Cluskey, Frank (Francis) (1930–89), trade unionist and politician, was born 8 April 1930 at 83 St Ignatius Road, off Lower Dorset Street, Dublin, youngest of two sons and three daughters of Francis (‘Frank’) Cluskey (c.1890–1955), a butcher and active trade unionist, and Elizabeth Cluskey (née Millington). His father was long-serving secretary of the butchers’ section of the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI) (1924–54), and a close associate of James Larkin (qv), whom young Frank often met in his father's company in WUI headquarters in Unity Hall. A sixth-generation Dubliner on both sides, he was educated at St Francis Xavier national school, and St Vincent's CBS, Glasnevin. Unhappy at school, on leaving at age twelve he had several casual jobs, including polishing milk churns and parading greyhounds at a dog track. At age sixteen he became a butcher's apprentice at Heron's of Dorset St., and later at Egan's of Clanbrassil St., and joined the WUI. Let go on becoming eligible for the full rate of pay, he joined the WUI system of casual work in the city abattoir, but experienced spells of unemployment, one lasting ten months. He studied industrial relations and trade-union administration at the People's College, and became a protégé of young James Larkin (qv), the WUI secretary. On his father's becoming terminally ill, Cluskey succeeded him as butchers’ branch secretary of the WUI (1954–68), in which capacity his major challenge was the de-casualisation of work. He was regularly a WUI delegate to the ITUC and its successor, the ICTU. In 1958 he attended a course in trade union studies at Harvard University in the USA.
A member of the Labour Party from age eighteen, Cluskey was elected to Dublin city council (1960–69), and helped stimulate political initiatives to address the city's housing crisis of the 1960s. His term as lord mayor (1968–9) was cut short when the council was dissolved in April 1969 for striking a rate deemed insufficient by the minister for local government. Appointed a city commissioner (1973–4), he briefly served as chairman of the commissioners (May–June 1973), but did not contest the election of a new city council in June 1974.
Cluskey served twenty-three years in Dáil Éireann (1965–81 and 1982–9). Throughout a series of constituency boundary revisions, his electoral base remained the Coombe and Liberties sections of Dublin's south inner city. After unsuccessfully contesting a 1958 dáil by-election and the 1961 general election, he was elected TD for Dublin South Central (1965–9); returned to the second seat on the first count with 7,098 votes, he trailed only the sitting Fianna Fáil taoiseach, Seán Lemass (qv), amid a doubling of the Labour vote in the constituency, part of a general upsurge in the party's support in Dublin. Moving after constituency revisions to Dublin Central (1969–77), he won the second seat behind Fianna Fáil's Vivion de Valera (qv), despite reductions in his first-preference tallies in both the 1969 and 1973 elections. A member of the dáil public accounts committee (1965–73), and the dáil committee on procedure and privilege (1969–73), he served as Labour's chief whip (1969–73), and was party spokesman on justice, social welfare, and labour. During the early 1970s he became increasingly outspoken on Northern Ireland affairs. Amid deep divisions within the party on the issue, he was among several Labour TDs (including the party spokesman on Northern Ireland, Conor Cruise O'Brien) who criticised traditional nationalist perspectives. Defending O'Brien's assertions that the republic's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland was ‘irredentist’ and ‘annexationist’, and that the Irish government's immediate objective should be ‘structural reform’ in Northern Ireland rather than Irish unity, Cluskey contended that O'Brien's position had ‘a tremendous amount of socialist content’ (Gallagher (1982), 147).
In the Fine Gael–Labour national coalition, Cluskey was parliamentary secretary to the minister for health and social welfare (1973–7), Brendan Corish (qv), who was also Labour party leader and tánaiste. Delegated full authority over the social welfare department, Cluskey implemented substantial reforms in social benefit, often appearing before a reluctant cabinet to argue their merit. These included the introduction of allowances for deserted wives, unmarried mothers, prisoners’ wives, and single women caring for aged relatives. He introduced payment of the children's allowance directly to mothers (regarded as a radical innovation at the time), and extended the allowance to age 18 for children not employed. He eased means tests, reduced the qualifying age for the old age pension by four years to 66, established the Combat Poverty Agency, and introduced Pay Related Social Insurance (PRSI). Introducing semi-annual rather than annual increases in payment levels, he oversaw a threefold increase to £274 million in exchequer allocation for social welfare during the coalition's lifetime, and an increase of 125 per cent in benefits, considerably ahead of wages and prices. The taioseach, Liam Cosgrave, so respected Cluskey's political judgment that frequently he requested his advice at cabinet meetings on matters outside his portfolio.
Amid Fianna Fáil's landslide election victory in 1977, Cluskey retained his dáil seat with considerable difficulty, elected for Dublin South Central (1977–81). On Corish's immediate resignation, he was elected Labour party leader in a tight ballot of the party's sixteen eligible TDs over Michael O'Leary (1936–2006). During his four-year tenure (1977–81), he most impressed as a highly skilled parliamentarian: a tenacious dáil adversary, he was noted for incisive comment and expert summation of debates. A sharp and effective critic of Charles Haughey (1925–2006), on the latter's election as taoiseach in 1979 he gave a blistering dáil speech, castigating Haughey's close relationship with wealthy and influential individuals who operated in ‘a grey area of Irish business and commercial life’ (Dáil deb. (11 Dec. 1979), 1,337–8). Lacking natural charisma or a studied polish, Cluskey was less successful in dealings with the news media; his dour, shop steward's exterior failed to appeal to television audiences or the broad electorate. Assuming the post of party spokesman on Northern Ireland, he continually argued that reconciliation between the two communities in the region must precede Irish unification, and urged the formation of power-sharing mechanisms. Under Cluskey's leadership, Labour adopted a new policy programme (1980) that reaffirmed the party's socialist character and aspirations, and advocated sweeping reforms in health care, education, and banking; the most radical proposals were diluted in the 1981 election manifesto, which concentrated on initiatives to address unemployment. Cluskey dithered about forming clear positions on such social issues as contraception and divorce. He told lobbyists for a constitutional amendment banning abortion that Labour would consider the need for such, but suggested that a group purporting to be ‘pro-life’ should also be proposing improved facilities for poor and single-parent families.
Labour contested the 1981 election on its own independent manifesto; any coalition arrangement was to be negotiated after the election, and approved at a special party conference. The strategy placed the party in the contradictory position of campaigning on policies distinct from, but compatible with, those of Fine Gael, the likely coalition partner. Cluskey vacillated on whether Labour's demand for reintroduction of the wealth tax (abolished by Fianna Fáil in 1978, and opposed by Fine Gael) was a non-negotiable prerequisite to entry into coalition. Failing to capitalise, as did Fine Gael (which promised extensive tax cuts), on the poor economic situation and Fianna Fáil's deep internal divisions, Labour dropped under ten per cent of the vote for the first time in a quarter century, winning only fifteen seats in an enlarged dáil. The party's precarious finances, and Cluskey's failure to initiate a thorough organisational overhaul, especially in the Dublin area, were critical factors in the disappointing performance. Prior to the election Cluskey failed to reach an accommodation with party colleague John O'Connell, a popular maverick, whose electoral base had been split by constituency revisions. Wanting to stand as Cluskey's running mate in Dublin South Central, O'Connell was instructed by Labour's administrative council, which feared that his candidacy would imperil Cluskey's seat, to stand in Dublin West. Refusing to comply, O'Connell resigned from the party and contested South Central as ‘independent labour’. With O'Connell topping the poll over quota, Cluskey lost his seat, and consequently the party leadership. His distaste for constituency work, which he regarded as part of the patronage system, contributed to his defeat.
Cluskey replaced O'Leary (the new party leader and tánaiste) as nominated member of the European parliament (1981–3). With O'Connell serving as ceann comhairle and thus returned to Dáil Éireann automatically, in the February 1982 election Cluskey won the last of the four contested seats in Dublin South Central, and held it until his death (1982–9). At the October 1982 party conference he successfully proposed a motion reaffirming the existing electoral strategy, a decision that precipitated the defection of O'Leary (who had urged modifications to the strategy) to Fine Gael. Cluskey surprisingly declined to contest the vacated leadership, which went to Dick Spring. After holding the last Dublin South Central seat in the November 1982 election, Cluskey became minister for trade, commerce, and tourism (1982–3) in the new Fine Gael–Labour coalition government of Garret FitzGerald (qv). He moved swiftly and skilfully to implement a takeover plan that averted the threatened collapse of the PMPA insurance company (October 1983). Restless in the belt-tightening administration, he had heated ideological tussles with the industry and energy minister, John Bruton. In December 1983 he dramatically resigned from government over a fundamental disagreement with the financial arrangements (negotiated by Bruton, and involving a £126 million state subsidy) to facilitate a direct supply of natural gas from the newly developed Kinsale field to the ailing Dublin Gas Company. Objecting to the state's underwriting of the risk, without either nationalising the company, or securing a controlling interest, but to the immense potential benefit of private shareholders, he contended that the deal had far-reaching implications generally regarding the exploitation of natural resources, including offshore oil. Three years later, with Dublin Gas in receivership and some 400 redundancies looming, Cluskey from the backbenches obtained information about the company's finances, and undertakings regarding severance payments to the workers, by threatening to place the government in a minority position by withdrawing his support.
Cluskey stood unsuccessfully in the Dublin constituency in the 1984 European elections. Though initially opposed to formation of the New Ireland Forum, he served on the Labour delegation to the body, but joined party colleague Mary Robinson in dissenting from the forum's report, which declared a unitary Irish state to be the preferred option over any alternative settlement. He also opposed the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement over the governments’ failure to consult unionist opinion. Against expectations he retained his dáil seat in the 1987 general election; placing seventh on the first count, by virtue of generous transfers from the Progressive Democrats and the Workers’ Party, on subsequent counts he overtook three other candidates (including O'Connell, now in Fianna Fáil) to win the fourth of five seats.
Gruff, bearded, and bespectacled, Cluskey was noted for a scathing wit, devastating repartee, and colourful, betimes salty language. He was eulogised by party colleague Mervyn Taylor as ‘the personification of integrity in Irish politics’ (Ir. Times, 1989). He married (1956) Eileen Gillespie, a post office civil servant from Clontarf; her premature death after a short illness (1978) was a severe emotional blow suffered during his period as Labour party leader. They had two daughters and one son, and lived at 1 Glasnevin Park, Ballymun. The Abbey actress May Cluskey (qv) was his sister. A heavy smoker, who also swung between periods of heavy drinking and complete sobriety, he fell ill during the 1987 election campaign, and was diagnosed with throat cancer. Though he resumed political activity after receiving treatment, the illness persisted, requiring repeated surgery and other intensive treatments. He died 7 May 1989 in the Eye and Ear Hospital, and was buried in St Fintan's cemetery, Sutton, Co. Dublin. His papers are in the possession of his family, and are available on request.