Democratic Left

Democratic Left

political party, Northern Ireland and Ireland

      short-lived socialist party, organized in both Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, that broke away from the Workers' Party in 1992 and went on to serve in the government of the Irish republic between 1994 and 1997. In 1999 the party was incorporated into the Labour Party, and Democratic Left leader Proinsias De Rossa became Labour Party president.

      The origins of Democratic Left lie in Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In 1969 Sinn Féin (and the IRA) split into “Provisional” and “Official” wings. The Official wing of Sinn Féin gradually dropped its traditional nationalism and was renamed Sinn Féin–the Workers' Party (1977) and later the Workers' Party (1982), signifying its resolve to enter electoral politics as a Marxist party. As the party gained respectability and enjoyed some modest success, there was conflict between the “old guard” and reformers who wanted to overhaul the party in the wake of the changes in eastern Europe and to break all remaining ties with the Official IRA. At an extraordinary conference in February 1992, the reformers narrowly failed to win a majority of delegates to their viewpoint, and party leader De Rossa and six of the party's seven deputies in the Dáil (lower house of Parliament) and its single member of the European Parliament—as well as many activists—left the party. They decided to form a new party with the provisional name New Agenda. The name Democratic Left was adopted at a founding conference in March. The new party won four seats in the general elections in November 1992 and picked up two more in by-elections in 1994. It entered government in December 1994 in a coalition with the Labour Party and Fine Gael. It has never enjoyed significant success in Northern Ireland.

Policy and structure
      In its constitution, Democratic Left described itself as a “democratic, socialist party.” Like several left-socialist parties in Scandinavia, it tried to steer a path between the Marxism-Leninism of its origins and the social-democratic policies of traditional labour parties. Despite these efforts, the differences between Democratic Left and the Labour Party became increasingly difficult to discern, particularly regarding economic policy. Although it was present in both Northern Ireland and the republic, Democratic Left was among the least nationalist of Irish parties.

      Like most other Irish parties, the basic unit of organization in Democratic Left was the local branch. Unlike the Workers' Party, however, members did not have to serve a probationary period. An annual delegate conference was in theory the supreme governing body; it elected a national Executive Committee to run the party between conferences. Candidates for elected office were selected by councils established in each constituency and were subject to a gender-balance requirement. Electoral support was much greater in urban areas, particularly Dublin, and was disproportionately working class, but the party also received significant middle-class backing, and it had a presence in the media.

Additional Reading
Michael Holmes, “The Establishment of Democratic Left,” in Irish Political Studies vol. 9 (1994), is the best introduction to the party.

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