Democratic Left (Ireland)

Democratic Left (Irish: Daonlathas Clé) was a left-wing political party in Ireland between 1992 and 1999.[2] It came into being after a split in the Workers' Party,[3] and after seven years in existence it was incorporated into the Labour Party in 1999.[4] Democratic Left served in a three-party coalition government with Fine Gael and the Labour Party, termed the Rainbow Coalition, from December 1994 to June 1997.[5]

Democratic Left
Daonlathas Clé
LeaderProinsias De Rossa
FoundedMarch 1992 (1992-03)
Dissolved1999 (1999)
Split fromWorkers' Party
Merged intoLabour Party
IdeologyDemocratic socialism
Social democracy
Political positionLeft-wing[1]
European Parliament groupEuropean United Left


Proinsias de Rossa lead his faction out of the Workers' Party and into what became Democratic Left

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 Soviet Union, and campaigned for socialist policies.[6] 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.[7]

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[8] 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.[9] Finally the broadcast of a BBC Spotlight programme in June 1991 had raised questions on the party's links to the Official IRA.[10] 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.[11][12]

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,".[13] 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[14] supported the constitutional amendments and had considered departing the party after the conference. The new party was provisionally named New Agenda with 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

Electoral history and participation in governmentEdit

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 two 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.

Election resultsEdit

Dáil ÉireannEdit

Election Leader 1st pref
% Seats ± Government
1992 Proinsias De Rossa 47,945 2.8
4 / 166
Opposition (Nov 1992–Dec 1994)
Government (Dec 1994–Jun 1997): FG-Lab-DL Rainbow Coalition
1997 44,900   2.5  
4 / 166
  0 Opposition

House of CommonsEdit

Election Leader Votes % Seats (out of NI total) ± Government
1992 Proinsias De Rossa 2,133 0.3
0 / 18
No seats

Northern Ireland Forum for Political DialogueEdit

Election Leader Votes % Seats
1996 Proinsias De Rossa 1,215 0.2
0 / 110

Local elections (Republic of Ireland)Edit

Election 1st pref
% Seats +/–
1994 6,264 2.5
11 / 744

Local elections (Northern Ireland)Edit

Election 1st pref
% Seats +/–
1993 2,288 0.4
1 / 582
1997 560   0.1  
1 / 584

European Parliament (Republic of Ireland)Edit

Election 1st pref
% Seats +/–
1994 39,706 3.5
0 / 15

Merger with LabourEdit

Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore, both members of Democratic Left, would later become leaders of the Labour Party following the merger of the two entities

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] on 24 January 1999.[26] 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 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.[27]

Historical archivesEdit

The party archives were donated to the National Library of Ireland by the Labour Party in 2014. The records can be accessed by means of the call number: MS 49,807.[28]

See alsoEdit


  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. Archived from the original on 6 August 2017. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Paul Hainsworth (1998). Divided Society: Ethnic Minorities and Racism in Northern Ireland. Pluto Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-7453-1195-1. Archived from the original on 16 February 2017. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  4. ^ Laffan, Brigid; O'Mahony, Jane (6 October 2008). Ireland and the European Union. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-137-04835-6. Archived from the original on 16 February 2017. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  5. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 16 February 2017. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  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. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Proinsias De Rossa, 'The case for a new departure Making Sense March–April 1992
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ BBC Spotlight programme, 'Sticking to their guns', June 1991
  11. ^ Three more Northern Ireland terrorist groups lay down their arms The Times Archived 4 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ [1] Archived 11 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine The secret world of SFWP. Magill magazine 1982
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Patterns of Betrayal: the flight from Socialism, Workers Party pamphlet, Repsol Ltd, Dublin, May 1992
  15. ^ The Irish Times, 22 February 1992
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ "The 1993 Local Government Elections in Northern Ireland,". Archived from the original on 8 December 2010. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
  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". Raidió Teilifís Éireann. Archived from the original on 13 September 2009. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
  21. ^ Chapter 10 The Subterranean Election of the Seanad Archived 13 April 2020 at the Wayback Machine Michael Gallagher and Liam Weeks UCC
  22. ^ Dublin South Central Archived 11 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine 9 June 1994 (
  23. ^ Cork North Central by-election result Archived 21 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine 10 November 1994 (
  24. ^ Steven King on Thursday Archived 6 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Steven King, The Belfast Telegraph, 17 December 1998
  25. ^ Liam O'Neill (25 January 1999). "Red rose shapes up to future". Irish Examiner. Archived from the original on 27 May 2003.
  26. ^ John Coakley; Michael Gallagher, eds. (10 September 2009). Politics in the Republic of Ireland. Routledge. p. 469. ISBN 9781135264482 – via Google Books.
  27. ^ "Gilmore confirmed as new leader of Labour Party". Irish Independent. 6 September 2007. Archived from the original on 9 September 2007. Retrieved 10 November 2007.
  28. ^ "Democratic Left Papers". 1983. Archived from the original on 12 February 2018. Retrieved 11 February 2018.