Labour History Review

The Irish Policy of the First Labour Government

Labour History Review (2007), 72, (2), 169–184.


In this article, the evolving relationship is examined between the British Labour Party and the emerging Irish nationalist forces from which was formed the first government of the Irish Free State. In the period immediately after the First World War, both the British Labour Party and revolutionary Irish nationalism were in a state of transition, metamorphosing from opposition towards becoming the governments of their respective states. Both, therefore, had to cope with the responsibilities and realities that resulted from moving in such a direction. In opposition, both the British Labour Party and the emergent forces in nationalist Ireland had a broadly sympathetic relationship with each other. However, in time and particularly in government, the Labour Party's relationship with the Irish Free State became no different from that of the two previous governments since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The British Labour Party, in its relentless efforts to establish its electoral credibility and respectability, wished to avoid at all costs the political risks of endangering the Labour Party's reputation by being identified with the excesses of militant Irish nationalism. When the Labour Party took on government responsibilities in 1924 it was determined to attempt to establish its credibility at home by effectively representing the interests of the British state in the face of the scepticism of its domestic political enemies. In Ireland, the new Free State government had just emerged victorious from an internecine civil war. It needed, for its own reasons of survival, to be seen to be asserting Irish national prestige in order to counter sustained attacks from its former comrades now organised in the anti-Treaty republican movement. The result of the two new and inexperienced governments seeking to establish their legitimacy in the eyes of their respective citizens was the Irish Boundary Commission controversy of 1924 which, together with other Anglo-Irish diplomatic controversies, occupied such an inordinate amount of time during the short-lived Labour administration's first period in office in 1924. This article highlights the areas of conflict and confrontation between the two governments as they sought to re-assure their respective constituencies while assuming the political responsibilities of government.

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Author details

Gibbons, Ivan