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  • A Slightly Revolutionary Party:Labour and Parliamentary Politics in the Early Free State
  • Jason Knirck

In the run-up to the 1922 Dáil election, the first conducted after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a Labour newspaper warned voters that, "No matter what is happening don't let anything discourage you. We are a young party and to a great extent we are unskilled in electioneering. We shall make blunders—many of them and often, too, and some of them may be so serious as to be fatal."1 This statement, which echoed Pearse's famous declaration that the Volunteers may mistakenly shoot the wrong people at first, both lowered expectations for the fledgling party and reminded voters of its decidedly non- parliamentary roots. Much of the historical analysis of the Labour Party's parliamentary launch has focused on its electoral failures and its unwillingness to articulate a radical message, but the party actually played a crucial role in the creation and steadying of Irish democracy, despite its paucity of deputies. For one thing, the party's participation in the post-revolutionary Dáils during the abstention of anti-Treatyites provided greater legitimacy to the parliament as a representative multiparty body. Labour also took on the role of a broad opposition party, ranging beyond its staple socioeconomic issues to criticize the government on its foreign policy, its record on civil liberties, and its commitment to democracy.

In accepting the Treaty but opposing the government, Labour modeled the notion of a loyal opposition. This feature had been noticeably absent from Irish politics in previous decades, with the Irish Party seeking to secede from Westminster and the Sinn Féin leadership frowning on open dissent during the revolution. The development of a loyal opposition normalized parliamentary behavior and routinely forced the government to defend its policies in the Dáil. In addition, the presence of a loyal opposition helped to separate Ireland from other new European countries in the 1920s that had left- and right-wing parties [End Page 39] openly seeking to destroy democratic states. Without a true foil for Cumann na nGaedheal in the Dáil during the anti-Treatyites' abstention, it is difficult to see how democracy could have taken root in Ireland as quickly as it did. Labour was the only party that could fulfill this function: the Farmers only opposed the government on a small number of issues, and the independents were too disparate to effectively mimic a party.

After some Labour elements supported James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in 1916, Labour stayed on the political sidelines during the 1918 and 1921 elections. A divided party decided to enter the parliamentary fray in 1922, but party leaders expressed significant reservations about the future and efficacy of parliamentary government. The civil war deepened Labour's commitment to electoral democracy, as it found itself defending the authority of the Dáil against both republican abstention and violence and Cumann na nGaedheal authoritarianism. In making this transition—in essence, a shift from the policies of Connolly to those of Thomas Johnson—Labour had to carve out a role for itself in the Dáil that bridged Labour skepticism of parliamentary politics, a desire to make inroads into Sinn Féin electoral dominance, and the artificial situation created by anti-Treatyite abstention. The ways in which Labour did this reveal much about the political assumptions of Labour and the fragility of democracy in the early Free State.


More than forty years ago, Brian Farrell authored a seminal study of the founding of Dáil Éireann and concluded that Ireland had a well-developed parliamentary tradition and that the Rising and the revolution did little to shake the faith of the Irish political class in democratic and parliamentary institutions.2 Tom Garvin, most particularly in 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (2005), identified a number of key elements that augmented this democratic tradition, including the support of the Catholic church (unlike in Italy and France), the partial prerevolutionary settlement of the land question, and the fact that Partition had homogenized the Free State religiously and culturally.3 Despite the presence of these enabling factors, Garvin concludes that...


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