jump to navigation

The Left Archive: Brendan Corish and “The New Republic” from the Irish Labour Party, 1968 March 25, 2008

Posted by guestposter in Irish Left Online Document Archive.



A guest post by Michael Taft from Notes on the Front about a key moment in Labour Party history dating from 1968 (a party that we have had remarkably little material on the Left Archive – however I’m glad to say that there has been an infusion of LP related leaflets and newspapers, you’ll see them soon). A small point on design. Note that the blue Starry Plough flag is safely embedded within a green field.

When Brendan Corish, TD stepped up to the podium on that Saturday evening in October, he probably didn’t think that, for many, he would be inaugurating a brief ‘golden age’ – a period where Labour dared to believe it could become a major political force. But he also knew it would be no ordinary speech. For he was going to launch Labour on a new project – the New Republic – a project controversial both in the party and in the wider society. Its success and failure still have the ability to instruct us today.

When Mr. Corish became leader at the relatively young age of 41, there was nothing to suggest he was a radical. He certainly was well-regarded in the party, highly experienced (a Government minister, party whip and parliamentary secretary), and if some of his early comments on social issues seem conservative to our modern ears, that was the mainstream discourse.

But anyone who took over as leader of the Labour Party in the aftermath of the disastrous 1954-57 coalition knew they had to do something different. Since rejoining Fine Gael in Government was simply not on offer, Corish looked to modernising and revitalising the Party – in both its organisation and policies. Throughout his early years the Party experienced a kind of slow burn – developing into a more modern-looking, modern-acting, mainstream European socialist party.

After the 1965 general election, there was no disputing Mr. Corish’s success. Between 1957 and 1965, Labour’s vote increased from 9.1% to 15.4% – a two-thirds jump. More dramatically, Labour nearly doubled their Dail representation – from 12 to 22 seats. Hard to argue with that – and no one did, not openly anyway, whether they were from the Left or Right of the party, the urban or rural wings, the trade unionists or the new professional membership.

It was from this platform that Corish moved to provide Labour with a new narrative – an encapsulation of what the Labour party was, a new definition, a set of principles upon which its policy and strategy could be grounded. The scene was set for the 1967 conference. And when Corish rose to give his Party Leader’s address he was to make the finest speech any Labour leader had ever delivered. But it was so much than just another Leader’s address. Indeed, it hard to disagree with Niamh Purseil’s observation:

‘To describe this as a “speech” would be a misnomer: it was really a sermon.’

Corish started with an electrifying declaration:

‘The seventies will be socialist. At the next general election Labour must . . . make a major breakthrough in seats and votes. It must demonstrate convincingly that it has the capacity to become the Government of this country. Our present position is a mere transition phase on the road to securing the support of the majority of our people. At the next general election (we) must face the electorate with a clear-cut alternative to the conservatism of the past and present; and emerge . . . . as the Party which will shape the seventies. What I offer now is the outline of a new society, a New Republic.

Let’s step back and admire the audacity of those opening lines. Here is confidence on a scale unmatched by anything before. No incrementalism, no half-party, no minority role; rather, an overwhelming ambition for power, pure and simple – to win a majority, to become the government, to shape the next decade, to redefine society. And just in case delegates were late getting into their seats and missed the opening lines, Corish went on:

‘Our party must prove to the public that it is in no way involved in supporting the status quo. It must stand aside from the other two parties, which compete only to see who will get the chance to keep things as they are. It must give a socialist alternative. . . Only then can our people decide, only then can the electorate make up its mind for the first time. Even if it rejects our proposals, at least a genuine choice will have been made. It can never be said that all the parties were alike and it made no difference whom one voted for.’

No obfuscation, no mixing of ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ into an insipid cocktail, no caveats; it is, as Ms. Purseil states, a sermon, with all the absolute conviction that comes from believing in a promised land, even when that journey will entail setback and defeat along the way.

Corish’s definition of socialism has been criticised as vague and hazy. True, Corish didn’t produce a dictionary abstraction but rather addressed the issue in a roundabout, somewhat humorous way:

In saying that the New Republic must be socialist, Labour is not merely invoking a magic word that will dispel all evil simply by being uttered. Labour believes, with Connolly, that socialism is not a set of doctrines to be applied dogmatically to every situation . . . No rigid definition can be applied to socialism . . . There are differences within our own Party as to what socialism means. I suppose that it is a common enough experience to find that no matter how far left you stand in a Labour Party you will always find yourself to the right of somebody.

If it is a bit vague, then that’s because, for Corish, ever the pragmatist, the real definition is in the proverbial pudding, not some recipe book. And that’s what he did when he came to the core of his speech – the contemporary economic issues. What is striking is that, regardless of how we have progressed from those days, many of the issues remain remarkably the same:

Ordinary people have suffered while the gombeen man has flourished. Speculative office blocks have risen almost overnight while the housing lists have swollen. There is money to be made if you know the right people and if you can hit on the right gimmick. . . Meanwhile, the economy has floundered and social welfare has been run on shillings and pence.

Property market speculation? Infrastructural weakness? Anaemic welfare state? Plus ca change . . and all that.

But it is when Corish identifies the cause of a structurally weak economy and the institutional reforms necessary that there is something that he can teach us today. At that time, Lemass was attempting to industrialise the country through the use of foreign capital. Joe Lee puts that attempt in historical context:

‘But Lemass did not solve the problem that had baffled him since 1932 – how to create a viable Irish industry. By the mid-sixties, the continuing failure of Irish-owned industry on the export front, despite all the incentives, was becoming grimly clear. Only the success of foreign investment was now energising the export drive. The hope that foreign example would inspire native emulation was proving vain. . . . The subsidies seem to have been largely squandered. At least, they did not achieve the objective of making Irish industry competitive. The bulk of Irish business men showed little interest in management education.’

The attempt to create a competitive indigenous enterprise sector is still going on, with as much or as little success as Lemmas had. Corish attacked Fianna Fail – not for opening up the economy to foreign capital (in this, Corish rejected the nationalist fantasies of protectionism), but for failing to marshal the resources necessary in a coherent and rational way:

‘We have the amazing situation in which a chronically under-developed country has freely allowed its capital to be exported to the biggest money market in the world. This is a policy entirely unfavourable to home industries struggling to establish themselves. But the interest of the private investor was safeguarded even if it means that six hundred million pounds would be invested abroad and even if it meant that a million emigrants would be discarded as surplus labour in a land starved of employment.’

Though we don’t have the spectre of unemployment and emigration which haunted that period, the flood of capital streaming out of the country is a concern being constantly raised by Michael Hennigan over at Finfacts.com – the preference for property speculation – here and abroad – at a time when we need investment for our own social and economic modernisation.

What Corish said next was a brilliant political definition of Labour’s new agenda:

‘The dynamic of the Irish economy has yet to be released. Enterprise is the secret ingredient in economic growth. There is no mystery to it, no hidden formula. It is people who produce growth, and lack of resources was never a hindrance to an industrial people determined to advance in the face of any setback. Enterprise is simply a mixture of self-confidence, knowledge and a supreme conviction of success, no matter what the risks. We have never had this spirit of tackling our economy problems. Instead, we have suffered so much from the opposite that we have invited every nationality but our own to come in and do the job for us. Are we not doing just that today?’

Well, how about that? Labour, socialists, the Left – the party of the entrepreneur, of the can-do enterprise spirit. Long before the PDs and their ilk used ‘enterprise’ as a rhetorical veil to disguise their programme of subsidising the privileged, Corish was capturing the ground of market expansion, innovation, hard work and economic success.

He outlined his recipe to make this ‘enterprise’ work for the Irish people and in this he was, again, showing a vision ahead of his time. Yes, the state would play a crucial role, especially in the area of investment which an agriculture-based economy has difficulty in generating. But he didn’t talk the language of ‘nationalisation’ or ‘five year plans’ or ‘a command economy.’

‘The State must extend the range of its activities, by setting up new industries, by co-operating with the existing pattern of agriculture and industry. . . . It goes without question that planning would be democratic, dependent upon the participation of the whole community. We share our problems in common. We can solve them together by using our collective intelligence, by deciding what the most important things are and by giving them priority treatment. We are democrats, not bureaucrats.’

And just to reinforce that last point:

‘Planning will demand efficiency and a Labour Government will see to it that the public service will itself be efficient. Unless the role of Government is seen in the first place as being that of stimulating growth, every attempt at innovation will be resisted.’

In short, Corish was prefiguring social partnership, but a more sustained democratic one than we have at the moment – the co-operation, the wider participation, and, most of all, the efficiency.

These points – the development of enterprise, the new institutions of partnership, the extension of democracy and efficient public services – they formed the very heart of the New Republic. Yes, Corish castigated the Government and the Right (it is interesting that he criticised Fine Gael as well as Fianna Fail – knowing that they were common and co-equal enemies of Labour’s project) for the failures of the welfare state. He contrasted a ‘paper equality’ with a real one:

‘A paper constitutional equality can mask the starkest inequalities, whether in getting a house, going to university, earning a living, treating a sick child or spending the last years one’s life in country. Labour sees in modern Ireland a society in which these things happen every day . . . We know that one percent of the population owns more than half the wealth in most competitive economies. Is that equality? It is ludicrous to think that a man with wealth is the equal of a man without . . .. ‘

Corish didn’t engage in a populist ‘Robin Hood’ economics. He knew that if you were to double taxation on the relatively few wealthy people, it wouldn’t add much to the total wealth of the nation. He knew – as did all the delegates at the conference whether they stood to the right or the left of his shoulder – that what was needed was a profound and systemic approach to wealth generation. He put it this way:

‘Growth is not an end in itself, but must be used to raise the welfare of the whole community. All our policies on health, education, housing, social welfare are based on the idea of community, another of the basic socialist principles. Selfish speculation has no place in this idea . . . What are we to do with increased wealth? How are we to share it within society? Are we to leave things as they are or are we going to root out social injustice wherever it appears?’

The growth of social wealth is co-incident with the growth of economic wealth, according to Corish. Here he is only stating a truism – but one that is often missed: what are the most egalitarian societies? The ones that are the wealthiest and have the highest level of state intervention, both in the generation and distribution of wealth. This is not a zero-sum game. This is win-win – but only in the context of a progressive, rather than speculative, framework.

What is most refreshing is that Corish spent most of his time (a) discussing the economy and (b) discussing Labour’s own policies. This marks quite a change from the normal opposition party leader’s address of late, which views the economy as a done deal and merely deals in ‘managerial’ issues – if it is dealt with at all. And Corish wasn’t content just to bash the Government of the day with a ‘something must be done’ cudgel. Of course, he took swipes, but the criticism was integrated into a positive elaboration of an alternative programme. For Corish, his mantra was ‘wealth generation, wealth generation, wealth generation’ – and he was damned if he was going to let the Right off the hook.

Corish concluded his speech with humility and a defence of party democracy that was revitalising:

All of us know that Irish Labour has disappointed even its most fervent supporters . . the trade unions up to now have not played the role they should have in projecting socialist policies, the role that Connolly and Larkin advocated. In rural areas, our supporters have tended to be too easily satisfied with partial success. The young radicals in our cities, until recently, have criticised from outside our ranks.

Strong criticism is good for this party. It is right that we should be reminded of our faults and shortcomings. Some of us may disagree. We have every right to do so; this is a party of dissent and the debate should reach out to every issue which affects our community. Harsh words will be said and accepted . . . Constructive and realistic alternatives to the present conservative policies are essential.

Interestingly, this came only a couple of years after the most successful election Labour ever fought. That Corish felt the need to engage in a mea culpa is a sharp contrast to comments made following the last three general elections defeats – especially the last one when ‘lack of brand’, ‘the trade union link’ and an inability to ‘appeal to millionaires’ were trotted out to explain defeat. And what did he propose to rectify this disappointment? Debate, engagement, criticism, ‘hard’ criticism even, and most of all, the need to explore alternatives to past failures.

So where did it all go wrong? Corish identified the right economic issues, weaving a political narrative that was relevant to a nation, with a party that acknowledged its past mistakes and welcomed debate and criticism and members from even the most radical circles. So why was Labour undone in 1969?

There are any number of reasons: a still largely rural, confessional electorate; internal opposition from a largely conservative party, the urban-rural divide, Fianna Fail’s disgraceful ‘red scare’ tactics, disastrous candidate selection tactics – all these supply some of the answers. But I’ll venture one more – one that Labour and the wider Left still suffers from today: an absence of strategy.

It was as though party members believed that, within a short period, a party that received only 15% of the vote could significantly close a 50 seat gap with Fianna Fail and achieve an outright majority in the Dail. To suggest that this was naïve is not to take away from the project, only to state that it was not properly considered. In Dublin, Fianna Fail lost nearly 10% of its vote to Labour, which drew even with Fine Gael at 28%. Therefore, if Labour had been as successful outside of Dublin as it was in Dublin, it would have been immediately evident that Irish politics would enter into a new and uneasy period where no party could obtain a majority. The age of coalitions for all parties – including Fianna Fail – would have come much earlier.

Yet Labour didn’t recognise this. They kept talking about ‘single party government’ – for themselves – and winning the support of the majority of people. They were fighting tomorrow’s battles with yesterday’s weapons and concepts. They had a vision of a promised land but no road-map to get there.

Therefore, Labour never considered how it could lead a coalition government and who the minority party would be and how they would prepare people for this oncoming political upheaval with well thought-out medium targets as part of a transition phase. It was a maximalist all-or-nothing approach, with a hope that Fianna Fail would collapse and Fine Gael disappear. No matter how good the project, hope and inflated expectations are no substitute for analysis and strategy. The tragedy of 1969 was not so much that Labour never thought about defeat (which it didn’t) but that it never thought about what would happen if they succeeded. So when the disappointing result came, Labour responded in the only way it knew how – by first walking, and then running, back into the comforting embrace of Fine Gael.

Today is little different. In response to the 1997 defeat when it was allied with Fine Gael, Labour pursued an ‘all-options-open’ strategy, willing to deal with either of the two larger parties. In response to the 2002 defeat it adopted a pre-election pact with Fine Gael. In response to the 2007 defeat it is in danger of returning back to the ‘all-options-open’ strategy. Labour is on a merry-go-around and can’t seem to get itself off. Well, here’s one way.

Go back and analyse Labour in the 1960s. Take on board the ambition which Labour possessed, the determination to take on the Right and end its half-party status. Study the economic and social strategies that Corish outlined in the New Republic, his focus on enterprise, wealth generation and economic efficiency. Have the confidence to welcome and encourage debate. And learn from the defeat; namely, to carefully examine all the options that can lead Labour out of its half-party wilderness, to face up to the difficult questions, to face down the fears of the new and not be seduced by ‘business-as-usual’.

If it were to do that, it might find that it can succeed where Labour failed in the 1960s. And we will have the example of Brendan Corish and the New Republic to thank for that.


1. Starkadder - March 25, 2008

In my secondary school history,(back in the days when Britpop
ruled the charts) they mentioned Corish
and his policies in some detail. This article might be
useful to History students if the course still
deals with Labour history.


2. Starkadder - March 25, 2008

Interesting question: could a third Irish party break the
FF-FG dominance of Irish politics?


3. John - March 25, 2008

‘But Lemass did not solve the problem that had baffled him since 1932 – how to create a viable Irish industry. By the mid-sixties, the continuing failure of Irish-owned industry on the export front, despite all the incentives, was becoming grimly clear’

Hmm, a hint of the Workers Party’s ‘Irish Industrial Revolution’ about this. Lazy Irish bourgeoisie indeed.


4. NollaigO - March 25, 2008

Michael Taft writes about a period I remember well. In the late sixties I was a student in Ireland. June1969 was the first (and last) time I voted in an Irish election. I voted Labour (The Republican Movement did not run candidates even on an absentionist platform in1969) and attended the next Labour Party National Conference after the election (in January 1970?).
I cannot agree with much of Michael Taft’s analysis:
There was indeed a new enthusiasm for Labour in the 1965-69 period. The support for Labour was very heterogeneous. Labour was seen to be for more nationalisation, industrial democracy, state promoted enterprise and a massively improved welfare state. An agricultural policy document written by Justin Keating was received positively by many besides Labour voters Thesepolicies provoked popular enthusiasm but also anxiety and hostility. The anxiety was cleverly played upon by Fianna Fail. Here Cruise O’Brien played a key role. At the Conference before the election, playing to the gallery, he made the vacuous suggestion that the Irish embassy/consulate at the Vatican be transferred to Cuba. Fianna Fail pounced: Labour was advocating “Cuban Socialism” . This was typified in the Backbencher column in the Irish Times. In the preelection week it carried a cartoon which was a parody on the design at the top of this post: Instead of the Starry Plough was a map of Cuba with the slogan “The New Republic”.
The 1969 election was a major setback. On the key result, number of seats won, Labour went from 22 in 1965 down to 18 in 1969. Outside of Dublin the party lost many seats. People voted on their view of the different parties not on whether Labour could make a quantum jump in Dail seats. Nor did the theme, Labour, the friend of the entrepreneur, feature. The postmortem at the 1970 conference consisted of heated debates on policy with the leadership clearly signaling that the 1969 policy was too left wing. The issue of coalition was carefully avoided by them with only Noel Browne raising it as a discussion issue.
I feel that Michael Taft’s point about strategic thinking confuses what happened in the early 1970s with what happened before the election.
There is a strategic task which Labour should address, the strong electoral support that Fianna Fail gets from working class and white collar workers.


5. CL - March 25, 2008

‘his focus on enterprise, wealth generation and economic efficiency’-these are the shibboleths of neo-liberalism. The phrase could accurately be applied to Margaret Thatcher. Its unclear why this is regarded as ‘socialist’.


6. Michael Taft - March 25, 2008

John – I was unaware that Joe Lee was considered a closet sticky or that his analysis owed much to Comrade Harris and company.

NollaigO – I’m not sure what parts exactly you disagree with? Yes, the entrepenuer part didn’t feature, but neither did the word, but certainly the emphasis on creating indigenous enterprise did. And if there was a bit too much emphasis on the role of the state, this was certainly part of much mainstream European socialist thinking – for better or worse- and probably inevitable in Ireland where indigenous private sector activity in key areas was extremely limited. As to the strategy aspect – my only pont was that prior to 1969, there was hardly any apart from a maximalist assumption that a lot of seats would be won. By the early 1970s the only strategy that was being debated – either explicit or implicit – was whether the Party should align with Fine Gael. You’re absolutely right, the target must be Fianna Fail’s support base within the broad working class.

No, CL, I don’t see how generating wealth and efficiency are neo-liberal. The Left must not allow the Right to define these terms. We have been absent from the economic debate for too long. It is through enterprise and wealth and efficiency that we will build a social democratic/democratic socialist economy.


7. Starkadder - March 25, 2008

We studied Irish history for Junior Cert (back in the days of
Britpop) and Corish’s Labour Party were mentioned.


8. CL - March 25, 2008

I’m not saying we absent ourselves from the economic debate: I am saying that to adopt the mindset of the dominant paradigm of economics and use Thatcherite terms such as wealth generation, entrepreneur and efficiency is more likely to obfuscate than enlighten.
The efficiency of a market economy is premised on the commodification of labour. The labour movement and the socialist movement may be viewed as efforts to resist this commodification.
None of these terms is unambiguous. Applying the least cost principle to human labour-the essence of the efficiency concept-takes us into some very dangerous territory. Larry Summers, a man at the top of the economics profession, a few years ago made the case that it was efficient to ship pollution to Africa because wages were so much lower there, and so dead Africans were of less value than richer Americans.
‘Wealth creation’ is not necessarily related to meeting any human needs. Vast wealth has been created in the huge bubble hanging over the credit market. Its what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’.
Word like ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘enterprise’ and ‘creating an enterprise culture’ are but euphemisms for capitalism and serve to hide the motivating greed and and underlying exploitation.
Any progressive political economy must critically examine these concepts of capitalist ideology. To promote them as being somehow ‘socialistic’ just goes to show the extent of neoliberalism’s ideological triumph.


9. WorldbyStorm - March 26, 2008

CL, I know where you’re coming from and agree that terms are ambiguous, but part of the problem is that socialist or collective or cooperative enterprise has been usurped by ‘enterprise’, commonwealth by ‘wealth’ and societal efficiency by ‘efficiency’. It is long past time the left grabbed back this territory for itself. Because the problem is that in the war of words the right will have other freighted terms to draw parodic but influential caricatures of left positions… i.e. inefficiency, poverty, etc, etc….


10. CL - March 26, 2008

WBS, I take your point on the right’s ploy of caricaturing left positions: we’ve all heard the slurs about ‘bureaucratic inefficiency’, the ‘sharing of poverty’ etc.
However I would submit that in the intellectual war of position, to uncritically appropriate the ideological buzz words of rightist discourse is to concede ground.
Better to subject the concepts, categories of bourgeois political economy to relentless criticism and exposure.
In this task we have much help: e.g. Joan Robinson’s ‘Economic Philosophy’, and, essentially, the so-called Vol.4 of Capital, ‘Theories of Surplus Value’, -a surprisingly readable dissection of the concepts, categories, and ‘buzz words’ of those progenitors of neo-liberalism, the classical political economists.


11. D.J.P. O'Kane - March 26, 2008

When your intellectual heavyweight is Conor Cruise O’Brien, well you’re in trouble aren’t you?

I hadn’t heard that story about him proposing new offices for the Cuban legation. If he wasn’t deliberately attempting sabotage, he was behaving like a blithering imbecile. Do the oppositions work for them, why don’t you. But this of course is obvious to anyone reading the above.

What I’d like to know more about is Justin Keating’s (what happened to him in the end, by the way? This is all before my time) work on agricultural policy. I may be completely wrong, but going back to James C. himself it looks to me like a Dublin-centric Irish left consistently misunderstood rural Ireland and how they should relate to it, and added a couple more kilometres to the mountain it (the left) had to climb.

And on the subject of climbing that mountain, well to do that you need to displace the competiton, and as CL says one way to do that would be to pick apart its concepts and categories and buzz words. But to appeal to the broad masses you’d have to do more than that, you’d have to offer something viable and attractive as well. So some sort of concept of efficiency would have part of any starting point when it came to drafting an alternative economic and political future for Irish society.

It may of course be too late for all that. Reading the OP, I was struck immediately by Kipling’s lines. . .’Far called our navies melt away, on dune and headland sink the pyre. Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre’.


12. Conor McCabe - March 26, 2008

I think one of the myths about the Irish labour party is that it was Dublin-centric. In fact, Dublin was never a strong place for the Labour party because FF, for the most part, held the working class vote in the city. Brendan Corish, for example, was from Wexford. William Norton, his predecessor as leader of the party, well his seat was KIldare. In fact, Cluskey in 1977 was the first dublin-based leader of the labour party since Thomas Johnston back in 1927 – that’s fifty years. Now, not that the leader sets the agenda, but it goes to show that Dublin wasn´t exactly the heart of the Irish labour party – much to its disappointment.

The “misunderstanding” you refer to is really a sign of the serious rifts within Irish rural society. I mean, it´s hardly a homogeneous group. Those who voted and supported labour in rural Ireland – the core of Irish labour´s support – were out of the loop when it came to FF and FG in power and influence. Irish rural labour voters and TDs “got” irish rural life alright – all too well.

The history of the party is further complicated by the role the trade unions played in the party – mainly because some of those leaders were supporters of FF rather than labour. (I’m thinking of that walking disaster for Irish labour, William O’Brien.)

Then, of course, there is the self-inflicted wounds.

There was a strange disconnection at times between labour and the labour movement – mainly historical, sometimes personality-based – but nonetheless, for many years, the strength of the party was outside Dublin, not in it.

The question in Irish labour history, particularly post-1922, is how did ireland develop one of the largest trade union memberships (as a percentage of working population) in Europe, but a stunted political party?

For that, you have to look at the role FF played in cultivating urban and rural working class vote – as well as the trade union vote. I mean, it’s no coincidence that partnership happens under FF, not labour.


13. WorldbyStorm - March 26, 2008

I guess what I’m saying is that we need to reappropriate our words. Enterprise, wealth, efficiency were leftist words long before they were robbed by the right. An abiding memory of mine was a documentary film I saw in the early 1970s by an American lauding Chinese communism showing through fairly primitive animations how collectivisation assisted farming/industry through ‘economies of scale’. Now, I’m long past any nostalgia about collective farms, that’s not my socialism, but… the point stands. Just as Chile under Allende began to introduce a computerised network analogous to the internet to organise rationally economic demand and supply – okay, it might not have worked but you get the point – (incidentally Pax will have the details of… it’s slipped my mind) this is our terrain. We’re the people who deal in big numbers, in providing services, in generating societal wealth. That’s what we should be about and I’ve heard Michael say how we shouldn’t apologise for that as the left started to do under the twin pronged attack of Thatcherist economics and supposed individualism.

BTW, that’s a great point I hadn’t thought about Conor re Labour and the rural aspect. People have tended to view that as a negative but it is of course a positive (albeit a symptom of the inability to reach the FF voting working class).


14. ejh - March 26, 2008

There was a Not The Nine O’Clock News item once – this would be right at the end of the Seventies – involving a spoof gameshow in which trade union leaders were invited (using, of course, news footage of them speaking) for a whole minute without using the word “aspirations”. Think how swiftly that word became the property of the other side.

Liked by 1 person

15. NollaigO - March 26, 2008

I don’t think the Dublin government had an office in Cuba at the time which reinforces your point about the Cruiser. Fianna Fail baiting of him continued with gusto during his early days in the Dail. Their “researchers” had unearthed the following quote from an article by him, “The embers of Easter Week”, published in the London journal, New Left Review:
“The Labour Party in this three-quarters-of-a-nation has been dominated for years by dismal poltroons, on the lines of O’Casey ’s Uncle Payther.”
Fianna Fail T.Ds would swagger into the Dail carrying bundles of dictionaries and proclaim to gach mac mhathair:
” I’m looking for the definition of the word, poltroon!”

Prior to joining the Labour Party Justin Keating “was around” the Connolly Association and IWL – see Roy Johnson’s memoirs. In the mid1960s he ran an RTE program, Telefis Feirme. I do not remember any details of his policy document on agriculture. His efforts to introduce oil and gas exploration legislation in the 1970s has gained much retrospective praise in the wake of the “Shell to sea” campaign. I don’t know anything about his political involvement, if any, since he left the European parliament in the 1980s.

Conor McCabe:
I remember a prominent Labour Party member from Dublin, at a meeting in UCC in 1968/69 commenting that the rural Labour vote was poorly understood. The problem was that the 1969 election saw a massive wipe out of their rural TDs. One of the few TDs to survive, Michael Pat Murphy from West Cork, refused to use the official Labour Party publicity material in the 1969 election. I have nowhere near enough knowledge to comment on your view that the party was not Dublin centric in the pre1969 era. I do think it significant that after 1969 Labour decided to hold alternative annual conferences (why not Ard Fheiseanna?!) outside Dubs land.
You write:
“..Dublin was never a strong place for the Labour party because FF, for the most part, held the working class vote in the city…” .
Was/(is?) that not also true in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway…?

Michael Taft:
What I attempted to say (perhaps, badly) was that reason for the halt in 1969 of the rate of increase in Labour’s electoral support which had occurred from 1957 to 1965 was not because of the lack of strategic thinking or awareness but rather that their image (including that caused by the celebs.joining the party) and policies produced a very differential reaction for and against Labour. One of the areas in which that was seen was in the Dublin/rest of country voting responses.
Next for Labour ? How about (a) more cooperation with Sinn Fein (b) Extending party organisation to the North (c) Coalition with Fianna Fail the top option after next election?

As an aside,Michael Taft:
I see your blog has a topic lamenting the decline of the heckle. How’s this from the 1969/70 National Conference:
Jim Tully (right wing rural TD) was at the rostrum criticising the 1969 election manifesto for being too left wing.
” ….And I’ve been a trade unionist all my life”.
” A scab trade unionist !” shouts a well known left wing Dublin delegate.
Tully pauses, stares at the heckler and exclaims:
” I’ve been called a scab by a man who never did a day’s work in his life”.
Score one for culchie land!!


16. Conor McCabe - March 26, 2008

Well Limerick, Cork, and Waterford all produced TDs for Labour over the years. Galway, I don`t think it ever did.

One of Labour’s problem was that it didn’t have TDs who could bring in running mates – Richard Corish in Wexford was one of the few exceptions. But in 1943, for example, out of Labour´s 16 TDs only 4 were Dublin TDs. In 1965, out of 21 TDs, 6 are Dublin TDs. In 1969, however, Labour loses four seats – not only that, nine of them are Dublin TDs. (Interestingly enough, Labour in Dublin gain seats in the new council estate areas built in the 1960s. These estates were built as a direct response to the drop-off in emigration in Ireland in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The same period saw a generation of Irish people returning from England.)

But the history of the party does not begin in 1969. Also, Labour followed the grand tradition of Irish politics: that is, clientism. A lot of constituencies were one labour seat constituencies because the sitting TD didn’t want the competition. The idea of building the party didn’t always came first. And that’s hardly a Dublin-centric causality.

I’d be leaning towards thinking that the senior labour member who spoke down in UCC in 1968/69 may have been voicing a genuine concern – or be may have been playing to the gallery a little as well, indulging in that great Irish tradition of blaming “those boyos” up in Dublin for everything! 🙂


17. Conor McCabe - March 26, 2008

“In 1969, however, Labour loses four seats – not only that, nine of them are Dublin TDs.”

What I meant to day was that of the 17 elected Labour TDs in 1969, 9 are Dublin TDs.


18. A Simple Spark - March 26, 2008

Maybe it is because I am viewing it from all the way over in the US but it floors me that the Labour Party would feature a Starry Plough as recently as 40 years ago.
I didn’t think anyone but fairly serious Republicans claimed that flag from the 60’s until now. I guess if you saw the 70’s as going socialist why not.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a favorite flag of mine.


19. WorldbyStorm - March 26, 2008

Me too. As it happens if you look at Labour material right into the 1990s individual TDs used it on their electoral leaflets during that period. IIRC the Labour Public Relations Unit ran the 87 campaign, but during 1992 it was Finlay and Spring who decided upon a ‘united’ campaign using the ‘rose’ which was literally the old Swedish Social Democrat logo. But Finlay once admitted that as late as the late 1990s there were those who continued to use the starry plough. I’ve no real problem with the rose, but I tend to think that a combination of it with the starry plough would have been much better.


20. CL - March 26, 2008

The Irish Labour Party was never a socialist party. It was organized as the political wing of the trade union movement to promote a better deal for the workers within the capitalist system. So when Corish and Taft are speaking of wealth, growth, enterprise and efficiency, they are speaking of these under capitaliism, and to uncritically do so is merely to be a booster of capitalism.
To discuss and promote any of these concepts and their capitalist reality without also discussing distribution and its reality is illogical and politically regressive.
Economies of scale under capitalism merely lead to monopolization, not the same thing as efficiency.

‘Efficiency’ by itself is just the relationship between objectives and means of achieving them, between input and output. The nazi death camps were extremely efficient. So to say that one is in favour of ‘efficiency’ is a meaningless statement from a social point of view.

When there is a grotesquely skewed distribution of income, ( as there is under really existing capitalism) to uncritically say that ‘we too’ as socialists and progressives, favour wealth and growth, is merely to advocate conservative economic ideology, and gives a bad name to social democracy.
Such superficial analysis is one of the reasons the Labour Party is in its current position.


21. WorldbyStorm - March 26, 2008

But surely, to propose that “So to say that one is in favour of ‘efficiency’ is a meaningless statement from a social point of view” is much like saying that we can propose a socialist or Social Democrat efficiency? I don’t think that to say we favour wealth and growth (although the latter in a very critical fashion) is to somehow align or advocate conservative positions. Hence my point about reappropriating these things. We believe in a specific sort of wealth and growth. No shame in that.

Incidentally, you may well be right that the LP wasn’t and indeed isn’t a socialist party, but since the definition of that term is so broad and since it’s the only LP we’ve got I tend to think we’ve got to work with it, as we do with the GP, SF, etc, etc… Incidentally, I’m entirely sure that Michael Taft (whatever about Corish) isn’t speaking uncritically about these things. Notes on the Front does little but speak critically about the conservative economic ideology that predominates.


22. Garibaldy - March 27, 2008

Interesting that no-one seems to have mentioned the disgusting reference to the greatest of the modern Popes. Do me a favour.


23. NollaigO - March 27, 2008

Can you give us another hint, Garibaldy ?

There are many claimants to that title , both the real and metaphorical ones!


24. Garibaldy - March 27, 2008

It’s in the speech. He names Pope John. The seventies will be socialist. But still very, very Catholic.

I am, of course, a Catholic first, an Irishman second, and a socialist third. Oh wait, that’s right. I’m not. Hence why I have not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Labour Party.


25. ejh - March 27, 2008

John XXIII was, to be fair, an immense improvement on most of his predecessors and successors. You’ll not hear much from me in favour of the Papacy, but you might try and see reference to him in the context of the office and of the times.


26. CL - March 27, 2008

To talk about wealth and growth without discussing distribution is a conservative position because it privileges the status quo. likewise with efficiency.
Its also not very logical. With a different distribution you get different wealth and growth and ‘efficiency’ outcomes.
Aping conservatives with an uncritical advocacy of growth, wealth, ‘enterprise’, and efficiency, and to believe that somehow by uttering these Reaganite buzzwords that one is reclaiming the discourse from reaction, is a nonsense.
And when Taft used these words above in reference to Corish he was not referring to Chile or to Communist China: both he and Corish were using these words in the context of capitalist Ireland.
Such words and all economic terms carry heavy ideological freight. The task of the left should surely be to debunk such ideological ploys and not to uncritically propagate such feel-good nostrums.


27. Ben - March 27, 2008

Regardless of one’s philosophical, scientific or religious beliefs, Pope John XXIII was one of the greatest modern popes.


28. WorldbyStorm - March 27, 2008

I also suspect that had he survived longer John XXIII would have been considerably more open to further significant change.

CL, there’s is some truth in what you say. But I still think that if you shut out those terms you’re in danger of losing them to others. For example, they all existed long before Reagan, and will long after. It’s like ‘democracy’. If we are to take that line then we discard democracy, but of course we don’t, we use it and we know what we mean. Have you read Michaels other work? It’s far from an uncritical position on any of these terms.

Incidentally, Chile under Allende was also capitalist but transitioning towards socialism. A crucial distinction. How else could Corish, for all the genuflections to the Catholic Church (and let’s put this in a bit of context for the times, the Church was still enormously powerful in societal terms then – and still was when I and my comrades were campaigning on social rights issues throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s) do otherwise? The very concept of democratic participation in economic matters is socialist – no, it’s more than that, it’s actually a radical rebuke to neo-liberalism.

As for feel good nostrums. Well, Gramsci teaches us how hegemonies develop and can be subverted, and part of a process of subversion is to rework the meaning of exactly and precisely these terms…


29. Garibaldy - March 27, 2008

Actually we can see this in the context of the time if there was any sign whatsoever that the Labour Party had a decent social and economic agenda. But it didn’t. Craven, in every sense of the word. And this was 1968 not 1938. Compare it to the Republican Movement at the time – that is why I am being so harsh.


30. WorldbyStorm - March 27, 2008

But the Republican Movement couldn’t even sell that to a significant portion of its own people, and some fairly leftist people went with PSF. One can indeed be harsh, but one also has to recognise that the overall agenda was socialist – at least on paper.


31. CL - March 27, 2008

I’m merely saying that uncritical adoption of these terms is dangerous. I do not dispute Comrade Taft’s integrity nor his important work, just in this case he is on shaky ground. I also believe that Corish and other Labourites were and are honourable people and had to operate in a repressive religious and political environment.
I am mindful that when Connolly and other socialists founded the Labour Party in 1912 they made it explicitly non-socialist for a very good reason. Leo xii’s Rerum Novarum was the ruling dogma and the crozier ruled: after all Connolly had already founded an explicitly socialist party (One could make the case that Connolly and comrades were the first ‘entryists’)
Neither do I rule out cooperation with the Labour Party of any other left formation: the task at hand is too important for the memory of past dissension, or present hair-splitting, to retard solidarity.
But yet I do believe its a mistake to adopt, uncritically, the ideology-laden verbiage of rightist discourse. The intellectual and political response to the The Great Depression and its aftermath debunked the shibboleths of conservative economics. The Thatcher/Reagan revolutions ‘re-bunked’ many of these. Comrades we should not assist the re-bunking process: so I’ll leave it there, (except for my post about the ‘axis of evil’ on the Sign of the times, U.S. health care thread.) Solidarity.


32. WorldbyStorm - March 27, 2008

The thing is I completely agree with what you say here, CL, even as regards to appropriating rightwing terms on their own terms. It’s just I also think we have to fashion our own values into the language…often in order to explain what we mean, and that means a reappropriative process in certain instances. Perhaps that means we prefix with democratic socialist/socialist/ social democratic and explain in greater detail?


33. Garibaldy - March 27, 2008

It couldn’t sell it to lots of its members. But most of the people it couldn’t sell it to were in hoc to a Catholic nationalist vision of the world. Good riddance.

Religion and politics should not mix. And no-one who claims to stand in the tradition of either Tone or socialist should suggest they should.


34. Michael Taft - March 27, 2008

CL, I hope you will participate fully on my own blog with comments on the particular issues raised. I think that once we get down to concrete solutions to the problems that the conservative consensus has created for all of us, we might find constructive common ground. As you rightly say, the task is too important not to try to find, together, imaginative ways towards a fully developed social democratic / democratic socialist economy.


35. Michael Taft - March 27, 2008

Oh, and NollaigO – your story about Comrade Tully: see what happens when you lose the art of heckling. You also lose the art of the riposte. Everyone loses.


36. Conor McCabe - March 27, 2008

Garibaldy, I think you’re reading way too much into the Pope John reference. It’s one line from a speech. It would be different if Corish had said that labour policy should be based on church policy. He didn’t. In fact, seen in the context of the speech, what Corish is actually doing is saying that even the Pope recognizes the value of certain socialistic principles. I mean, it is a speech so the idea is to convince. It sounds to me like he’s using the pope to back up his argument rather then anything else..

From page nine:

“Our philosophy is based on a set of basic beliefs which are shared by millions of socialists throughout the world and which bind them together even when there are differences as the best means to achieve the common objectives. In the first place, socialism is a belief in freedom and in the right of every man to develop as he wishes. It applies not just to political freedom but also to the principle of economic freedom which recognizes that all men have a right to participate in decisions affecting their livelihood, whether in the workshop, the office or the farm.

The greatest of modern Popes, Pope John, endorsed this principle by saying that enterprises should become true communities in which workers have a say in the efficient running and development of their firms. They are not to be considered as servants who were forced to keep silent in matters intimately affecting their welfare. Work should build up responsibility and develop people and, because of that, socialists have always put economic democracy on a par with political democracy when outlining their views on freedom.”

Corish is saying that even Pope endorses, in part, our vision of socialism – he is not saying that Irish socialists should endorse the vision of the pope!

I completely agree that religion and politics should never mix – I think, though, in this instance, that Corish was using a rhetorical device rather than offering a call for a remarrying of church and state.


37. Garibaldy - March 28, 2008


Maybe I’d accept that if he hadn’t made the statement I alluded to above about his definition of himself as Catholic, then Irish, then socialist.


38. Conor McCabe - March 28, 2008

Oh. When did he say that? Didn’t know about that.


39. Garibaldy - March 28, 2008

1969 it seems. So not long after that speech. Here is a link quoting him (p.19 I think it is)

Click to access document13.pdf

Also, on the old WP website (www.workers-party.org), there is a thing called something like aspects of the history and ideology of the workers’ party which also quotes it.


40. Garibaldy - March 28, 2008

Tried this already so apoliges if it appears twice. He seems to have said it in 1969, so not long after this speech.

It is cited here

Click to access document13.pdf

and also on the old WP website ( http://www.workers-party.org ) there is something called something like aspects of the history, ideology and politics of the WP. It is quoted there too.


41. Garibaldy - March 28, 2008

Click to access document13.pdf

It’s here on page 19


42. WorldbyStorm - March 28, 2008

John Horgan’s book “Labour the Price of Power” seems to indicate that it was possibly early in the 1960s and that his thinking evolved from that point, on the other hand the 13th Countess Markievicz Memorial Lecture dates it to 1969. That seems too late. So it would be interesting to get the date pinned down.


43. Garibaldy - March 28, 2008

I tried to answer Conor’s question but the post isn’t showing up. Got the same date from the lecture WBS did.


44. Garibaldy - March 28, 2008

Can you not post links up here? Maybe that’s why my earlier attempts didn’t work.


45. Conor McCabe - March 28, 2008

Garibaldy, Links in comments sometimes end up as spam. It happens over on dublinopinion all the time. But thanks for that anyway. I must get my hands on that memorial lecture alright. Cheers.


46. Garibaldy - March 28, 2008

if you google the phrase catholic first, irishman second, socialist third you get it.


47. Conor McCabe - March 28, 2008

Thanks for that Garibaldy. Found the article and quote (Matt Merrigan says it’s from 1969). Had a look at the newspaper archives online and can’t find any mention of the quote before 1980 – nothing unusual about that at all. What I did find, though, was a lot of commentary in the Irish Times in 1968 basically slagging Corish off for what they called his “post-christian” phase. They were making fun of his new-found zeal for socialism.

All of this has me thinking that as soon as I get back to Ireland I’m going to delve into the 1968 election – the build up, course and consequences. All in all, it’s fascinating stuff.


48. Garibaldy - March 28, 2008

Yeah it’s very interesting. Guess it was the times as much as anything else. Maybe an influx of new blood too. If Merrigan is right, then maybe it was a reaction to what you are talking about. Regardless of when he said it, still a disgrace.


49. WorldbyStorm - March 28, 2008

Conor, that would seem to indicate that he didn’t say it in 1969 and that it long predated that. I think, disgraceful or not, that the context and the date is important here. We need to find both to make a judgement on it.


50. NollaigO - March 28, 2008

The election was in 1969 (June?). Though I was in a university republican club at the time, I voted Labour and election night was a painful experience.
While I left Ireland in early 1970 and while return visits (mainly outside Dublin) give very partial insights, the decline in influence of the Catholic church since the 1960s is obviously enormous. So I would be charitable to Brendan Corish’s “defensive formulations” when advocating socialism. Was he a political thinker ahead of his time? Sin ceist eile.


51. Pearse McLennan - March 28, 2008

Is that Nollaig O’Gadhra?


52. Conor McCabe - March 28, 2008

There seems to have been a backlash in rural Ireland following the labour party’s move to make the 1970s socialist – in Dublin, it seems to have done them a lot of good. NollaigO I’d be thinking of the timing of the election – June 1969 – and the influence of events in the North. Could you throw any light on that for me? I mean, did FF gain from events in the north? Or was it the economy – the late 1960s being a a bit of a highwater in economic terms for Ireland. Or was it both!!


53. Death of Wolfe Tone. Irish at Gettysburg. Labour Leader Brendan Corish at Today in Irish History | Today In Irish History - November 19, 2012

[…] READ: Blog article on Brendan Corish […]


54. Anonymous - April 8, 2013

[…] It would do Labour people on here a lot of good to have a look back, even as far as 1969, The New Republic There was so much new thinking, not New Labour stuff, and new people, which eventually went […]


55. Gettysburg Address – Death of Wolfe Tone – Labor Leader Brendan Corish | Today In Irish History - November 19, 2013

[…] READ: Blog article on Brendan Corish […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: