Democratic Left (Ireland)

Democratic Left
Daonlathas Clé
Leader Proinsias De Rossa
Founded March 1992
Dissolved 1999 (1999)
Split from Workers' Party
Merged into Labour Party
Ideology Democratic socialism
Political position Left-wing[1]
European Parliament group European United Left

Democratic Left (Irish: Daonlathas Clé) was a democratic-socialist political party in Ireland between 1992 and 1999. It came into being after a split in the Workers' Party,[2] and after seven years in existence it merged into the Irish Labour Party in 1999.[3] The Democratic Left served in a three-party coalition government with Fine Gael and the Labour Party from December 1994 to June 1997.[4]


Democratic Left was formed after a split in the Workers' Party, which in turn had its origins in the 1970 split in Sinn Féin. Although never formally styled as a communist party, the Workers' Party had an internal organisation based on democratic centralism, strong links with the USSR, and campaigned for socialist policies.[5] The party gained support during the 1980s - a decade of cutbacks and hardship in Ireland - winning 7 TDs in the 1989 general election and 24 councillors in the 1991 local elections.[6]

However between 1989 and 1992 the Workers' Party was beset by a number of problems. The collapse of communism in eastern Europe had put many Soviet-aligned parties on the defensive and had caused a number of them to reconsider their core ideological beliefs. A faction led by Proinsias De Rossa[7] wanted to move the party towards an acceptance of free-market economics, viewing the party's Marxist stance as an obstacle to further electoral success. The party was languishing in opinion polls and there was increasing tension between the party's elected representatives such as De Rossa, Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore and another grouping involving activists and organisers on the party's Central Executive Committee, led by Sean Garland.[8] Finally the broadcast of a BBC Spotlight programme 'Sticking to their guns' in June 1991[9] had raised questions on the party's links to the Official IRA. The Official IRA had been on ceasefire since 1972 but was frequently accused of being involved in fund-raising robberies, money-laundering and other forms of criminality.[10][11]

On 15 February 1992, a special conference was held in Dún Laoghaire to reconstitute the party. Over the preceding two weeks there were clashes at a number of party meetings between supporters of De Rossa and Garland. A motion proposed by De Rossa and General Secretary Des Geraghty sought to stand down the existing membership, elect an 11-member provisional executive council and make several other significant changes in party structures. Initially supporters believed that the motion would pass but it was defeated by 9 votes. After the announcement of the results, De Rossa told the delegates "You have your decision. I honestly believe it is a bad decision, but you have made it,".[12] Both sides accused each other "packing votes".


After the conference it was clear a split was inevitable. At an Ard Chomhairle meeting held on 22 February in Wynns Hotel in Dublin City, six of the party's TDs resigned from the party along with more than half of the Ard Chomhairle. The members who left included the party leader Proinsias De Rossa and five more of the party's seven members of Dáil Éireann (Pat Rabbitte, Eamon Gilmore, Eric Byrne, Pat McCartan and Joe Sherlock). The party's President for most of the previous 30 years, Tomás Mac Giolla refused to join the breakaway and remained with the Workers' Party although he had reluctantly[13] supported the constitutional amendments and had considered departing the party after the conference. The new party was provisionally named New Agenda with Proinsias De Rossa becoming leader of the new party.

There was speculation that the Labour TD Emmet Stagg would join the new grouping. Stagg, who was on the left of the Labour Party, had resigned the party whip before the Workers' Party split and it was indicated that he might join the new group.[14] However Stagg eventually opted not to join. The party was hampered by the fact that it immediately lost Dáil privileges such as speaking rights, the ability to table priority questions and the allocation of private members time it had enjoyed as the Workers' Party as it did not meet the minimum requirement of 7 TDs. The new party did not qualify for the party leader's allowance scheme depriving it of a vital source of funding.[15]

The party was renamed Democratic Left at its founding conference held on 28 March 1992. The new party was defined as a:

democratic socialist party. We believe that the idea of socialism coupled with the practice of democracy provides the basis for the radical transformation of Irish society. We aim to be a feminist party. An environmental party. A party of the unemployed and low-paid. A champion of personal freedom. A friend and ally of the third world. An integral part of the European Left.[16]


Democratic Left Membership, January 1999[17]
Constituency Number of Members
Carlow–Kilkenny 9
Clare 1
Cork East 32
Cork North-Central 44
Cork South-West 2
Cork South-Central 14
Donegal North-East & Donegal South-West 30
Dublin Central 6
Dublin North-Central 13
Dublin North-East 20
Dublin North-West 65
Dublin South 14
Dublin South-Central 86
Dublin South-East 12
Dublin South-West 67
Dublin West 12
Dún Laoghaire n/a
Galway East & Galway West 9
Kerry North & Kerry South 1
Kildare North & Kildare South 64
Limerick East & Limerick West 50
Louth 8
Mayo 1
Meath 20
Sligo–Leitrim 2
Tipperary North & Tipperary South 3
Waterford 45
Wexford 28
Wicklow 98
Midlands 8
International 8
Total 776

Electoral history and participation in government

The party's first contest was the 1992 UK general election, in which it stood in two constituencies in Northern Ireland and polled 2,133 votes. The election was fought under the "New Agenda" label.

In the North the party contested elections in 1996 for the Northern Ireland Forum but with less than 1% of the vote they failed to have any members elected. The party inherited a number of councillors at its foundation: Seamus Lynch lost his Belfast City Council seat in 1993, Gerry Cullen had been elected for the Workers' Party in 1989 in Dungannon Town and was re-elected in 1993 and 1997 local elections.[18][19]

In the 1992 Irish general election the party lost two of its six Dáil seats (Eric Byrne narrowly following a week of counting and recounting,[20] Pat McCartan and Joe Sherlock losing their seats, and Liz McManus winning a seat in Wicklow), gaining 2.8% of the vote compared to 5% for the pre-split Workers' Party in the preceding general election.

Joe Sherlock was elected on the Labour Panel to Seanad Éireann as part of an election pact with their politically polar opposites Progressive Democrats.[21]

The party subsequently won two seats in by-elections, Eric Byrne regaining his seat in Dublin South Central[22] and Kathleen Lynch[23] in Cork North Central.

After the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Labour Party coalition government in 1994, Democratic Left joined the new coalition government with Fine Gael and the Labour Party. Proinsias De Rossa served as Minister for Social Welfare, initiating Ireland's first national anti-poverty strategy.

Merger with Labour

In the 1997 general election Democratic Left lost two of its six seats, both of its by-election victors being unseated. The party won 2.5% of the vote. The party also was in significant financial debt because of a lack of access to public funds, due to its size. Between 1998 and 1999 the party entered discussions with the Labour Party which culminated in the parties' merger in 1999, keeping the name of the larger partner but excluding members in Northern Ireland from organising.[24] This left Gerry Cullen, their councillor in Dungannon Borough Council, in a state of limbo, representing a party for whom he could no longer seek election. The launch of the merged party was in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin.[25] Labour Party leader Ruairi Quinn remained leader of the unified party, while De Rossa took up the largely titular position of party president. Only 10% of Democratic Left delegates at the special conference had voted against the merger. In 1999 De Rossa successfully contested the European Parliament election in Dublin. He held his Dáil seat until he stood down at the 2002 general election. He successfully held his European Parliament seat in the 2004 election and 2009 election

In 2002, the former Democratic Left TDs Pat Rabbitte and Liz McManus were elected as Labour Party leader and deputy leader respectively. When Rabbite stepped down as Labour leader after the 2007 general election, Gilmore was elected unopposed as his successor.[26]


  1. Shaun Bowler; Bernard Grofman (2000). Elections in Australia, Ireland, and Malta Under the Single Transferable Vote: Reflections on an Embedded Institution. University of Michigan Press. p. 87. ISBN 0-472-11159-0.
  2. Paul Hainsworth (1998). Divided Society: Ethnic Minorities and Racism in Northern Ireland. Pluto Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-7453-1195-1.
  3. Brigid Laffan; Jane O'Mahony (6 October 2008). Ireland and the European Union. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-137-04835-6.
  4. OECD (28 November 2006). Reviews of National Policies for Education Reviews of National Policies for Education: Higher Education in Ireland 2006. OECD Publishing. p. 108. ISBN 978-92-64-01432-9.
  5. Kevin, Rafter (2011). Democratic Left: The Life and Death of and Irish Political Party. Irish Academic Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-7165-3111-1.
  6. Kevin, Rafter (2011). Democratic Left: The Life and Death of and Irish Political Party. Irish Academic Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-7165-3111-1.
  7. Proinsias De Rossa, ‘The case for a new departure Making Sense March–April 1992
  8. Kevin, Rafter (2011). Democratic Left: The Life and Death of and Irish Political Party. Irish Academic Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-7165-3111-1.
  9. BBC Spotlight programme, ‘Sticking to their guns’, June 1991
  10. Three more Northern Ireland terrorist groups lay down their arms The Times Archived June 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. The secret world of SFWP. Magill magazine 1982
  12. Kevin, Rafter (2011). Democratic Left: The Life and Death of and Irish Political Party. Irish Academic Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-7165-3111-1.
  13. Patterns of Betrayal: the flight from Socialism, Workers Party pamphlet, Repsol Ltd, Dublin, May 1992
  14. The Irish Times, 22 February 1992
  15. Kevin, Rafter (2011). Democratic Left: The Life and Death of and Irish Political Party. Irish Academic Press. pp. 97–98. ISBN 978-0-7165-3111-1.
  16. Kevin, Rafter (2011). Democratic Left: The Life and Death of and Irish Political Party. Irish Academic Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-7165-3111-1.
  17. Kevin, Rafter (2011). Democratic Left: The Life and Death of and Irish Political Party. Irish Academic Press. p. 238. ISBN 978-0-7165-3111-1.
  18. "The 1993 Local Government Elections in Northern Ireland,". Retrieved 2010-07-09.
  19. Northern Ireland and the Democratic Left Party, 1989–1999 – Ciaran McClean, New Hibernia Review (2003)
  20. "Dublin South Central – Eric Byrne Election Snapshot RTÉ 2007". RTÉ.ie. Archived from the original on September 13, 2009. Retrieved 2010-07-09.
  21. Chapter 10 The Subterranean Election of the Seanad Michael Gallagher and Liam Weeks UCC
  22. Dublin South Central 9 June 1994 (
  23. Cork North Central by-election result 10 November 1994 (
  24. Steven King on Thursday, Steven King, Belfast Telegraph, 17 December 1998
  25. Liam O'Neill (25 January 1999). "Red rose shapes up to future". Irish Examiner. Archived May 27, 2003, at the Wayback Machine.
  26. "Gilmore confirmed as new leader of Labour Party". Irish Independent. 6 September 2007. Retrieved 10 November 2007.

See also

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