The Oxford Companion to Irish History

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Labour Court, created by the Industrial Relations Act ( 1946), one of a number of measures by which * Lemass sought to improve relations with the trade union movement in the immediate postwar period. Its main functions have been to appoint conciliation officers (later industrial relations officers) who can mediate in industrial conflicts, and to investigate disputes and recommend terms of settlement. Although the court has the power to summon witnesses under penalty and take evidence under oath, these have never been used, and its recommendations remain non-binding.

Labour Party. 'Labour' candidates had contested local elections since 1899, and the Irish Trade Union Congress (see IRISH CONGRESS OF TRADE UNIONS) had voted in 1912 to form a Labour Party. Two years later the congress changed its name to ' Irish Trades Union Congress and Labour Party', but no party organization was established and the movement stood aside at the general elections of 1918 and 1921. The party enjoyed a dramatic success at the general election of 1922, when it won 21.3 per cent of the vote and all but one of its eighteen candidates were elected (see PACT ELECTION). The party was never able to match this performance subsequently, and has normally won in the region of 10 per cent of the vote at general elections (though dropping as low as 5.7 per cent in 1933 and reaching a record 19.3 per cent in 1992). The formal organizational unity of the party and the *trade union movement lasted until 1930, when the party and congress separated.

The weakness of the Labour Party has been remarkable from a comparative perspective. One explanation, that 20th-century Irish society long remained agrarian and lacked a sizeable industrial working class, is unconvincing; powerful socialist movements developed elsewhere (for example, in Scandinavia) in similar conditions, based substantially on a rural proletariat. The prevalence of conservative, Catholic values can offer little more than a partial explanation; this has not been incompatible with a powerful strand of political radicalism in Ireland, and has coexisted with socialism in other predominantly Catholic societies. The fundamental explanation appears to he in the dominance of the national question, on which the party had difficulty in taking an unambiguous and distinctive stance; this issue was a central one at elections for many years after 1918. Strangely, industrial workers have consistently been more attracted to * Fianna Fáil than to the Labour Party.

In addition to being much weaker than its west European counterparts, the Irish Labour Party has been rather less radical. Party policy has normally been reformist, though it has occasionally made more explicit use of *socialist rhetoric, as in the mid-1930s and from the late 1960s. It has included a range of opinions on the national question, and in the domain of *foreign policy has been attached to the policy of military *neutrality.

The party's early leaders, Thomas *Johnson ( 1918-27), T. J. O'Connell ( 1927-32), and William Norton ( 1932-60), were well known for their trade union involvement, and in many ways saw the party as the political arm of the organized labour movement. Their successors, Brendan Corish ( 1960-77), Frank Cluskey ( 1977-81), and Michael O'Leary ( 1981-2), though coming from similar backgrounds, tended to have a more ambitious vision of the party's electoral potential, and to be less cautious on policy matters. Dick Spring, who took over as leader in 1982, brought with him the image of a professional politician rather than a trade unionist, but he was only a little more successful than his predecessors in shaking off the image of his party as a sectional one with a strong regional base in Munster and Leinster. It is, however, of some significance that in recent elections the party has managed to increase its representation significantly in cities (including Dublin) outside its traditional area of core support.

Gallagher, Michael, The Irish Labour Party in Transition 1957-82 ( 1982). JC

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