HEN I was in my 20s, a Labour Minister, Frank Cluskey, introduced the first payment for what were called then “unmarried mothers”. The introduction of the payment, along with other major reforms, had profound effects. As well as lifting an entire generation of women out of dependence, it began to end a stigma that had lasted in Ireland for generations.
In that same decade, Cluskey’s party fought for, and ultimately achieved, the principle of equal pay for women. It wasn’t achieved without battle or compromise — the entire apparatus of government and virtually every employer in Ireland lobbied against the measure, and it was delayed for several years because Ireland was then in the grip of a disastrous economic collapse, caused in the main by oil prices and shortages.
As Leader of the Party, Cluskey was the first political leader in the Republic of Ireland to enunciate the principle of consent as a core value in determining the future of Northern Ireland.
When I was in my 30s, Labour was again in Government. Again it faced a massive economic crisis, caused in the main this time by Charles Haughey’s wild overspending and by the election promises of his predecessor Jack Lynch.
Throughout that difficult period Labour prevented the closure of what we now know as Bord Gais. It built thousands of houses, kept the health budget at a constant level, and through its then leader Dick Spring made a significant behind-the-scenes contribution to the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Towards the end of that decade, the party, more or less single-handedly, gave the Presidency back to the people, and enabled the election of Mary Robinson.
When I was in my 40s, Labour played a major role in, among other things, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the introduction of rational family planning legislation, the reform of family law and the passage of the divorce referendum, and the development of the first rights-based strategy for people with intellectual disabilities (a strategy shamefully ignored by Fianna Fáil when it came back to office).
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In those years Dick Spring also led the team that negotiated and drafted the Downing Street Declaration, which led to the first IRA ceasefire — and which effectively enshrined the principle of consent, first enunciated by Cluskey nearly a quarter of a century earlier, in international law.
In its most recent time in office, again in the teeth of an extraordinary recession, again caused by gross Fianna Fáil mismanagement, the party once more gave the country a President to be proud of. And Ireland, largely through Labour’s persistence, became the first country in the world where a decision of the people enabled the introduction of same-sex marriage.
Throughout all those years — throughout my adult life — the Party has been a party of peace. It has never had any connection with violence, nor carried any torch for violence. It has been a party that has been free of corruption — no unhealthy associations with big business, no under-the-counter dealings. And it has been a party of democratic values, where debate and dissent has been valued.
Again and again, the party has been voted into office when there was a crisis — an economic mess to be managed or a crisis of accountability and trust. Again and again the party has been swept out of office when the problems were fixed. Many times in its history it has faced the question of whether it can survive. I can still remember one of the longest nights of my life, in February 1987, when it seemed inevitable that the party of which I was a member and a staff member, would be doomed. At the end of that night the party struggled to a miserable 6.5% of the vote, winning 12 seats by the skin of its teeth. But it survived with its values intact. And it came back.
Now the party once again faces the same kind of existential crisis, its economic and social achievements ignored, its failings magnified, its mistakes thrown in its face again and again, its honourable intent denied. It is surrounded by indifference and implacable hostility.
I know this will sound to some of you as if I’m bleating about the unfairness of it all. I’m not.
Politics is never about what you did in the past, it’s about what people will believe you’re capable of in the future. Politics is never about what people owe to any political figure or party, it’s about what parties can inspire people to do.
Parties get rewarded when they get that right, and beaten up when they get it wrong. That’s not unfair — it’s just politics.
I’ve never, in this column, told anyone which political party they should vote for. You have a right to vote whatever way you wish and I do urge you to vote. You also have an absolute right, once you’ve voted, to have that vote respected, whether others agree with it or not.
I’ve voted Labour in every general election since I got the vote, and I’ll be proud to do it again for Carrie Smith in the Dun Laoghaire constituency on Friday. I’ll be doing it for reasons of history, tradition and achievement. But more than that I’ll be doing it for the future.
The phrase that has stuck in my head, ever since I read it first when I was 16, is Jim Larkin’s “burning desire to close the gap between what ought to be and what is”. I’ve been motivated by that phrase ever since — and I’ve failed time out of number to put it into practice in my own life, despite my best efforts.
But it’s what I believe the Labour Party is for — to close the gap between what ought to be and what is. That’s why the party’s core values, of freedom, equality, community, and democracy are so important. It’s why every time the Party is beaten, it has to dust itself down and start all over again.
Of course the party has made mistakes — name me the political party that hasn’t. And of course I’ve been critical of some of their choices. But I’ve never been in the ranks of those who want to see Labour fail. Some want it so much that they don’t care if Ireland inherits the most conservative government it has ever had.
They may well achieve that on Friday. And when the next government puts the interests of big money first, and pays nothing but lip service to the needs of those without a voice, it will be Labour that stands up to them, as it always has. The party may be back in opposition — all the opinion polls are pointing that way — and it may struggle to rebuild.
But it’s done it before and it will do it again. There’s no arrogance in asserting that Labour can and should be proud of the contribution it has made to Ireland. Faced with an economy that’s growing, but a politics that will more than likely be led to the right, as the phrase national interest is replaced by economic stability, the biggest challenge now is for Labour to reassert its values once more. That’s as important as it has ever been.