Kildare Voice 14 September 2007:
Kildare’s Labour Party Leader
The search for a new leader of the Labour Party serves as a reminder that our county provided the party’s longest serving party leader.
In Irish history, only Dev’s 32 years at the head of Fianna Fáil exceeded William Norton’s 28 years at the head of the Labour party (1932-60).
The party he inherited was in crisis, the one he handed over to Brendan Corish was fighting fit, its very survival having been in question for much of Norton’s term, through a collapse in support, splits, in-fighting, and the Labour party’s own version of a civil war, between William O’Brien and Jim Larkin, and participation in two fractious and ill-formed governments.
Norton twice served as Tánaiste, and is the most resilient example of our county’s honourable tradition of providing party leaders – Kildaremen by birth or residence were leaders of the opposition in the old Irish House of Commons (1789-1800), in the British House of Commons (1808-17) and in Dáil Éireann (1987-90).
Kildare also provided two speakers in the old Irish House of Commons, three Ministers of Finance in the modern Irish State, one of the shortest serving party leaders (for Sinn Féin 1927-8) and, in Norton, the second longest serving party leader in Irish history.
Norton’s union credentials got him the job. A Post Office clerk from 1918, Norton was elected in 1920 to the National Executive of the Post Office Workers’ Union, for which he was honorary organising secretary, 1922-23, honorary general secretary, 1923-24, and full-time secretary, 1924-57. He was president of the Executive Council of the Postal, Telegraph and Telephone International, 1926-60
When he was elected TD for his native Kildare he was 32, and was returning to a county that already had one of the best Labour structures in the country. Labour had won five of the 21 seats on Kildare County council in the 1920 local elections. Hugh Colohan, an iconic figure locally and a veteran of the Clongorey campaign of the 1880s, had been elected to the Dáil in 1923.
Norton was repeatedly elected 1932-63, becoming leader of Labour (1932-60)., Tánaiste and minister for social welfare in the first interparty government (1948-51), and Tánaiste and minister for industry and commerce in the second (1954-7), when Kildare also provided the senior minister in the cabinet, Minister for Finance.
The Dáil record indicates he was a passionate and inventive, if unremarkable orator. Veteran voters remember his church gate speeches during elections, which he always signed off with a humorous “vote early and vote often.”
Norton was handed the leadership on the first day of his second innings in the Dáil. The party he inherited was in organisational disarray having just broken its formal and organisational link with the Irish Trade Union Congress, and his first dilemma was the disastrous decision to support Dev as Taoiseach in 1932..
Although the support for Dev brought a new government and a radical change to the political landscape, Labour was discarded in a snap election in 1933 which almost wiped out the party. It took 15 years to clamber back on to the national stage.
It was a difficult stewardship as international events and the arrival of the Blueshirts pushed political opinion to the extremes, including those within his own party.
Norton supported the Fianna Fáil opposition to the Blueshirts, denouncing them as Hitlerite. He criticised the government’s handling of the land annuities and during the Economic War he said that tariffs were not the answer to Ireland’s economic problems.
He succeeded in having a motion on public ownership incorporated in the Labour Party constitution in 1936 but crucially secured the removal of the aim of a workers’ republic, something which had been criticised by the all powerful Catholic hierarchy of the day.
By the early 1940s the party’s fortunes were improving, and nowhere more so than his native county.
In the local elections of 1942 Kildare became the first county in which the Labour party won an over all majority.
It came in a strange fashion. Both of the main parties decided not to contest the local elections, instead fielding “independent” candidates. The “independents’ included well known party affiliates like Fianna Fáil’s Tom Harris and Fine Gael’s Gerry Sweetman, but while Fine Gael had eight members elected to the new council and Fianna Fáil two, Labour won eleven seats to enable it to wield power on its own.
It won 48pc of the vote, two out of four for the Athy area (Thomas Carberry and Joseph Green), four out of seven in the Clane area (Michael Crowe, John Malone, Edward Nolan and Denis O’Neill), three out of five in Kildare area (James Dowling, Michael O’Rourke and Michael Smyth), and two our of five in the Naas area (Patrick Byrne and Senator William Cummins). Their ranks did not include the party leader, Norton, who did not take a run for the council until after he had resigned the party leadership in 1960.
Labour supporters have elevated the memory of this period to a sort of golden age, the only time they held power on any part of the island. Unfortunately the reality is a little more complex. The council was the shortest in county history, lasting just three years at a time there was no finance to indulge in cottage building, so the county was left with little by way of a legacy from the local socialist revolution.
Their claims that the clusters of Murray cottages along the by-roads of Kildare was a Labour initiative are only partly true.
In fact it was not until after the emergency the building scheme resumed, after an initial burst of activity initiated at central level by Fianna Fáil in the 1930s.
The Murray cottages were named after the superintendent assistance officer, William Murray, largely un-serviced cottages with rainwater tanks and barrels, kitchen sinks unconnected to a water supply, and dry closets, Ballyoustler is a good example.
But the result was an explosion of activity, new branches and new recruits to the party through the county, which retains a loyal Labour voting base to this day.
It also injected a sense of excitement into local politics which helped direct the larger parties away from a dreary re-run of the civil war.
But Norton’s and the Labour party’s biggest crisis at national level, the 1944 split, came immediately after its biggest triumph at local level. In the general election of 1943 the Labour Party won 15.7pc of the vote, the third highest total in party history, and increased its representation from nine to seventeen seats. The advantage was squandered. If the 1944 split had not happened, what occurred in Kildare could have been Norton’s legacy to the nation.
1932 William Norton becomes leader of the Labour Party
1942 Labour wins majority on Kildare County Council in ,local elections
1944 Labour Party splits
1950 Unification of Labour and National Labour parties agreed, to be led by William Norton (until 1960).
1960 Brendan Corish succeeds William Norton as leader of the Labour Party.
Michael Gallagher: The Irish Labour Party in Transition (1982)
Eoghan Corry takes a look at the distinguished political career of William Norton, leader of the Irish Labour Party from 1932-1960. Our thanks to Eoghan.