SPEECH BY BRENDAN HOWLIN TD AT LABOUR PARTY CONNOLLY COMMEMORATION

Issued 14 May 2017

Introduction / James Connolly

We are assembled here to pay homage to the memory of James Connolly.

It is a deep honour for me to be here for the first time as Leader of the Labour Party.

Connolly was a political thinker, a trade unionist, and a fighter for freedom.

He founded the Labour Party.

And ultimately, he surrendered his life in the struggle for national independence, as a precursor to the establishment of a Socialist Republic.

James Connolly never succumbed to the nostalgic lure of simplistic nationalist mythology, as some like to contend.

His participation in 1916 was at the head of the Irish Citizens Army.

Though it is often brushed out of history, the ICA was a distinctly separate Workers’ Militia.

It had grown out of the resistance to the brutal attempt to smash Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

A resistance that began in 1911 with the first lock-out taking place in my own home town of Wexford.

As a former soldier, Connolly had a deep and abiding understanding of the horror and misery of war.

Indeed he was one of only very few who accurately predicted the sheer scale of the awfulness that was to follow in World War I.

He was absolutely determined to prevent the introduction of conscription in Ireland and all that would have entailed.

He also, along with many others in the international Socialist Movement, had come to the conclusion that national independence was an essential pre-requisite to the ultimate emancipation of the working class.

He never saw independence as an end in itself but only as an essential stepping stone to an egalitarian society.

Ultimately, as we now know, the sacrifice made by Connolly and his comrades, and those who followed, led to the prize of national sovereignty in what is now the Republic of Ireland.

It was achieved following the War of Independence, fought on the basis of the Democratic Programme which was adopted by the first Dáil in 1919.

That inspiringly egalitarian document was drawn up by the first Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Johnson.

He was helped in drafting it by two other major figures in the Labour and Trade Union Movement, William O’Brien and Cathal O’Shannon.

The Leaders of the Republican Movement had agreed to these drafters because Labour had made the sacrifice of not contesting the 1918 General Election in order for a clear choice on the national question.

That would not be the last time Labour would subordinate its electoral prospects in the interests of the sovereignty of the people of Ireland.

A period of possibility

A century later, we face a period of enormous possibility.

The centenary of the foundation of the state lies five years away – 2022.

And we probably have a greater chance of realising the aspirations of the Democratic Programme of 1919 over that five year period, than in any similar period in our history.

There are challenges of course – we will have to navigate the consequences of Brexit and Trump.

But we could do it.

We are on track to end out structural deficit next year.

Once we do so, any Government in power between then and 2022 will have more resources at their disposal than at any time since the peak of the property bubble.

With such resources available, our ambitions must be high.

We could deliver a living wage for all in work;

Decent housing for all our people;

A top quality healthcare system;

A focus on education and skills that allows every person to realise their potential;

Full Collective Bargaining rights for working people; and

Entitlement to full social and cultural rights for all.

That’s an agenda for progress.

It’s an agenda for our future.

We are in this place because of the sacrifices the people have made.

But we are also in this place because of the role those of us in Connolly’s party played during those dreadful years.

I won’t dwell today on our record in Government.

But I will note that Labour made sure we regained our economic sovereignty while halving unemployment,

Increasing the minimum wage twice,

Protecting our state assets from privatisation,

Protecting public sector employment,

Reinstating REAs and creating the new concept of Sectoral Employment Orders,

And legislating for collective bargaining rights.

The International Trade Union Confederation has acknowledged that Ireland is probably the only country in the world which legislated to strengthen collective bargaining rights over recent years.

Whatever we achieved, we in the Labour Party know that progress must never come to an end.

The sacrifices of our people over the last lost decade were not made to allow a return to speculation.

Nor should we allow fiscal conservatives use the fear of recurring recession to block off social progress.

And so now, we must focus relentlessly on our future – a future measured by progress on created a decent, just and equal society.

In other words, exactly the type of future imagined in the 1916 Proclamation at the insistence of Connolly, and again reflected in the Democratic Programme of 1919.

While doing so, I passionately believe that we must also be considering the potential for a united island.

And let me be clear.

That is only possible if we find a way to recognise and respect the shared Irishness of those that hold both British and increasingly Northern Irish identities alongside our own.

And if we consider these questions in a manner much more thoughtful than any narrow sectarian headcount.

An island of ideas; not of borders.

A revitalised charter for those in work

As we imagine that future, we need to make sure that we bring all of our people with us.

And that means developing an active, vibrant, participatory democracy.

As socialists we do not view democratic participation as something that should be restricted to casting a vote in a General Election every five years or so.

We know that democracy should mean much more than that.

We have recently changed our own rules to recognise that every member has a voice and a view that is valuable.

We need to find ways of bringing those ideas into every area of Irish society.

Across a variety of spaces and spheres, we need fully franchised social, cultural and economic constituencies.

And one of those spaces is the workplace.

Which is why we are starting a new project to examine what workplace democracy can look like in the modern age.

And it is why we always place such emphasis on the issue of people’s rights at work.

And it is why today we are publishing a charter for the advancement of those rights.

Globalisation is a reality.

Not one we can or should turn our faces against.

But one that is stirring up real disenfranchisement.

A balance between capital and labour has often been struck through the work of strong and intelligent trade union organisation.

But the casualisation of work, among other factors, is tilting that balance.

Digitalisation, automation and the 4th industrial revolution should be developments of enormous potential.

Harnessed correctly, they could improve our work-life balance, and decrease levels of inequality in society.

They could release humanity from the drudgery of repetitive and physically exhausting roles.

And they could free people to engage in the provision of care; in education; in the arts and science.

But instead, too often, they are forcing people into precarious employment;

On low hours contracts, with low levels of pay, and frequent periods of unemployment or underemployment.

Our charter for the rights of those in work will tackle many of these issues.

And the restoration of the balance provided by intelligent and constructive Collective Bargaining is pivotal.

Collective bargaining matters because it takes place at the point at which the benefits of output are distributed, and at which job design can be influenced.

The absence of such negotiation, and the imbalance in relationships such an absence brings about, cannot be substituted by any other process or intervention.

On the occasion of the annual Connolly Commemoration, we gather here to announce the plans that we have to advance this agenda;

And we also come together to talk about how we can drive this agenda further.

Despite the progress made on the legislation we secured in 2015, we are acutely aware that we have not yet secured the right to engage in Collective Bargaining in this Country.

Standing here in this sacred place, I pledge that we in the Labour Party will continue to pursue that objective as a central priority of our work.

Public sector pay talks

The absence of collective bargaining rights manifested themselves in another arena over the last week or so.

Though the issue was not seen through that lens.

Over recent days, we have seen a debate rage around public sector pensions.

That debate suggests that such pensions, which typically amount to less than €20,000 a year, are gold plated.

But, the problem in this country is not that people who work in the Public Service have pensions;

Pensions for which incidentally they have made a substantial contribution.

No, the problem is that the majority of people who work in the private sector do not have them.

Too many people, who have worked hard all of their lives, find themselves with totally inadequate retirement incomes.

But this is not the fault of the public sector.

It is largely symptomatic of the denial of an entitlement to effective collective bargaining rights.

In any event, the debate over public sector pensions is largely unjustified.

It is already the case that new entrants to the public sector have career-averaged pensions, with legislation in place allowing for them to be pegged to increasing inflation.

15% of public sector workers already have such pension arrangements.

As recruitment increases rapidly over the years ahead, this percentage will grow rapidly.

And as I have said recently, this is the only way of doing it.

To attack the existing pension entitlements of those nearing retirement would, in my view, be unconstitutional.

It would also be immoral.

Over the coming weeks, there will be much more talk around public sector pay.

Much of it will be hyperbole.

The Public Sector Pay Commission has found a premium on pay at the lower levels in the public service over those in the private sector, though that doesn’t take into account private sector wage growth since 2014.

So there should be.

The State should reward those who work for it with a decent wage.

And the truth is that, for some grades, there is still some way to go to make a living wage a reality for all.

The public services should be an exemplar of decent pay, not a laggard.

That will be at the core of the Labour Party’s position on public sector pay over the weeks ahead.

Conclusion

James Connolly aspired to the creation of a workers’ republic.

That may not yet be within reach.

But the democratic republic he and the authors of the democratic programme of 1919 envisaged certainly is.

We’ll just have to do a lot for work to achieve it.

We know that there are many good and well intentioned people who are disillusioned by our time in Government.

But when faced with the choice we truly stood by our Republic.

My job now is to lead our party in demanding the changes that our communities; our workplaces and our families deserve;

To fight for decency; for justice; for equality.

To relentlessly fight for our future.

A fight that we have already begun.