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Review: Democratic Left -- The Life and Death of an Irish Political Party by Kevin Rafter

Now that Eamon Gilmore has become Tanaiste, as leader of the Labour Party, it is worth reflecting on the long and extraordinary journey that he and his colleagues have made from the days of Democratic Left and before that the Workers Party.

In many ways, it is a journey to the centre from the left, and even the hard left, and reflects the wider trend in Europe and elsewhere as doctrinaire Marxists became exposed to the realities of market economics and the essentially conservative nature of most electorates.

It is a journey also made to the centre by those on the radical right, incidentally, especially those whose almost theological belief in the free markets has been betrayed by the destruction of casino-style stock markets, globalisation and rogue bankers. Just look what happened to us. This is a reality many on the right have yet to reflect on, as has been pointed out by Gene Kerrigan, among others, on this newspaper's back page.

In this sense, Democratic Left (DL) were an especially European phenomenon, and their evolution towards a milder social democracy was in tandem with developments in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.

There was also the lingering and increasingly damaging association between the Workers Party and the official IRA, from whence the party had come, after the 1969 split in the Republican movement. But there was no doubt about the tiny Democratic Left party's talent with energetic performers such as Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte, Liz McManus, Proinsias De Rossa and Kathleen Lynch, recently so impressive on RTE's The Frontline, talking about private-enterprise start-ups, of all things. Now there's a change. The evolution of this political story has been expertly laid out here by political commentator and historian Kevin Rafter, in what is a fascinating and authoritative account, no less readable for its scholarship and breath.

The highlight for the party was undoubtedly its participation with Fine Gael and Labour in the Rainbow-Coalition government of 1994 to 1997, now regarded as a most successful coalition which introduced social legislation, stabilised the finances before the Tiger's bubble and bolstered the peace process (Albert's FF had been too soft on Sinn Fein). Indeed, the Rainbow offers a model for a harmonious and effective coalition, depending, as this one did, on a spirit of genuine goodwill and cooperation -- especially between party leaders John Bruton and de Rossa -- and a mutual determination to succeed. And, of course, to keep out Fianna Fail, a motivation which had a similar galvanising effect on bringing together a motley-coloured coalition of everyone but FF, in 1948 and again in 1957.

The other successful ingredient was that each party has specific objectives, which were not necessarily incompatible. In the case of DL, it was the focus on social policy and the combat poverty programmes. Although Bruton, the Clongowes-educated Meath rancher, took a while to get it. "I remember when we were on a plane to Copenhagen," recalls Rosheen Callender, "that John Bruton was on and he asked: 'What's this anti-poverty strategy?' He was still trying to get his head around it." De Rossa remembers a similar experience during the Irish Presidency of the European Union in 1996, when new language was being shaped for EU treaties on poverty policies and anti-discrimination:"We were sort of battering Bruton's head about poverty and social inclusion and how important they were, and how you couldn't have a modern economy with out dealing with them and so forth. And Bruton's going 'tell me again about this social exclusion'."

Nevertheless, the party held its own in government and all sides were relatively happy. Indeed, it was only by political horse-trading with independents that Bertie Ahern was able to replace them and bring Fianna Fail to power. This is not emphasised enough by political historians. The impression has been given that FF swept to power in 1997 for the beginning of its long reign. Indeed, it is tribute to the Rainbow elements that it didn't have the stomach for such deal-making, and the new instabilities it would have created. Labour particularly felt this having been hammered at the polls, reportedly for going in with FF five years previously. But again this sounds like another myth of the political media. Where is the evidence that this is why voters deserted Labour? One could just as much say that the voters deserted them for not staying with FF. Who knows? Polling was not as sophisticated as it is now. More likely, Labour was deserted because it, and its partners, had fulfiled the long-delayed liberal agenda by introducing divorce and other measures, and an increasingly materialistic electorate wanted to get back to making money again with a renewed FF.

The book is a reminder that Labour is essentially a liberal social democratic party, especially when compared to DL. The discipline and maturity of DL also shows up the rather theatrical protest politics of some of the current socialists in the Dail. One interesting account concerns the Rainbow's abolition of third-level fees, a proposal by the Labour party which DL opposed with the probably very correct view that it would mainly just benefit the middle classes and that the way to remedy university access for the less privileged was to invest instead in the overall school system.

Nevertheless, despite these differences, DL was veering in the Labour party's direction in terms of policy and identity, reflecting the continuing European-wide shift to the centre and in its latter years the party became preoccupied with talk of a merger with the larger party, especially after DL failed to make further electoral breakthroughs.

Such a merger, however, was not to be as smooth as it seemed and bad blood had been built up over the years of intense competition. The book is excellent on the developing contacts about this. The merger also has implications for the present, for surely the current Labour Party should be thinking long term about the absorption of some of the now many independent-left elements. It would be a hard strategy to carry out while in government with the hairshirt FG, but it must be worth considering. In my own constituency of Dublin Central, for example, there are six left-wing candidates, all splitting the vote between them, while the one centre-right candidate, Paschal Donohue of FG, tops the poll.

In the end, Democratic Left did merge with Labour and predictably their high-octane personalities assumed major leadership roles in the bigger party. The merger has worked very smoothly, despite attempts by critics to dig up differences, and the story of DL is now just a historical interlude, but one vividly brought to life in this absorbing account.

The DL legacy also represented that rarity in Irish political life: a clearly defined ideological party, not subject to the catch-all gimmickry of personalities and poll ratings, which usually defines Irish politics.

When you read about the work and commitment of Rabbitte, Gilmore and company, you can only salute their integrity and conclude that these people deserve another crack at government -- but not perhaps on their own.

Sunday Indo Living