Norton, William Joseph (‘Bill’) (1900–63), trade unionist and politician, was born 2 November 1900 at 21 Bath Avenue, Dublin, eldest of eight children of Patrick Norton, a tramcar conductor, and Bridget Norton (née Malone). He attended Rathmines national school, leaving aged thirteen to work as a messenger boy. Entering the postal service as a telegraph messenger, after taking first place in Ireland in the post office learners’ examination (1916), he progressed rapidly through the grades of sorting clerk and telegraphist, to become in 1918 a post office clerk.
Trade union leader Active in his branch of the post office clerks’ trade union, from an early age Norton showed remarkable ability as an organiser. When the union was reconstituted as the Irish Postal Union (IPU), he was elected to the national executive (1920). During the Anglo–Irish war, he was instrumental in securing the participation of post-office staffs, then under British administration, in the two-day general strike in solidarity with a republican prisoners’ hunger strike (April 1920), and in the one-day strike protesting against the execution of republican prisoners (May 1921). Serving as IPU honorary organising secretary (1922–3), in the wake of the September 1922 postal strike against a cut in the cost-of-living bonus, he played a leading role in effecting the amalgamation of the IPU and the Irish Postal Workers’ Union (which catered for outdoor staff) into the Post Office Workers’ Union (POWU), on formation of which (June 1923) he was elected honorary general secretary (1923–4). The next year he left the postal service to become full-time general secretary of the POWU (1924–57); he also edited the union's journal. Under his leadership, the POWU grew to become the largest trade union in the civil service group, embracing a range of grades, from post office clerks, sorters, and postmen, to boy messengers, telephonists, cleaners, and (until the mid 1940s) engineers. He served on the executive committee of the Postal, Telegraph, and Telephone International (1926–60), of which the POWU was a founding affiliate, and represented Ireland at numerous international conferences; elected president of the international (1957–60), he presided at the triennial conference in Vienna (1960).
Early political career Elected for the Labour party to Rathmines urban district council (June 1925), in February 1926 Norton became TD for Dublin County (1926–7) by securing Labour's first ever by-election victory. After losing the seat in the June 1927 general election, he stood down in the rapidly ensuing September 1927 election, hoping to improve the chances of constituency colleague Thomas Johnson (qv), the Labour party leader, who, however, failed to hold his seat. Serving on the executive council of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (1926–9), Norton was prominent in urging the separation of the political and industrial wings of the labour movement into autonomous organisations, arguing that the move was necessary to broaden the party's electoral appeal beyond a trade union constituency. After the establishment in 1930 of a separate party and congress, he was for many years a regular POWU delegate to the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC). Named first chairman of the administrative council of the newly autonomous Labour party, he served on the committee that drafted the party programme, calling for nationalisation of banks, insurance houses, and railways, and organisation of industry along cooperative lines.
Defeated in a dáil by-election in the Kildare constituency (July 1931), in the general election of February 1932 he was elected TD for Kildare, commencing an unbroken tenure of thirty-one years in Dáil Éireann (Kildare (1932–7), Carlow–Kildare (1937–48), Kildare (1948–63)). Youngest of the seven Labour TDs, Norton was chosen party leader in the oireachtas (26 February 1932), succeeding Thomas O'Connell (qv), who had lost his seat. Assuming command of a party whose dáil representation had been slashed by two-thirds within five years, he provided energetic leadership, imposing stricter party discipline, and defining a clearer party identity on social, economic, and constitutional issues, along lines more socialist, more catholic, and more republican.
Backing Fianna Fáil After agreeing with Éamon de Valera (qv) an agenda for dáil cooperation and formal consultation on policy, Norton and Labour supported the formation of a minority Fianna Fáil government. Throughout 1932, de Valera's government implemented Labour-inspired initiatives addressing unemployment, the housing shortage, food price controls, and introduction of widows’ and orphans’ pensions. Labour supported Fianna Fáil's abolition of the oath of allegiance, denounced by Norton as a ‘a relic of feudalism’ (O'Connor (1992), 128). Norton endorsed de Valera's decision to withhold payment of land annuities to Britain, thereby reversing the cautionary and legalistic approach to the issue previously taken by Labour under Johnson and O'Connell. He met in London with British Labour leaders and the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in an unsuccessful effort to reconcile differences over the composition of a tribunal to arbitrate the dispute, London insisting on a commonwealth tribunal, Dublin on broader international representation (July 1932). Describing the annuities as ‘a mill stone around the necks of the Irish people’ (McKay, 33), he gave unwavering support to de Valera throughout the ensuing economic war. Though Norton's refusal to support proposed cuts in public-service pay induced de Valera to call a snap general election (January 1933), the polling was noteworthy for the highest ever degree of transfers between the two parties, resulting in the return of eight Labour TDs on only 5.7 per cent of first preferences; Norton then reinforced Fianna Fáil's slim dáil majority with continuing Labour support.
Alarmed by the rise of the Blueshirt movement, Norton denounced the National Guard of Eoin O'Duffy (qv) as ‘Hitlerite’, attacked the corporatist ideas of Blueshirt ideologues as inimical to working-class interests, and pointed to examples in continental Europe of countries rapidly overwhelmed by fascist movements initially deemed marginal and innocuous. He rebuffed entreaties to enter popular-front alliances with communists and left republicans, regarding support for de Valera and Fianna Fáil as the surest safeguard against the threat of domestic fascism. Nonetheless, the persistent erosion of Labour's electoral support underlined the danger of too close an association with Fianna Fáil. Fearful of being devoured by the larger party's broad-based populism, in the mid 1930s Norton led Labour into brief flirtation with a more distinct, and radical, image. At the 1936 annual conference, he secured adoption of a new party constitution, calling for public ownership of all essential sources of wealth, and democratic management of industries and services, and declaring the party's aim to be the establishment of a ‘ workers’ republic’; the radical rhetoric, however, masked reformist policies on specific issues.
Norton and the bulk of his party hastily retreated from radical socialist aspirations when confronted with the anti-red hysteria aroused in Ireland by the Spanish civil war. In a speech at the 1937 party conference (published as Cemeteries of liberty: communistic and fascist dictatorships (1937)), he avoided any reference to Franco's Spain; identifying fascism solely with Hitler's Nazism, which he equated with Stalinist communism, he characterised both systems as alien, repressive, and anti-Christian, and named Sweden and New Zealand, not Soviet Russia, as the overseas models of Irish Labour. When the Roman catholic hierarchy advised that sections of the Labour party constitution were contrary to catholic social teaching, Norton led the 1939 party conference in authorising revisions, including deletion of the reference to a workers’ republic. A member of the Knights of St Columbanus, for the duration of his public career he repeatedly emphasised the affinity of Labour party policy with papal encyclicals and Christian principles.
Seeking to outflank Fianna Fáil on the national question, Labour opposed the 1936 external relations act – Norton contending that King Edward VIII had, by his abdication, ‘broken the link’, and Ireland ought to allow it remain broken – and also opposed ratification of the 1937 constitution for its failure to declare a republic. The reshaping of Labour's image bore fruit with significant gains in the 1937 general election, as party support leaped at Fianna Fáil's expense to 10.3 per cent, yielding thirteen dáil seats. Standing in the redrawn Carlow–Kildare constituency, Norton topped the poll for the first time, and was elected on the first count. In May 1938 Labour combined with Fine Gael to defeat by one vote a government motion seeking a compulsory civil-service arbitration scheme. In the ensuing election in June Labour lost four seats, but held its vote at 10 per cent, as Fianna Fáil, capitalising on the Anglo–Irish agreement concluding the economic war, soared to a comfortable dáil majority, whereupon Labour abstained in the vote for taoiseach.
The ‘emergency’: from militancy to division Supporting Fianna Fáil's policy of wartime neutrality, Norton served throughout the emergency on the defence council, but attacked other aspects of government policy. He was also a member of the council of state (1938–63). In a dáil debate on IRA prisoners he demanded of de Valera why prisoners’ hunger strikes were right in the early 1920s but wrong in 1939. He led Labour in opposing enactment of the 1940 emergency powers legislation. Amid public discontent over rising prices and increasing unemployment, Labour were energised by the trade-union militancy of 1941 opposing both the government's wages freeze and its trade union act, which introduced a licensing system that threatened trade union autonomy and undermined the position of British-based unions. Norton defused the radicalism of both agitations, first by transferring the focus from mass militancy led by grassroots activists to parliamentary activity, and then by retreating from the initial strategy of absolute non-cooperation with the trade union act to one of seeking the act's amendment rather than its repeal.
With party membership burgeoning, especially in Dublin city, and encouraged by a strong performance nationally in the August 1942 local elections, Labour campaigned in the June 1943 general election on the slogan ‘Labour to power’, and won seventeen seats on 16 per cent of the vote, its best showing in sixteen years. At the pinnacle of his achievement as a party leader, Norton was immediately confronted with his gravest crisis, arising from the readmission of James Larkin (qv) to the party and his selection as a dáil candidate. In January 1944 the ITGWU – which had feuded bitterly with Larkin for many years – disaffiliated from the Labour party, and five of the eight Labour TDs who were ITGWU officials heeded their union's instructions by withdrawing from the parliamentary party and organising themselves as the National Labour Party (NLP). While denying NLP accusations that his party had become dominated by communists, Norton headed an internal committee of inquiry, which expelled six left-wing activists (only three of whom had previously been members of the Communist Party of Ireland). Exploiting the Labour split, which had enervated the party's renaissance, de Valera called a snap election (May 1944). Official Labour lost four seats, returning eight TDs on 8.8 per cent of the vote, while the NLP lost one seat, returning four TDs. In his own four-seat constituency, Norton for the first time since 1933 was below quota on the first count, and was returned to the last seat. For the first time under his leadership, Labour voted in the dáil against de Valera's election as taoiseach.
Labour in government Bitter invective between the two rival Labour parties, and rampant red-baiting by the conservative parties, dominated the 1948 general election campaign. Official Labour maintained its share of the vote on 8.7 per cent, but increased its representation to fourteen TDs, with the NLP electing five TDs. Norton played a central role in the negotiations leading to formation of the first inter-party government, a coalition of five parties (of which official Labour was the second largest, after Fine Gael, and which included its NLP rivals), supported by six independents. Appointed tánaiste and minister for social welfare (1948–51), he was the first Labour party leader to enter government.
Within weeks of assuming office, he announced introduction of a free, non-compulsory scheme of conciliation and arbitration for the public service, thus realising a long sought aspiration of the public-service unions. He led the Irish delegation to the first meeting (August 1949) in Strasbourg of the consultative assembly of the Council of Europe (of which Ireland was among the ten founding members), and served on the council's permanent executive. Attempting unsuccessfully to raise formally in the assembly the issue of partition, he made a trenchant statement condemning the British presence in Northern Ireland. Continuing his strident identification with constitutional republicanism – he spoke of ‘the intolerable dictatorship in the six counties’ (McCullagh, 130), and described Britain as ‘an occupying power’ with ‘no moral right to be there’ (Manning, 217) – he engaged enthusiastically with the all-party campaign against partition.
With practised skills in negotiation, and an instinct for sensing potentially troublesome issues, Norton was a key figure holding together the inter-party government, his influence frequently being decisive in cabinet deliberations. He broke the cabinet deadlock over the devaluation crisis when he endorsed the orthodox advice of the Department of Finance to follow Britain's lead and devalue the Irish pound from $4.03 to $2.80, rather than adopt the radical measures being urged by Seán MacBride (qv) (December 1949). In his ministerial portfolio of social welfare, he increased pensions to widows, orphans, and the elderly, introduced reforms in workmen's compensation, and carried a social welfare act (1950) that absorbed into his department the functions of the National Health Insurance Society, which insured one-fifth of the population against loss of earnings through illness. His proposals for a thorough overhaul of social services – published in a white paper on social security (October 1949), and involving the replacement of all existing social welfare and insurance schemes by a single comprehensive scheme funded by contributions from workers, employers, and the state – were denounced by conservative catholics, and resisted by several Fine Gael ministers, who stalled progress of relevant legislation. Norton's social welfare (insurance) bill of December 1950, which incorporated modifications of the proposals, expired in committee stage when the government fell.
Norton brought a libel action against the Irish Press (1949) over an article by Sean Lemass (qv) suggesting that he spent most of his time on party matters and left his department to run itself; the jury found for Norton, but awarded only £1 damages, prompting Sean MacEntee (qv), one of Norton's most biting parliamentary adversaries, to dub him ‘Billy the Quid’. In the dáil debate (April 1951) following the resignation of the health minister, Noel Browne (qv), over the mother-and-child health scheme, Norton accused Browne of seeking a ‘head-on collision’ with the catholic bishops, and asserted that the issue of whether the country was governed by elected public representatives or the catholic clergy was ‘not going to arise in this country’ because the government would not countenance any ‘flouting of the authority of the bishops in the matter of catholic social or catholic moral teaching’ (Gallagher (1982), 15).
The breach with the NLP having been healed in June 1950, Norton led a reunified Labour party into the 1951 general election. Standing on its own platform while advocating return of the coalition, the party returned sixteen TDs. In the 1954 election Labour increased its representation to nineteen TDs, and entered a three-party coalition with Fine Gael and Clann na Talmhan, Norton becoming tánaiste and minister for industry and commerce (1954–7). He secured Irish ratification of the convention of the International Labour Organisation on freedom of association and the right to organise, and facilitated discussions between trade union leaders and the Federated Union of Employers aimed at agreeing joint policies to deter unofficial industrial action. Seeking to attract foreign investment, he made a month's speaking tour of the USA (1956), and negotiated with Canadian experts for development of the Avoca mines.
With a stagnant economy and soaring unemployment, Labour suffered severely for its involvement in the second inter-party government. Devoid of alternative ideas, Norton acquiesced in the two deflationary austerity budgets of 1956, introduced by finance minister Gerard Sweetman (qv) in response to a balance-of-payments crisis. Attacks on Labour's record in government were vociferous from trade unionists, a militant movement of the unemployed, and the party's own grassroots activists. In a disastrous general election (March 1957), Labour's vote tumbled to 9.1 per cent, returning twelve TDs, only one from a Dublin constituency.
Norton's acceptance of a directorship of the Irish subsidiary of the General Electric Co. occasioned a heated row at the 1959 party conference, attacked by leftists as incompatible with his leadership of a labour party. Amid widespread dissatisfaction with his leadership, but the reluctance of parliamentary colleagues to mount a challenge, he resigned as party leader of his own accord (3 February 1960), succeeded by a protégé, Brendan Corish (qv). Withdrawing to the backbenches, Norton retained his seat in the 1961 election. Expert at assiduous nursing of his bailiwick, from the redrawing of a three-seat Kildare constituency in 1948 he was returned on the first count over quota through his last five elections, topping the poll in the last three.
Assessment A highly skilled and broadly informed parliamentarian, Norton was eulogised as rating, along with Lemass, as the two ‘ablest and shrewdest’ deputies in the dáil (Ir. Times, 1963), noted for his capacity to attain his ends under the guise of compromise. Assessments of his achievement have been remarkably divided. A cautious, calculating pragmatist, he led the political wing of a labour movement in which the iconic figures were revolutionary idealists, in contrast with whom his style seemed drab, his vision limited. Contemporary and retrospective leftist critics assailed his penchant for clientelist over ideological politics, sentimental nationalism, radical rhetorical bluster alongside reformist practice, and acquiescence in catholic sensitivities, as betraying the values of democratic socialism. His apologists retort that such elements of his leadership enhanced Labour's electoral appeal throughout a lengthy period of counter-revolution and profound social conservatism, in an industrially underdeveloped country with a consequently attenuated working class. Despite contending with such unfavourable objective circumstances, under which the Irish Labour party largely lost that natural constituency, the working class, to Fianna Fáil's post-colonial nationalist populism, as party leader for twenty-eight years Norton established Labour as a viable niche party, and demonstrated its capacity as a responsible and modestly effective government partner.
Norton married Helena MacNamee; they had one daughter and four sons. He resided for many years at 6 Merlyn Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin. Still a sitting TD, he died suddenly 4 December 1963 in his home after a brief illness, and was buried from Star of the Sea church, Sandymount, to Deansgrange cemetery. His son, Patrick Norton, after unsuccessfully contesting the ensuing by-election (February 1964), was elected in the next general election as Labour TD for Kildare (1965–9). A businessman and property owner, with no previous record of party activism, he strongly opposed Labour's ideological swing to the left in the mid 1960s under Corish's dynamic leadership. After being attacked at the party conference regarding a court case condemning houses that he owned, he left the party in December 1967, insisting it had been captured by ‘a small but vocal group of fellow travellers’. On joining Fianna Fáil (February 1969), he accused Labour of embracing ‘Cuban socialism’ (Gallagher (1982), 71, 83). Defeated in the June 1969 general election, he served in Seanad Éireann (1969–73).