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Cluskey and the Labour Dilemma

Cluskey: the Conscience of the Left,  Dr Kieran Jack McGinley (Ed.), Uniskim, Dublin.

Reviewed by D.R. O’Connor Lysaght

21 January 2016

To the ancient Greeks, humanity did not progress but regress. Its development passed through four periods. First, there was the Golden Age of human perfection and happiness which ended when Pandora opened her box and released evil into the world. Then came the Silver Age in which people struggled against the evil unsuccessfully. The flood came and washed nearly all of them away leaving the fittest to staff the Bronze Age (where old myth begins to be reinforced by historical fact). The problem here was that the best Bronze Age people were too strong for their own good and destroyed each other in struggles culminating in the Trojan War. This left the survivors to inhabit the Iron Age, also known as the present, in which vice and evil became the norm and there was nothing to be done about it.

The history of the Irish Labour Party can be seen as a similar historic procession. In the beginning, there was something of a Golden Age of working class agitation beginning with Larkin and spreading through the island bringing promise of working class state power aborted by leaders who saw the way forward as one of seeking electoral victory to take government power in a bourgeois state. The victory of this reformist strategy put the party in its Silver Age, abandoning the organisational forms of syndicalism and conforming to the cultural norms set by the dominant religion in the twenty-six county state whilst maintaining many socialistic economic demands. (This was shown in the ministerial careers of such as Tadgh Murphy, Michael Keyes and Jimmy Tully. Murphy defended the literary censorship, Keyes appeared on the pro-Franco Christian Front platform (He claimed he didn’t know it was pro-Franco), Tully was an acknowledged bully of party dissidents. All caused cheap housing to be built, unlike their politically correct successors.  The party’s frustration in its experience as a minority in government in the fifties’ economic crisis stimulated its change to try to become a truly socialist, albeit reformist, party. This Bronze Age initiative diminished in force after the failure to break through in the ‘69 election and in fear of the struggle in the north affecting disaffection here. The party began to row back on those parts of its programme that seemed most utopian (and least agreeable to prospective bourgeois allies), whilst adjusting to take in liberal reforms that would have been rejected by earlier generations. Finally, the process resulted in today’s Iron Age party: a liberal political unit distinguished from the honest bourgeois bodies only by its greater openness to liberal reform (but never, quite, their insurance, democratic non-sectarian education) and demands for welfare expansion, such as a reincarnated Bismark would consider inadequate.

Frank Cluskey was very much part of his party’s Bronze Age. He was both an effective initiator of welfare reforms and opposed to the eighth (anti-abortion) amendment to the twenty-six county constitution. What is more, he was probably the outstanding figure of the period, as Heracles was in Greek period (and he did not have Heracles’ psychoses, either.). Unlike his predecessor as labour leader, Brendan Corish, he did not concentrate his attention on overall strategy at the expense of the details that would dispel it. The strength of this book is that it shows this. The contributions relate his social welfare reforms, his idea for a double (Unionist and nationalist veto in the six county province, his stand for the nationalisation of the Dublin Gas Company and his 1980 redrafting of Labour’s socialist principles. In describing the last, particularly, Brendan Halligan laments Labour’s failure to develop that work in three decades. 

The book’s weakness is probably inevitable, given the composition of its contributors; it does not show the limitations of Cluskey’s pre-eminence. His social welfare reforms made him a major success story in the ‘seventies Cosgrave coalition, completely overshadowing his boss, Corish (Corish’ ministerial career was, to say the least, flakey), yet they remained dependent on what was and is still a capitalist economy. Similarly, his ultimately justified stand for nationalising the Gas Company ran against the capitalist grain, which his party was sustaining by its coalition policies. The acceptance of this by his successors provides the logical justification for their refusal to build on his 1980 statement. Finally, though building on the honourable civil rights tradition, his idea of a double veto on Northern Ireland’s development externally and internally, came up against such problems as the reluctance (for different reasons) of both British and Irish governments to guarantee it practically, the fact that, accordingly, any such settlement had to involve the I.R.A., its campaign having become the main justification for it, and that the mutual internal understanding that such a settlement was aimed to produce would be likely to take two generations to achieve. (It must be added that, if it survives, the present peace process will take even longer.)

As is normal in such a symposium, the book’s quality varies between the contributors. Some are simply varieties of hagiography, deserved perhaps but monotonous. Brian Kenny’s piece is more about the varying forms of Dublin South-Central than about Cluskey to the extent that his subject’s campaigns in Dublin Central (and that constituency’s relationship to South-Central) are ignored. On the positive side, there are Sister Stanislaus Kennedy’s account of her struggles to follow the original teachings of Jesus of Nazareth despite the opposition, in turn, of her order and of Fianna Fail and Fionnuala Richardson’s informative if uncritical account of working with Cluskey in the European parliament. Brendan Halligan straddles the centre, combining a sharp analysis of his subject’s political background with a rather starry-eyed account of the period when he worked with Cluskey in the Labour Party leadership.  

The editing is rather loose. McGinley allows for repetition and omissions. While examples are given of Cluskey’s wit, this reviewer missed at least one significant remark. This was not his most famous (too famous, perhaps?) comment when Fianna Fail selected the lacklustre Paddy Lalor to direct its 1987 election campaign (‘There’s confidence for you!’He was proved correct.). More significant was his evaluation of the value of canvassing: ‘If you don’t get 90% support on the doorstep, you are in deep trouble.’, a comment that helps illuminate his approach to the tactic. Also missing is any evaluation of his relationship with Conor Cruise O’Brien. He is said to have been O’Brien’s main ally in the Oireachtas party in the early ‘seventies, yet as leader he was responsible for isolating him by asserting his own sole authority as spokesperson on the north. Was this the result of his divergence from O’Brien’s belief in permanent Direct Rule as against his Dual Veto? Presumably, but it would be useful to know for sure. Again, there are three versions given as to how Michael O’Leary nominated him as his successor in the European parliament. Halligan praises it as a ‘noble gesture’, though there doesn’t seem to have been any alternative. Richardson and Kenny reveal the fact that it took O’Leary a while to sign the relevant document. Richardson excuses him, stating that he ‘was very much involved in negotiations for Government’. Kenny quotes John Horgan in telling how Barry Desmond had to force O’Leary to act. There is not really a discrepancy here,just the effect of pieces of an unassembled jigsaw. A final point, more important than it seems is that the first parliamentary leader of the Labour Party is named throughout as Thomas Johnston, rather than Thomas Johnson. This would not matter were there not a contemporary Scottish Labour leader called Thomas Johnston who edited the paper ‘Forward’ to which Connolly contributed and who was later to serve as Scottish Secretary in Churchill’s wartime coalition. This reviewer knows, from experience, how the presence or absence of that letter ‘t’ has confused a number of people. 

Frank Cluskey was a good person, and as good a leader as Labour had any right to expect. If he could claim to be its conscience, he performed that function within guidelines set by the organisation itself. Had he tried to lead it to take state power for his class, he would have been rejected by it. That was his tragedy, not his 1981 general election defeat. As it is, he remained a decent social democrat and a more effective one than his party heirs today. 

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