14 June 2007
Labour leader holds nerve in Dail crisis
Energetic, confident and pugnacious – words used to describe the leadership style of Bill Norton who represented County Kildare as a Labour TD from the 1932 General Election to his death in office in 1964. In an impressive electoral record he generally topped the Kildare poll at the intervening General Elections although, curiously, he never lived in the constituency maintaining his residence in Dublin. The introductory description is one of many references to Norton in a new history of the Labour party entitled ‘The Irish Labour Party 1922-73’ by Dr. Niamh Purséil and published by University College Dublin Press.
The record of Norton’s long career as Labour leader in the mid-20th century is threaded through Dr. Purséil’s study which follows the turbulent and tortuous story of the Labour party as it attempted to find space in the Civil War dominated arena of Irish politics.
It was in to this unpromising scene that Norton arrived as party leader – largely because nobody else wanted the job. And in a situation strikingly similar to the 2007 General Election he had to cope with an election in 1932 in which Labour was ‘squeezed’ between a rampant Fianna Fail under de Valera hungry for its first taste of power, and the existing Government party of Cumann na Gaedhael (later Fine Gael) led by W T Cosgrave . Dr Purséil writes ‘ Fianna Fáil’s campaign was conducted with remarkable confidence and the party managed to give every impression that it was a government in waiting. The campaign in effect became a two-horse race and Labour found itself left behind.’
However a paradox of democracy Irish-style is that a party which performs poorly on election day can find itself in an unexpectedly privileged role when it comes to making up a coalition or at least giving a parliamentary crutch to a minority government. And this is what transpired after the 1932 election: de Valera had not enough Fianna Fail TDs elected for an overall majority, so he turned to a depleted Labour party for the necessary support to elect him as Taoiseach on the opening day of the Seventh Dail.
Dr. Purséil comments on Labour’s contrasting fortunes ‘ Labour had reached its lowest ebb in a decade of parliamentary politics but its role supporting the new Fianna Fáil government gave it influence that went far beyond its seven deputies, while in its new leader (Norton) it it possessed a character capable of supplying much needed drive and momentum’.   She elaborates by quoting an Irish Independent profile of Norton in February 1932 which described him as ‘ a fighting man, so self-confident that he is apt to succeed in the most unlikely places simply because he cannot anticipate defeat.’    Such characteristics were necessary in the emotive politics of the day with Civil War passions still running high: ‘ There were heady scenes as deputies assembled … Fianna Fail supporters had thronged the streets approaching Leinster House, greeting their party men with loud cheers, treating passing Cumann na nGaedheal deputies with stony silence or jeers as the mood took them.’ 
So highly-charged was the atmosphere around Kildare Street on the formation of the Seventh Dáil that some Fianna Fáil deputies secreted revolvers under their greatcoats against the background of rumours that Cumann na Gaedheal diehards would resist handing over power. Norton held his nerve within all of this parliamentary drama and delivered the Labour party shopping list to De Valera in what was described as a ‘lengthy, bombastic contribution.’
The days of newly elected TDs carrying firearms on their arrival into the Dáil are long gone but given that the dateline of this issue of the Leinster Leader coincides with the first day of the 30th Dail one wonders if the drama will be as highly charged as it was in 1932.
·         The Irish Labour Party 1922-73 by Niamh Puirséil, published 2007 by University College Dublin Press.
Series No.20

Bill Norton, Labour TD for Co. Kildare, and party Leader and the 1932 General Election - by Liam Kenny from his regular feature, 'Nothing New Under the Sun' - Leinster Leader 14 June 2007. Our thanks to Liam

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