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Jim Kemmy and the Democratic Socialist Party. October 4, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Labour Party, The Left.
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A remarkably honest assessment of the career of Jim Kemmy, founder and former leaders of the DSP, was given last week in the Irish Times by journalist Enda O’Doherty.

Jim Kemmy was a man of many and excellent parts – in the words of historian Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh “a stone mason and socialist, trade unionist and political activist, writer and historian, parliamentarian and humanist” – indeed he might well have added humorist.

Yet if he is most widely remembered as a politician it must in fairness be said that he was not always an entirely successful one.

O’Doherty notes that the…

…DSP, like most small political parties in Ireland or elsewhere, never really went anywhere, though it spent many years in doing so. As well as lacking sufficient organisational muscle it had the great misfortune to be in many respects ahead of its time.

Interestingly enough the DSP numbered amongst its membership playwright Paul Mercier and – I think – Roddy Doyle. Both taught in Greendale Community School and I think I can divine at least some element of the progressive thinking that was core to the DSP being reasonably easily assimilated into the Greendale ethos, although before we lose the run of ourselves worth noting that Principle Anton Carroll was identified with Fianna Fáil, which perhaps tells us something of the competing strands of progressivism on this island.

And the DSP was socially very progressive indeed.

During a period when the dominant view on the left was that the EC was a capitalist “rich man’s club” which should be shunned the party was fervently pro-European. Its support for contraception, divorce and limited access to abortion was a hot potato no one else at the time was prepared to touch. Its unabashed feminism was widely regarded as eccentric, even risible (“Kemmy’s femmies”, the establishment sneered).

As time progresses I’ve begun to wonder if in Ireland – the South at least – social issue activism served as initially a substitute, and in time as a replacement for class activism. In a context where we had not one, but two (count ’em!) centre or centre right parties with a predominant hold on the political system the space for progress on the left was limited, whereas the space for progress on liberal issues was much greater (actually, as time progresses I’m beginning to wonder if that was very much a case of kicking an open door – not that it seemed that way as I hauled my sorry ass around North Dublin housing estates canvassing for divorce in the mid-1980s). Perhaps we can add the ‘social’ or ‘liberal’ turn to the stock of ‘local turn’ or ‘right turn’ phrases.

In any case, the DSP was a curious beast in many many ways. Kemmy had been a Labour member until the early 1970s when in a dispute with the famously right of centre (and I mean right) Limerick Labour TD, Stephen Coughlan, he left that party. He soon founded the DSP, which as time progress accreted both BICO and the Socialist Party of Ireland (a left split from OSF which pilloried the poor old CPI for not adhering closely enough to a Moscow line amongst other failings). It’s probably true to say that neither formation massively added to the membership of the DSP, but in Kemmy they had something approaching a star and he managed to keep a seat intermittently in the Dáil from 1981 onwards.

O’Doherty notes one aspect of the party which loomed large in the minds of many of us at the time.

Its strongly argued position that unionists in Northern Ireland had a perfect right to decline to be part of a united Ireland (now pretty much the consensus) was regarded as little short of treason.

Unfortunately this wasn’t entirely the case. It would be more accurate to say that while they accepted the right of Unionists to decline to be part of a UI (entirely reasonably) they, as with others, had a curious blindspot as to how to deal with Nationalism and Republicanism. Nor was the DSP entirely unique in such a standpoint.

But in a way what is interesting is that if one removed the socialist element from the DSP one was left with something that looked remarkably like Fine Gael. This is not to suggest that the socialist element was inconsiderable, or that the two organisations were similar, simply that on paper their projects were not as dissimilar as one might expect.

And while I take O’Doherty’s point about Kemmy being ‘in many respects cut from very “Old Labour” cloth, a self-educated working class intellectual, a dedicated trade unionist and an uncompromising fighter for the underprivileged’, that does not mean that the message he promoted was quite as ‘Old Labour’ itself. Or perhaps it is better to see Kemmy as representative of the Old Labour strand which ignored constitutional issues, and in doing so managed to ignore their enormous centrality – rightly or wrongly – to Irish political life. Simple Labourism in an Irish context could be as much of an ideological cul-de-sac as simple Republicanism, each leading to a similar if opposite narrowness of political vision.

O’Doherty suggests that there is a contemporary relevance for the Labour Party.

Yet it should also be remembered that he had little respect for settled dogma and that he placed himself in firm and often lonely opposition to those aspects of left-wing tradition he thought outmoded or intellectually indefensible. It is far from certain that he would have dismissed the idea of reconstructing Labour’s image or “brand”, but as a serious thinker he would have insisted that any change in perception must be based on a corresponding change in substance.

Hmmm. Well that could lead us any number of places, now couldn’t it?

It’s hard not to have some fondness for Kemmy. He took a difficult path and retained a great sense of humour all the while. But then again, having met some who migrated from the DSP into Democratic Left (and who had originally been BICO members or supporters) I’m not entirely sure that the incomprehension of Northern nationalism and quite visceral hostility to Republicanism by Kemmy and others didn’t in some sense add to a gathering alienation in the South to the North. Even later talking to those people in DL from the DSP it was clear they were simply unable to understand that Provisional Sinn Féin might be moving towards an unarmed position [indeed back in 1994 I remember having a chat of one former DSP member who had the ear of a leading light of the DL. I was telling this member how Prionsias De Rossa had stated in an interview that week something along the lines of Gerry Adams being 25 years late in following the path taken by himself and OSF/WP and DL. Cue consternation along the lines ‘he’d never had said that’. I couldn’t quite understand his point until I realised that the very suggestion of any commonality between Adams and De Rossa was anathema.]

I was sorry, in a way, to see the DSP fold into Labour in the great conglomeration of smaller left groups into that party during the 1990s. I imagine that from Kemmy’s perspective it made sense, the DSP was limping along and what really was it saying that its larger rival wasn’t? As we now know the whole was not quite the sum of the parts. I didn’t laugh when I heard that the University of Limerick had named the College of Business the “Jim Kemmy Business School” in his memory. I don’t know enough about the details, but it struck me as arguably a bit snide and not representative of a man who, whatever about the critique above, was in his own way a very good socialist indeed.

A final note, I have no material at all from the DSP and if people have any it would be gratefully accepted for the Left Archive.

Comments»

1. Ed Hayes - October 5, 2007

The thing about Kemmy was that a lot of his attitudes were firmly rooted in Limerick and its own peculiar relationship to the rest of the nation. His revitilized the local Labour party in the late 60s and found himself facing Stevie Coughlan, (right of centre?-far right!). Coughlan forced Kemmy to ask questions about the dominace of the Catholic Church in Limerick, the 1905 anti-Jewish boycitt, the city’s perception of republicanism (Coughlan was a fomrer IRA volunteer and member of Clann na Poblachta) and a Labour politics that was based on cronyism. The local reaction to the Springboks tour, welcomed by Coughlan, the campaign against the Maoist shop, led by Coughlan, the canonisation of Sean South by local opinion and his use against the left, all forced Kemmy to take stands that he may not have done had he been in the Dulbin party. He was brave and he then took these local rows to the national stage and embraced many ideas that I wouldn’t find too inspiring, but again I can see why he did. BICO must have been like a breath of fresh air to Jim in 1972, with him fighting the local Labour Party, the Church and the clannish, snobbish nature of much of Limerick politics. According to Michael Gallagher’s book on ‘Labour in Transition’ Kemmy gave a very green speech to the LP conference in 1970 or 71, calling for a united Ireland etc. So he wasn’t born a two-nationist. Kemmy’s self-taught socialism, reading Connolly on building sites in London etc was a world away from most of those who joined the DSP elsewhere. Thats where your liberal, anti-church (as long as its Catholic), anti-nationalist (as long as its Irish nationalist) please understand the Unionists but never mind about the Nordie Fenians comes in. people for whom the WP was too class concious or still too green. So while I always had time for Kemmy I never liked his party.

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2. The Limerick Blogger » Blog Archive » Quick hits - October 6, 2007

[…] The Cedar Lounge Revolution pays tribute to the late Jim Kemmy, the tenth anniversary of whose death occurred recently. Thanks to Shane at Cheebah for the link. […]

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3. WorldbyStorm - October 8, 2007

I didn’t know that Ed about his views in the 1970s. BTW your characterisation of certain people in the last couple of lines is absolutely spot on in my experience…

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4. Grendel - October 16, 2007

I’m sure there was an activist, who was in the DSP and associate of Kemmy. He started out in B&ICO and ended up working in DL with either
Liz McManus or De Rossa.
Anyone know the name or anything else about this gentleman?

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5. WorldbyStorm - October 16, 2007

Hmmmm…

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6. 11 Sixty Nine And Counting….. :: PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS / BETRAYAL /TRADE UNIONS AND THE HUNGER-STRIKE. :: May :: 2010 - May 12, 2010

[…] Jim Kemmy, a self-styled ’socialist’ and confessed anti-nationalist who won his Limerick seat on the strength of a protest vote against the major parties, and later went on to vote for anti-worker budgets submitted by the reactionary Fine Gael government whilst attacking the hunger-strikers at every available opportunity, recently received a bitter rebuke from some of his fellow union members. […]

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7. Miss. Murre Kipkalya Kones - September 7, 2010

HELLO, DEAREST ONE

I am writing this mail to you with tears and sorrow from my heart. With due respect , trust and humanity, i appeal to you to exercise a little patience and read through my letter i feel quite safe dealing with you in this important business having gone through your remarkable profile, honestly i am writing this email to you with pains, tears and sorrow from my heart, i will really like to have a good relationship with you and i have a special reason why i decided to contact you, i decided to contact you due to the urgency of my situation,My name is Miss Murre Kipkalya Kones, 23yrs old female and I held from Kenya in East Africa. My father was the former Kenyan road Minister. He and Assistant Minister of Home Affairs Lorna Laboso had been on board the Cessna 210, which was headed to Kericho and crashed in a remote area called Kajong’a, in western Kenya. The plane crashed on the Tuesday 10th, June,2008.

You can read more about the crash through the below site:
http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/africa/06/10/kenya.crash/index.html

After the burial of my father, my stepmother and uncle conspired and sold my father’s property to an italian Expertrate which the shared the money among themselves and live nothing for me. One faithful morning, I opened my father’s briefcase and found out the documents which he have deposited huge amount of money in one bank in Burkina Faso with my name as the next of kin. I travelled to Burkina Faso to withdraw the money for a better life so that I can take care of myself and start a new life, on my arrival, the Bank Director whom I met in person told me that my father’s instuction to the bank is that the money would only be release to me when I am married or present a trustee who will help me and invest the money overseas. I am in search of an honest and reliable person who will help me and stand as my trustee so that I will present him to the Bank for transfer of the money to his bank account overseas. I have chosen to contact you after my prayers and I believe that you will not betray my trust. But rather take me as your own sister.

Though you may wonder why I am so soon revealing myself to you without knowing you, well I will say that my mind convinc ed me that you may be the true person to help me. Moreso, I will like to disclose much to you if you can help me to relocate to your country because my stepmother have threaten to assinate me. The amount is( $5.8 USD )Million United State Dollars, and I have confirmed from the bank in Burkina Faso on my arrival, You will also help me to place the money in a more profitable business venture in your Country. However, you will help by recommending a nice University in your country so that I can complete my studies. It is my intention to compensate you with 30% of the total money for your services and the balance shall be my capital in your establishment. As soon as I receive your positive response showing your interest I will put things into action immediately. In the light of the above.I shall appreciate an urgent message indicating your ability and willingness to handle this transaction sincerely.

AWAITING YOUR URGENT AND POSITIVE RESPONSE . Please do keep this only to your self for now untill the bank will transfer the fund. I beg you not to disclose it till i come over because I am afraid of my wicked stepmother who has threatened to kill me and have the money alone ,I thank God Today that am out from my country (KENYA) but now In (Burkina Faso) where my father deposited these money with my name as the next of Kin.I have the documents for the claims.

Yours Sincerely

Miss. Murre Kipkalya Kones

Reply

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8. WorldbyStorm - September 7, 2010

Jim Kemmy’s thread gets spam – got to love…

‘Please do keep this only to your self for now untill the bank will transfer the fund.’

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9. Tomboktu - September 7, 2010

In a similar vein, I never know what to make of the fact that the University of Limerick decided to name, of all things, their business school after Jim.

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WorldbyStorm - September 7, 2010

Yeah, I presume it was a snarky joke.

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10. Neil Palmer - November 11, 2010

So you got one too what was the email address it came from?

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11. Jim Monaghan - November 11, 2010

A footnote or two. I was told when in the Sticks that the South family stayed and the O’Hanlon family went with the Provos. This had a relative importance because the survival of republicanism sometimes came down to family traditions.
My friends in Limerick, RMG, later PD, around the “Bottom Dog” newspaper, regarded Kemmy with some affection. They even visited when he was in hospital.
They and other friends regarded Kemmy as being democratic and willing to debate. Not a witchhunter.
In the disputes in RTE, the Kemmy people tended to defend the democratic rights of those who would be regarded as republican ( this included our now president, who was/is a mild old fashioned nationalist.)
0n 1971 in the Labour Party, this would have been the time of the Socialist Labour Alliance which was led by Browne and Merrigan. (there was even a debate on calling it the Socialist Republican Alliance.). The Socialist Labour Party came later.Missed out on this development whcih was important in its time, over a detour into sectarian Trotskyism of the worst type, the Healyite SLL.
Given that he brought down Garret over VAT on children shoes (Garrett was worried about sneaky women with small feet who might avoid the VAT) I wonder whether our Dail “lefts” will vote No to the forthcoming budget and the one by the new coalition after.

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HAL - November 11, 2010

Ahh The Socialist Labour Party.
I attended the inaugral/founding meeting in Liberty hall as a young teenager,planning on joining and hoping that it would be called The Socialist Republican Alliance,this was twarted by linking that name with abortion in the one vote.Uproar ensued followed by a small walkout including my friends and I all from Kevin st tec.

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12. Local Yokel - November 11, 2010

Grendel I think you might be thinking of Philip O’Connor. He was a DSP candidate in Dublin North Central in the 1980s. Not sure but have an idea he was married to Helen Lahert who was a DL candidate in DNC in 1992.

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13. NollaigO - November 11, 2010

Is that the same Philip O’Connor who writes often for the IPR,nowadays?

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WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2010

I’ve wondered that. I used to know O’Connor slightly back in the DL days.

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14. “H-Block and Sectarian Civil War – Socialists Against Nationalism”- A Short Read from 1981 | Tomás Ó Flatharta - January 26, 2021

[…] The main player in SAN was the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), represented in Dáil Éireann by Limerick East TD Jim Kemmy, who first won a seat in the June 1981 General Election. Some years later the DSP joined the Labour Party. https://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/jim-kemmy-and-the-democratic-socialist-party/ […]

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