LOOKING BACK: Kildare's longest serving TD never lived here

Liam Kenny recalls a huge figure in the labour and trade union movement

Liam Kenny

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Liam Kenny

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LOOKING BACK: Kildare's longest serving TD never lived here

Daniel Morrissey, John A. Costello, James Dillon, William Norton, Sean McBride and Patrick McGilligan

Now, here's a question for the political pub-quiz: name the TD who served Kildare the longest and yet never lived a day in the county?

The answer: Billy Norton, TD, who although representing Kildare for a record 31 years in Dáil Éireann always maintained his residential address in Dublin. It’s not the only record that the tenacious Norton garnered – he has also the distinction of being the longest serving leader of the Labour party since its inception heading up the followers of the “starry plough” for 28 years.

In truth, he did not have great competition for the position as Labour in the mid-20th century was always a struggling party squeezed between the two big beasts of the civil war political jungle – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Labour also suffered from the Church-driven paranoia over anything resembling socialism – a paranoia which permeated much of the western world. Nonetheless Norton navigated external pressures and internal rifts as party leader for close to three decades.

Although Kildare in the early years of the State was perceived as a county of big farmer Fine Gaelers and small man Fianna Fáilers there was always a strong Labour vote in the constituency. The Labour party first took a seat in Kildare in the 1923 General Election through Hugh Colohan of Newbridge, a feat he repeated in the 1927 Election.

Billy Norton had already been electorally blooded when he won a by-election for a Dublin constituency in 1926. He lost the seat in the 1927 General Election but transferred his loyalties to the Kildare Labour organisation in 1932 and from then there was no stopping him. He held the seat over a remarkable winning sequence at subsequent General Elections in 1933, 1937, 1938, 1943, 1944, 1948, 1951, 1954, 1957, and the last before his death, in 1961. His best performance was in 1954 when he headed the poll with 8,501 votes, an impressive 30% share of the vote

Labour’s access to Government was limited over his long tenure but when opportunities came Norton used them well. He achieved office in two influential ministries during his career – firstly as Minister for Social Welfare in the first Inter-Party Government from 1948 -1951 and then as Minister for Industry and Commerce in the second Inter-Party Government from 1954 to 1957, with the added distinction of being Tánaiste in both Governments.

The sense of shock expressed in the Leinster Leader in December 1961 when news came through of his unexpected death reflected on how he had become part of the political furniture in the county: “The sudden death of Mr Norton at his home in Dublin on Wednesday night, has shocked Co. Kildare where he headed the poll at the last General Election. He had been a Deputy for Kildare since 1932”.

The writer went on to pay tribute to his roles as a national and a constituency politician: “For a man who played so important a role in the Irish Parliament he never neglected the people whom he represented and he travelled throughout the county to Labour Party Branch meetings. He rarely missed a County Council meeting and was present at Monday’s meeting.”

The report went on to say that Norton had been attending to his parliamentary duties with his usual vigour up to the previous weekend.

Then he felt unwell and decided to rest at his home in Merlyn Park, Ballsbridge.

Although his health had not been too good for some time, his unexpected death on came as a big blow to his family and friends.

His early years were shaped by the capital where was born in 1900, the eldest of a family of eight.

He left the national school in Rathmines before he was thirteen years old and took a job as a telegraph messenger at 3s 6d a week. He progressed, by self-education, through examination to sorting clerk and telegraphist. He had long realised the importance of trade union work and after holding several positions at branch level in the Post Office Workers’ Union, became General Secretary of the union at the age of 23.

Although a Labour man to the core, he had more than done his bit for the nationalist struggle. Mr. Norton was one of those responsible for the participation of the post office staffs, then under British administration, in the two day strike in April, 1920, as a protest against the executions of IRA men in Mountjoy prison, and also in a further strike in 1921 in sympathy with those on hunger strike in Mountjoy.

He led the Post Office union with great success and within a few years became an executive member of the Irish Trade Union congress. He began to take an active interest in politics and was elected a member of Rathmines Urban District Council.

In 1932, the year he was elected first for Co. Kildare, he became Leader of the Labour Party, a position he was to hold until 1960. He was given credit in many quarters as the principal planner of the first Inter-Party Government in 1948, when under Mr. John A. Costello he was appointed Tánaiste and Minister for Social Welfare. He later became Minister for Local Government temporarily, on the death of Mr. T. J. Murphy, and served for a short time as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs during the illness of Mr. Everett.

He always retained a connection with postal workers and was was President for two years of the International Letter Carriers Association and in that capacity travelled to many parts of the world, including Australia. While serving as Tánaiste he headed the Irish parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe at Strasbourg . In an early session of the Council he delivered a most eloquent plea for the unity of Ireland. He spoke against Mr. Churchill’s proposal to set up a European army which in the British plan was “to defend peaceful peoples against aggression.”

Norton declared that the proposal would be sincere if Britain ended her aggression against Ireland.

However it was on home turf that Norton sustained his electoral longevity and for decades his name was to the forefront of Kildare politics.

And yet, as if to show that public representation has become more parochial rather than less over the years, he managed to hold a seat for thirty years in the constituency without ever having set up house in the county.