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A LABOUR OF LOVE ... A POLITICAL CENTENARY

A labour of love …  a poltical centenary

This month marks the centenary of the foundation of the Labour party in May 1912 – the founding motion was passed at an Irish Trade Unions Congress held in Clonmel towards the end of that month.  According to some political scientists that confers on Labour the status of the longest established political party in the country. Tracing the lineage of Irish political parties is not an exact science with changes of name and of organisation complicating the picture. The title “Sinn Fein” dates to 1907 and a candidate under that banner contested elections in 1908. And in terms of an all-island record the Ulster Unionist party can point to origins in the mid 1880s. However in terms of a registered political party contesting elections the centenary of the Labour party is a significant one in the Irish political spectrum.
Colohan, Norton, Bermingham, Stagg and Wall are names which have appeared on ballot papers in County Kildare constituency elections from 1922 to the present day. In doing so the Labour party has a record of electoral success in Kildare virtually unrivalled by any other constituency in the country.  Labour’s first Kildare breakthrough came against huge odds when it contested the turbulent June 1922 elections for the 3rd Dáil. The build-up to the 1922 General Election was dominated by the divisive split in the nationalist movement between Collins and De Valera and the campaign took place against the volatile background of an incipient Civil War. It is remarkable then that Labour, which had been sidelined by Sinn Féin as the national question dominated Irish politics from 1916 to 1921, was able to mobilise a support base which saw two TDs elected in the Kildare-Wicklow constituency – Hugh Colohan and James Everett – who garnered an impressive 35% of the vote.  Hugh Colohan, a bricklayer from Newbridge, who was also an early Labour member of Kildare County Council was to hold his seat until his death in April 1931. He was succeeded in the Kildare constituency in 1932 by a legend in Labour history, William (Bill) Norton, who was to hold the Labour seat for a remarkable thirty-two years. And this was only one of Norton’s achievements on the political record as he also was leader of the Labour party throughout that period and succeeded to Ministerial office in the two coalition governments.  His tenure as Labour leader was not an easy one: almost since its foundation in 1912 Labour had been beset by splits and personality clashes among its leadership, a fractious record which was to dog the party right up to the 1940s and beyond.
A feature of Bill Norton’s tenure as a Kildare TD is that although representing the Kildare constituency for over thirty years he never lived in the county maintaining his residence in Dublin throughout this period. Energetic, confident and pugnacious were words used to describe the long-lived Labour leader and according to one party historian he was characterised as: “a fighting man, so self-confident that he is apt to succeed in the most unlikely places because he cannot anticipate defeat.” His persistence paid off and during his three decades as a Kildare TD he held Ministerial office twice – firstly in Ireland’s first coalition government where he was Tánaiste and Minister for Social Welfare (1948-51) and then in the second coalition (1954-57) when he was appointed Tánaiste again this time with the Industry and Commerce portfolio.  In fact the Ministerial positions held by Kildare TDs in modern times overshadow the fact that the county had high-powered political representation in the 1950s with Norton as Tánaiste and the charismatic Gerard Sweetman (Fine Gael) as Minister for Finance in the Cabinet of 1954-57. There is always pressure on Ministers to be seen to “deliver” for their constituencies and associating particular local developments with constituency TDs is an uncertain business because of the many influences involved. However it is hard not to imagine that Norton and Sweetman had some influence, for example, in steering the Army Apprentice School to Naas in 1954 when there had been suggestions that it would be located in Dublin. Norton died in December 1963 and Labour lost the subsequent by-election. However the seat was regained by his son Pat in the 1965 General Election. It was again lost by Labour in 1969 and for the first full term since 1922 Labour in Kildare was without a TD until the seat was regained by another legend in Kildare politics, Castlemitchell councillor Joe Bermingham who was later Minister of State at the Office of Public Words. From the 1980s onwards Emmett Stagg in North Kildare and Jack Wall in South Kildare have kept the Labour flag flying. And no doubt the current representatives will, in the midst of referendum campaigning, spare a thought for their predecessors who gathered in Clonmel in 1912 and inaugurated the Labour party. Series no: 282.

The Irish Labour Party was founded 100 years ago in May 1912. Series no. 282 from Liam Kenny's Looking Back column in the Leinster Leader 29 May 2012


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