The ITGWU(Irish Transport and General Workers Union) was built up by William O Brien. By 1921 it had 100,000 members. O Brien also dominated the 'Irish Trade Union Congress' where all unions met to co-ordinate labour policy. The Labour party, now lead by Thomas Johnson, didn't contest the 1918 general election. As a result the party was left out of the Dáil during the vital years of the independence struggle.
The 'Treaty' divided the Labour party. Some extreme socialists sided with the Republicans. O Brien and Johnson encouraged its members to support the Treaty. In the 1922 general election the party won 17 seats. However there were a number of strikes during the first year and a loss in support got the party. In the 1923 election Labour only won 14 seats. Until 1927 the party was the major opposition party in the Dáil until Fianna Fáil TDss took their seats. They attacked the lack of social reform by the Cumann na nGaedhael government. The party continued to lose support from farmers, the Catholic Church and other conservative groups.
In 1923 Larkin returned to Ireland. He hoped to take over the leadership role he had left, however O Brien resisted him. Larkin sided with the more radical elements of the party and in 1924 he broke away and founded the Workers' Union of Ireland. Despite its small size the Labour Party has taken part in a number of coalition governments. It supported the first government of Eamon de Valera in 1932 because both parties had similar policies. In the 1940's it looked as if Labour was about to replace Fine Gael as the main opposition party. In the 1943 general election the party won 17 seats, its best result since 1927. The Larkin-O Brien split still continued however.
The split became personal and worsened over time. In the 1940s the hatred caused a split in the Labour party and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. In 1944 O Brien left and founded the National Labour Party. O Brien also withdrew the ITGWU from the Irish Trade Unions Congress and set up his oqn congress. The split damaged the Labour movement in the 1944 general election. It was only after Larkin's death in 1947 that an attempt at unity could be made.
From 1948-1951 and from 1954-1957 the Labour Party became the second largest partner in the two inter-party governments. William Norton, the Labour leader, became Tánaiste and Minister for Social Welfare on both occasions. In 1960 Brendan Corish became the new Labour leader. As leader he advocated and introduced more socialist policies to the party. Between 1973 and 1977 the Labour Party formed a coalition government with Fine Gael. The coalition partners lost the subsequent election in 1977. Corish resigned immediately after the defeat.
During the 1980s Labour formed a coalition government with Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil then ruled and the newly founded Progressive Democrats. In 1990 Mary Robinson became the first Labour Party President of Ireland. Not only was it the first time a woman held the office but it was the first time, apart from Douglas Hyde, that a non-Fianna Fáil candidate was elected. Mary Robinson became one of the most outspoken and active Presidents in the history of the state.
In 1993 the Labour Party returned to government forming a coalition with Fianna Fáil. Dick Spring of Labour became Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs. After only one year the government fell and a new coalition was formed. Between 1994 and 1997 Fine Gael, the Labour Party, and Democratic Left formed a 'Rainbow Coalition'. Dick Spring of Labour became Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs again.
Unfortunately for Labour, who presented the 1997 election, held just weeks after spectacular victories for the French Parti Socialiste and Tony Blair's New Labour, as the first ever choice between a government of the left and one of the right, the electorate opted for the centre and two "civil war" parties picked up votes and seats. Labour were once again out in the cold. A disastrous performance in the subsequent election for President of Ireland led to Spring's resignation as party leader.
In opposition the Labour Party merged with Democratic Left, keeping the name of the larger partner.
In 1997 Ruairí Quinn became the new Labour leader. He resigned as leader in 2002 following the poor results for the Labour Party in the general election. Former senior DL TD Pat Rabbitte became the new leader, the first to be elected directly by the members of the party. Some commentators speculate that Labour could overtake Fine Gael as the major party in a coalition government after the next general election. However others say that there will never be a Labour Taoiseach in Ireland.
Leaders of the Labour Party
|Leader||Years||Period as Tánaiste|
|William Norton||1932-1960||1948-1951, 1954-1957|
|Michael O Leary||1981-1982||1981-1982|
|Dick Spring||1982-1997||1982-1986, 1992-1997|
Since its foundation the Labour Party has attracted a group of people who wanted to see beyond the nationalist loyalties of the two main parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) to more important issues such as social justice.