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A Larkinite In Power

Barry Desmond

Cluskey: The Conscience of Labour, Umiskin Press, 275 pp, no price, ISBN: 978-0992843922

Since the foundation of Dáil Eireann only two taoisigh, Garret FitzGerald and Albert Reynolds, have published memoirs. Only a handful of former government ministers have attempted to do so. As the fifth parliamentary Labour leader from 1977 to 1981 and minister from 1982/83 Frank Cluskey had a wry disregard for those who wished to “go on the record”. This compendium contains some twelve personal tributes to Frank’s role in Irish politics in the seventies and eighties. The eulogists recall a good deal about themselves while lauding their late comrade, who died in 1989. The tribute is edited by Jack McGinley, the energetic president of the Irish Labour History Society and it is overdue.

Frank Cluskey, a skilled butcher by trade, was a quintessential Dublin Larkinite. Frank’s father was leader of the Operative Butchers Society and led them into the Workers Union of Ireland (WUI). He was an unsuccessful Irish Worker League (IWL) candidate in 1930 for Dublin City Council. He stood as a fellow Labour candidate with Martin O’Sullivan in the 1933 City Council elections. O’Sullivan was the only Labour councillor elected. His son Frank was also a union activist whose real ambition was to become a general officer in his union, the WUI. He was unsuccessful in the election for the deputy secretaryship in 1969 and thereafter pursued his political career. He was a Labour deputy for twenty-three years from 1965 to 1981 and from 1982 to 1989. During this period he was parliamentary secretary in social welfare (1973-77), party leader (1977-81), and minister for trade, commerce and tourism (1982-83).

Following the defeat of the National Coalition government in 1977 and the resignation of Brendan Corish as party leader after seventeen years Frank Cluskey was elected to that post. I voted for Frank in the tied first vote. Michael '’Leary, the only other candidate, lost out on the second vote, and was, in my view, too mercurial to be leader. He became a very sullen deputy leader and was elected to the European Parliament in 1979.

Among the electorate at large, particularly outside Dublin, Frank had a limited electoral appeal. His Dáil contributions during confrontations with Charles Haughey, particularly over Northern Ireland’s trauma, were very effective and were praised by the media. However, on television and at public meetings outside Dublin, his gruff Dublin accent, his then unfashionable beard and his chain-smoking stood out.

As his daughter Siobhan Cluskey points out in her memoir note on her mother, Eileen, Frank was somewhat shy. In elections he detested being urged to do a “walkabout” canvass and rarely did door-to-door canvassing during elections. I shared his view that the process was demeaning.

In 1968 he was elected lord mayor of Dublin. As such he presided over the award of the freedom of Dublin to Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir, the outstanding actors in a city of many great actors. The Cluskey family had a great interest and involvement in Dublin;s amateur and professional theatre, with May Cluskey very prominent and talented. He had great support from the Labour councillors, most of whom were WUI members, including Denis Larkin, Paddy Dunne, Billy Cummiskey, Tommy Duffy, George Butler and Senator Jack Harte. In the fifties, sixties and early seventies the WUI was in effect the Labour Party in Dublin.

Frank Cluskey’s most important achievement was in 1973-77 when, as parliamentary secretary for social welfare, with the support of Brendan Corish and arising from the first joint programme for a National Coalition Government with Liam Cosgrave, he introduced major new social welfare reforms. The lives of many elderly people and other recipients were dramatically improved. This old age pension qualifying age was reduced from seventy to sixty-six year by year. The age had languished at seventy from 1909. Children’s allowances were made payable to mothers; they had been payable to fathers. Allowances were introduced for unmarried mothers, deserted wives and the dependents of prisoners. Pensions were introduced for women aged fifty-eight who were the primary carers of their parents or relatives. Furthermore, Two further major innovations were introduced, The Combat Poverty Agency was established and the system of Pay Related Social Insurance was set up. Throughout this work Frank received great support from the senior officers of the Department of Social Welfare and his political adviser Tony Browne (who contributes to the publication). Richie Ryan, the Minister for Finance, was demonised, particularly by Frank Hall on RTÉ, as the Scrooge of the period, but he did provide the resources for these reforms. The introduction of the unmarried mothers allowance was of particular significance. There were major social, family and church pressures on such mothers to give up their babies for adoption. The adoption bodies and their “homes” were a virtual industry and covert foreign adoptions commonplace. The Labour deputies Maureen O’Carroll and Dan Desmond showed great courage in exposing this church-state trafficking and the underlying contempt for suchmothers. Cluskey’s reform stemmed the tide.

Notwithstanding these major reforms, the Fianna Fáil manifesto of 1977 and the manner with which that party exploited the crisis in Northern Ireland trumped these reforms and the National Coalition Government was defeated. Haughey was leading the charge for the Fianna Fáil leadership. He undermined the party leader, Jack Lynch, at every opportunity.

Frank lost his seat and the party leadership in the general election of 1981. He made the fatal mistake of contesting with two fellow party candidates, Cllr Michael Collins and Seamus Ashe. They polled 5,275, well short of the quota 8,159. With these defeats his confidence and influence in the party diminished. However, he soldiered on and was re-elected in the 1982 election as the sole party candidate with Dr John O’Connell as Ceann Comhairle. The new government was formed, with Dick Spring as leader and Tánaiste. Spring was twenty years younger than Frank when he nominated him as minister for trade, commerce and tourism in December 1982. He never adjusted to the younger man’s leadership and his new advisers. I sat next to Frank at the cabinet table and I sensed his deep unhappiness as he attempted to cope with the flood of government papers from Garret, Alan Dukes and John Bruton, none of which contained good news. I recall that he handled one major issue with great competence ‑ the collapse of the PMPA and the motor insurance crisis. The super-confident cool of Alan Dukes in finance took no prisoners as Frank defended his department’s estimates. He was deeply suspicious of John Bruton in industry and energy. The Clongowes-educated wealthy farmer’s son from Meath and the Dublin inner city union man found little in common.

Their ministerial conflict came to a head when the financial restructuring of Dublin Gas arose from the provision of natural gas from Kinsale. The company was privately owned, with very poor management and serious restrictive work practices. Frank, under serious FWUI pressure and egged on by anti-coalitionists, demanded full state ownership. Garret and John Bruton proposed £126 million in bank loans for the conversion; the state to take twenty-nine per cent of the company’s shares; the appointment of four of the twelve directors and the state to take fifty-six per cent of future profits. Bruton was the lead minister for industry and Frank’s role was to determine the price mechanism for gas. However, Frank jumped from the Cabinet ship without warning. The Labour ministers and one from Fine Gael (Jim Mitchell) supported Cluskey while the taoiseach sought an accommodation between Frank and John Bruton, to no avail. The final vote was six to five and Garret abstained. Frank was seeking an escape from government. However, he continued to support the government in Dail votes, such was his detestation of Haughey. In 1986, with Dublin Gas now in receivership, Bord Gais Eireann provided £10 million for 376 redundancies. Not even Frank could save their jobs. The taoiseach had made a very serious mistake in accepting the assurances of the most business-orientated of the Fine Gael ministers and from an incompetent Dublin Gas Board. Cluskey should have stayed in the cabinet and continued to expose the unfolding debacle with the parallel dramatic fall in oil prices. The taoiseach and tánaiste dared not fire Cluskey as more and more evidence, such as the Colm McCarthy analysis, became available. It was inevitable that Dublin Gas would become a state entity.

Some of Frank's former main political advisers when he was party leader, notably MEP Brendan Halligan and Senator Flor O'Mahony, and those then in “Labour Left” (and who have contributed to this publication) were then deeply hostile to Labour’s participation in the government. They were joined in their hostility by the vociferous Senator Michael D Higgins, then chairman of the party. Michael D of course had no qualms in accepting a ministerial post from Dick Spring in 1993-97; as had been the case when he accepted a Senate seat when nominated by Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in 1973-77.

Several FWUI and ITGWU senior officers were currying favour with Fianna Fáil, and particularly with Bertie Ahern. Relations between the senior government ministers and the senior officers of the ICTU, particularly Donal Nevin, over national pay agreements were dire. Cluskeys associates were “out of the loop”, while Fergus Finlay and John Rogers, the prospective attorney general, were now the Tánaiste’s principal advisers. Shortly afterwards John Bruton was removed from energy and the portfolio was taken over by Dick Spring, who oversaw the eventual state development of Dublin Gas. Frank was in political limbo on the back benches for the following three years in government and his health deteriorated, largely due to his chain-smoking.

Throughout his political career Frank Cluskey, in Dáil debates, at party meetings and public interviews, was unrelenting in his hostility to those who advocated or showed “sneaking regard” towards violence for political objectives. He was scathing in political debates towards the policy ambiguities of Charles Haughey in relation to Northern Ireland’s traumatic outrages. The support of Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich for Sinn Féin’s perverted nationalism infuriated him. In an interview with Deirdre Purcell in 1986 he gave this assessment

All you have to do is to look at the working class estates in Northern Ireland. We have the model ‑ the carbon copy. They started in those estates on the basis of social justice and constituency work -‑and then when they had the people, they moved into intimidation. No, we don’t have to speculate how they operate. We can see it up there.

Throughout the seventies there were deep divisions in the Labour Party over Northern Ireland policy. Brendan Corish and Frank Cluskey, supported by Brendan Halligan, Michael O’Leary, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Jim Tully, Eileen Desmond, John Horgan (also a contributor) and myself faced down those in the party including Dr John O’Connell, Justin Keating, David Thornley and Michael Mullen, who, in effect, supported the murderous ERA campaigns. On this fundamental issue Frank had my full support. More importantly he had the great blessing of being married to a Derry woman, Eileen Gillespie, who had a great understanding of the so-called Troubles. Frank and their three children were inconsolable when she died in 1978. Frank and Eileen had first met in an amateur production of The Plough in the Stars in which she played Nora and he played the Covey.

In my twenty-five years in Leinster House and the European Parliament I worked with some deputies and senators who had serious alcohol and tobacco problems. Frank suffered from both. In 1973. when Brendan Corish appointed Frank as his parliamentary secretary, he assured me, as the new (unpaid) assistant government whip, that Frank had given him an undertaking that he would abstain from alcohol while in office. Frank had learned his trade in the hard-hitting, hard-drinking meat industry culture of the fifties and sixties. When I was elected in 1969 there was no Oireachtas secretarial assistance for deputies, no mobile phones, no faxes, no separate offices, and a mere one direct outside telephone line per party whip, which Deputy James Tully locked away each evening in his filing cabinet. Rural deputies came to Dublin from Tuesdays to Thursdays to escape from constituents and their families. And there was the Members’ Bar in the Dáil. Frank became ill after the 1987 election. He died in 1989 at the relatively young age of fifty-nine.

Selected Bibliography
Charles Callan and Barry Desmond, Irish Labour Lives: A Biographical Dictionary of IrishLabour Party Deputies, Senators, MPs and MEPs (Watchword 2010)
Barry Desmond, Finally and in Conclusion: A Political Memoir (New Island 2000)
Barry Desmond, No Workers Republic! Reflections on Labour and Ireland 1913-1967 (Watchword 2009)
Garret FitzGerald, All In A Life: An Autobiography (Gill and Macmillan, 1991)
Stephen Collins, Spring and the Labour Story (O’Brien Press 1993)
John Horgan, Labour: The Price of Power (Gill and Macmillan 1986)
Gemma Hussey, At The Cutting Edge Cabinet Diaries 1982-1997 (Gill and Macmillan 1990)

1/2/2016
Barry Desmond is a former Labour Party politician and government minister.

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