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6 November 1997 Edition

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The man who could only turn right


Despite his generally positive role in the peace process since 1994 the abiding memory of Dick Spring for republicans will be from 1984, two years after he took over as leader of the Labour Party. One unforgettable weekend he was on Banna Strand in his Kerry constituency unveiling a memorial to 1916 leader and gunrunner Roger Casement while off the coast the Navy and gardai were arresting the IRA arms ship the Marita Ann with Martin Ferris on board.

While Casement, safely dead, was honoured with a new statue, Ferris was carted off to Portlaoise Prison. Earlier this year the same Martin Ferris came close to creating the sensation of the general election when he nearly took a seat for Sinn Féin in North Kerry.

It is a perfect example of the twists and turns of Irish politics. And the departure of Spring as Labour leader gives a new twist to politics in an election year which has seen the demolition of the Progressive Democrats, the depletion of Spring's own party in Leinster House and the presidency of Mary McAleese, all in the context of a revived peace process and talks under way at Stormont.

Undoubtedly history will judge the peace process to be the most significant issue with which Spring dealt as a minister and a party leader. This more than anything else in the past 15 years has changed the political landscape and has the potential to change it even more fundamentally. But Dick Spring's claim was otherwise at the press conference which announced his departure. He asserted that during his 15-year stewardship of the Labour Party the centre of gravity in Irish politics moved to the left. It is a claim which cannot be reconciled with the record.

Undoubtedly in electoral terms Labour fared better than ever before under Spring. The peak was in 1992 when the party won 33 seats in Leinster House, its highest total ever. At that stage it looked set to eclipse Fine Gael as the main rival to Fianna Fáil. But this year the election saw 17 TDs returned for Labour - only one more than when Spring took over in 1982.

The explanation for Labour's dramatic ups and downs brings us to the C-word and the eternal issue for the party - Coalition. At the end of the 1960s the radicalism of the time had rubbed off on Labour and they promised the ``Seventies will be socialist''. But in 1973 they entered one of the most reactionary governments ever with Fine Gael, the Coalition which gave us the Garda Heavy Gang, increased censorship and a more pro-British foreign policy than ever before.

Labour was riven with divisions over Coalition throughout the Seventies. By 1982 they were in complete disarray with their former leader Michael O'Leary deserting to Fine Gael.

Spring took over but he was no standard-bearer of the left. And in November 1982 he duly led his 16 TDs into Coalition with Garret FitzGerald as Fine Gael Taoiseach. It was a government of cuts and collaboration - cuts in public services and closer co-operation with the `security' agenda of the British government in the Six Counties, notably on the issue of political extradition. The Hillsborough Agreement was signed with Margaret Thatcher, as Garret FitzGerald later admitted, principally because of the fear that Sinn Féin would overtake the SDLP as the leading nationalist party in the Six Counties.

Spring had little choice but to lead Labour out of Coaltion in 1987. If he hadn't done so the slump in the party's vote in the election of February that year might have been even greater. They were reduced to 12 seats and Spring only scraped in by four votes in North Kerry. It is highly significant that it was after a long period in opposition from 1987 to 1992 that Labour had its best electoral turnout. As the most vocal and effective opposition leader Spring seemed to promise voters a radical alternative.

But once again this was no left-wing revival. On the contrary Spring had proved throughout his career that he could only turn rightward. In the mid-80s Spring, like other leaders of social democratic parties in Europe, notably Neil Kinnock's British Labour Party, had purged the left in his organisation, adopted market economics, distanced himself from the trade unions and moved to the political centre.

It was regarded as one of Spring's crowning achievements that by 1995 he was leading a party in Coalition with John Bruton's Fine Gael in which Ruairi Quinn was the first ever Labour Minister for Finance. But so well had Labour been purged of any taint of radicalism that such a development was totally meaningless - the markets and the wealthy, whom Labour had once rhetorically threatened to tax to the hilt, had nothing to worry about.

Similarly on the national question, the republican tendency in Labour had long been isolated. Spring became a leading advocate for the abandonment of Articles Two and Three. In what will be one of his last contributions in Leinster House as Labour leader, Spring on Tuesday again called for changes in the Articles.

Spring thus leaves a negative legacy to his party on the three big issues - the national question, the social and economic agenda and the coalition strategy. Who will succeeed him and which direction will the party take? That is another day's work.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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