June 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
Speech at the Mansion House, Dublin
Thursday, June 26th 2014
Comrades and Friends,
These four weeks have been immensely energising for me as a candidate for the Leadership of this great Party. It has been an extraordinary experience. The debates have been wide-ranging and often inspirational. People have phoned me out of the blue to share their views. I have travelled all over the country to meet and listen to Party members, and I have come back with two simple messages:
-firstly, the new leader of our Party must fight our corner, holding true to our values and principles; and
-secondly, the new leader must renew our organisation, so that we can carry the fight to our opponents.
This election has also been an opportunity for us all to reflect on what the Labour Party means to us, and what we need to do now in order to restore our standing in the eyes of the people.
When I reflect on that question –what does the Labour Party mean to me –three insights come to mind. From three different people, at different times, saying different things.
Frank McGuinness is one of our greatest playwrights, author of the extraordinary “Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme”. Frank gave an address to the party’s 21st century Commission after the 2007 election. He spoke movinglyabout coming to Dublin in the 1970s as a young, gay man. He was lost in a strange, somewhat forbidding city. It was the members and activists of the Labour Party who befriended him, and who accepted him when he couldn’t get a welcome anywhere else. Frank McGuinness never forgot us for that.
The wonderful Betty Dowling was a member of this Party for something like seventy years. Betty died a couple of years ago. She was an active, loyal member of the Party in Dublin South –an absolute inspiration –so knowledgeable about the history of the party, its characters and its folklore. She was always so encouraging to me personally. I still have some of her good-wish cards that would arrive at critical moments at election time, always with a little contribution towards the campaign. I feel her spirit in the room here tonight and that of so many others who built and sustained this Party.
Thirdly, I had the privilege to be at the Tom Johnson Summer School last Saturday night and to hear Labour Youth’s Jack Eustace deliver a real tour de force on the Party, its potential, its future. Amongst much else he said this:
“Government is opportunity, even in these difficult times. We have done good, we have done bad, we can do better. But that message must go out beyond the leadership, beyond the cabinet, beyond the parliamentary party and must be taken up by the party membership. Hopeless anger gets us nowhere. Decrying the choice to go into government gets us nowhere. The only thing that can bring this party to its best is you –you as a member, you as a voter, you as a voice for those outside of our tent.”
So, we know we have a past, and we can be confident that with people like Jack and the young women and men of Labour Youth we have a bright future as well.
But we have to win that future; it won’t fall into our laps.
And after our recent electoral reverses we have to face some very stark truths.
Some of these truths relate to the very message we are giving to the electorate.
I said in Cork that we can’t fight the next general election on our record alone. It will not be enough to say that we saved the country from bankruptcy, however important we think that was. We will need to present a progressive social democratic agenda to our people setting out what we propose to do in the second part of this decade, and beyond, on the key issues that matter to us all –public services, tax reform, jobs, and civil and democratic rights.
But colleagues this is a time to be frank with each other. The stark truth is that we will find it difficult to get a hearing for anything we say in 2016 if we allow the impression to stand that we misled people before the last elections, and that since then we have broken every promise we ever made.
We need to take this argument head on and we need to do so with confidence and clarity.
Much of what we said before the election made it into the Programme for Government but not everything did. We can’t expect that a Fine Gael/Labour Government would deliver on each and every commitment made by the Labour Party before the last election. Yet this seems to be exactly what our opponents and many in the media are suggesting.
We all know what happened after the last election. We did a deal with Fine Gael to save the country. To save people from what would have happened if Fine Gael had free rein. That is what happened.
We are entitled to be judged on the Programme for Government and not on the basis of what we would have done if the people had voted for us in greater numbers than they actually did.
We are a Party of good, honest, talented people who share a set of beliefs. We are a Party of principled activists and determined fighters: we are a Party of people who step up when our country demands it: of people who get involved in politics, not to fill our pockets, but to make our country a better, more equal place.
Of course there will always be those who sneer at us. Who deplore the fact that we are willing to get stuck in to the messy business of government and getting the country out of recession. Many of these people think of themselves as being on our Left, whether they be Sinn Feiners, Me Feiners or the far left. This is the left that uniquely in all the western world is opposed to taxes on property. This is the left that forced the privatisation of bin collections by telling people not to pay their bills. This is the left that is undermining our public services daily by peddling the nonsense that public services can be paid for by taxing Tony O’Reilly, Sean Quinn and pretty well nobody else.
As a Party we need to stand up to the so-called left. We also need to stand up to Fine Gael and if you elect me on July 4th I promise you that we will. Labour must be more visible in Government if you elect me and I promise you we will.
I think most of us in this room accept we need to change. The question you need to answer is which of the two people before you best represents the change we all know needs to happen.
I believe that our presentation to the electorate must be clear, concise and honest. I believe that we should not shirk, or avoid difficult questions, or shy away from the difficult challenges of today or tomorrow. I believe we must lay out the choices that face our people – whether on tax, on public services, or climate change.
The Leader must be someone who can deal effectively and convincingly with our opponents. I believe that I have those skills – the skills necessary to address what Mick Duff earlier referred to as our “communications deficit” – and to bring others with me in doing so.
Most of all, the Leader must be someone who will take the Party with confidence into the next election and beyond – in a project of renewal for Labour and for Ireland.
I ask for your support.
June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
Minister of State with responsibility for Primary Care, Alex White TD, today welcomed Dáil approval of the Health (General Practitioner Service) Bill 2014.
The Bill is the legislative basis for the start of a new universal GP service and provides an entitlement for all children aged under 6 years to a GP service without fees. It is the first stage of the Government’s commitment to introducing, on a phased basis, a universal GP service without fees within its term of office, as set out in the Programme for Government.
Following approval by the Dáil, the Bill will now proceed to Seanad Eireann and the Minister said he was confident that the legislation would be enacted before the Summer recess, with implementation of the service in the Autumn.
“The passing of this legislation is a landmark in advancing an historic public health initiative to deliver GP services to the population free at the point of access. I am proud of this significant achievement as it is a major development in enhancing public health through Primary Care.“ Minister White said.
June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Labour Leadership Husting Speech
Portlaoise, 21st June 2014
I would like to begin by thanking Labour Youth for hosting these election hustings as part of the annual Tom Johnson Summer School. Debate, argument, and the contest of ideas has always been central in the life of the Labour movement, and Labour Youth are to be congratulated for keeping this tradition very much alive, year to year.
I grew up in a household that was steeped in the principles of social democracy – community, equality, social justice. From a very young age I knew about Labour, and what we have always fought to achieve. I remember my Dad talking about attending Jim Larkin’s funeral in 1947 along with my granddad. Both my father and grandfather were railwaymen, active trade unionists, and strong Labour people.
In common with many in my generation, I was the first in my family to go to university. It was an incredible opportunity, and it shaped my life. I studied sociology in TCD, became a student activist, a campaigner, and an advocate for change. In those years we campaigned on issues that seem so distant now – contraceptive rights, political censorship, and democratic rights in Eastern Europe. I know that Labour Youth, Labour Equality, and Labour Women continue campaigning on many issues that still need to be settled – like reproductive rights and marriage equality, and I fully support you in this endeavour.
In my twenties and early thirties I spent ten years as a producer in RTE, running daytime radio programmes like the Gay Byrne Show. I became a trade union activist during my time there, and was closely involved as well in the early years of SIPTU.
After RTE I worked for almost 20 years as an employment lawyer – representing workers dismissed from their employment, or suffering discrimination or accidents at work.
I joined the party in 1998 in Dublin South. I’ve been a public representative for ten years, elected to Dail Eireann for the first time in 2011.
As a junior Minister in the Department of Health I negotiated and delivered on Labour’s commitment to legislate for the X case. I secured government agreement on the alcohol strategy – the first time in this country that alcohol misuse is being addressed in public health legislation. Just this week the Committee Stage of the Free GP Care Bill – the Under 6s legislation – was completed in the Dail. This is the first step in delivering Universal Primary Care and I am honoured to be the Minister responsible.
We are right to be proud of our record, and of our history. But however great our history, however inspiring it may be, the past cannot guarantee us a future. The fact that we have been around for a hundred years does not in itself guarantee that we will still be around in a hundred years’ time, or even in twenty years’ time.
We suffered a bruising defeat a few weeks ago. Since then, I have heard it said more than once that we have been here before – most recently in 1985 and that within a few years, we were back on track.
There is some truth in this. We are resilient. We have been in tight corners before and we have pulled through.
But, and this is my message here this afternoon, the recovery of this Party is not guaranteed. There is no certainty that the pendulum of history will swing back in our direction. There is no certainty that this Party will survive as a major political force into the future. We cannot simply assume that the voters who deserted us in such numbers on May 23rd will come back sooner or later.
The stark truth is that they will only come back if we respond to the message which they sent us on that day in May. And that message was stark, very stark. Quite simply they told us to: Change, or move off the stage.
We need to change our message; we need to change the way we do things; we need to change the image we present to the electorate. That process of change will take time. It will not happen overnight. But we have the opportunity to start that process of change when we elect a new leader on July 4th next.
Our message to the people of Ireland essentially has been that things would have been worse if Labour were not in Government, possibly much worse. And I believe that. I do believe that we have saved the country. I do believe we did a job that needed to be done.
That said, colleagues, true and all as that message may be, it clearly cut little ice with the electorate on May 23rd last, and there is little reason to believe that it will fare any better in eighteen months’ time.
We need to change the message.
When we go to the electorate in two years’ time it will not be enough for us to point to our record and ask them to imagine how much worse things might have been. We will need to tell them that the lost decade is over. We will need to present them with a vision of the future that is relevant to them and their families. We will need to offer them policies on health, on pensions, on taxes, on social change; policies that will make life better for them and their children. It needs to be a positive, forward-looking message that speaks to the lives of the people we look to represent.
And I think a little self-reflection would be worthwhile too. How often have we said, when pressed on our record, that we deserve credit for making “tough decisions” or “hard choices”? We need to ask ourselves what we mean by this.
Tony Judt, the renowned social historian has observed:
“The poor vote in much smaller numbers than anyone else. So there is little political risk in penalizing them: just how ‘hard’ are such choices? These days we take pride in being tough enough to inflict pain on others. If an older usage were still in force, whereby being tough consisted of enduring pain rather than imposing it on others, we should perhaps think twice before so callously valuing efficiency over compassion”.
Earlier this week we were treated to another lecture in fiscal orthodoxy by our friends at the IMF in Washington. We were told once again that we should take 2 billion out of our economy in the 2015 budget. In the rarified world of the IMF this counts as a “fiscal adjustment”. Those of us who live in this country know the reality behind those anodyne words. A 2 billion “adjustment” means more cuts in public services, more taxes and charges on our people, more suffering and distress for people who have already given too much.
Let me be clear about this once again. If I am elected as leader of this Party there will be no more “adjustment” of 2 billion or anything close to it.
Enough is enough.
A final word to the IMF. It would be better – much better – if the IMF were to give us some real assistance rather than sanctimonious lectures. And they could start with the excessive interest rates they are currently charging.
We are living in an age of uncertainty. The austerity burden is exacerbating income and inter-generational inequalities. All the evidence is that younger people have been the most acutely affected by the crisis, specifically with the rise of youth unemployment, the increasing use of zero-hour contracts, and the decline in incomes.
These are critical challenges for is in the period ahead.
And so, our task is firstly to recover; to renew our Party; to focus on a realisable set of objectives for the remaining lifetime of this government; and to prepare a manifesto together for the party to present to the people at the next general election.
As well as getting our message right, we need to do great deal to reinvigorate our organisation, to help the members of the Party to work better together, to involve people in a real way in policy-making, to use Information Technology to better effect.
In ten years’ time, this Party – and our social democratic project – will be led by a new generation of men and women.
I believe the change we need must start now, and I want to lead that change – to be a bridge to that new generation of our party.
I am asking for your support on July 4th to make it happen.
June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
I once wrote to Brendan Corish, leader of the Labour Party, looking for a signed copy of the 1969 election manifesto. That was in 1971 when I was 12. It arrived shortly afterwards and I still have it.
It was from my father that I got my Labour values…the ideals and the principles that shaped my life, and my perspective on the world. Like his father before him, my Dad was a railway worker, a trade unionist, and a Labour man.
In common with many people of my generation, I was the first in my family to go to university, and it was an opportunity I grasped with huge enthusiasm and a sense of great promise for the future. I studied in TCD, became a student activist, a campaigner, and a bit of a thorn in the side of the establishment. In those years we campaigned not just on student issues but also for contraceptive rights, civil rights, community action, and democratic rights in Eastern Europe.
Later I spent ten years as a producer in RTE, and became quickly immersed in trade union activity – the old FWUI, and was very much involved then in the early years of SIPTU. After RTE I worked for almost 20 years as an employment lawyer.
I joined the party in 1998 in Dublin South. I’ve been a public representative for ten years, elected to Dail Eireann for the first time in 2011.
As a junior Minister in the Department of Health I negotiated and delivered on Labour’s commitment to legislate for the X case. I secured government agreement on the alcohol strategy – the first time in this country that alcohol misuse is being addressed in public health legislation. Just this morning the Committee Stage of the Free GP Care Bill – the Under 6s legislation – was completed in the Dail. This is the first step in delivering Universal Primary Care and I am honoured to be the Minister responsible.
It is a great pleasure to be here in Cork for these hustings. It is a City and a County which has contributed a huge amount to the Labour Party and the Labour movement over the decades. I am thinking of people like Gerry O’Sullivan, Toddy O’Sullivan and Joe Sherlock, all of whom served in Government in one capacity or another. I am thinking of Michael Pat Murphy, Paddy Kerrigan and of course, the Desmond family through the generations. At least fourteen members of our Party have been Lord Mayor of this City in our one hundred years of existence.
We are right to be proud of our record, and of our history. But however great our history, however inspiring it may be to younger members of the Party, the past cannot guarantee us a future. The fact that we have been around for a hundred years does not in itself guarantee that we will still be around in a hundred years’ time, or even in twenty years’ time.
We suffered a bruising defeat a few weeks ago. We lost many good comrades, some of them here in Cork. Since then, I have heard it said more than once that we have been here before – most recently in 1985 and that within a few years, we were back on track.
There is some truth in this. We are resilient. We have been in tight corners before and we have pulled through.
But, and this is my message here this evening, the recovery of this Party is not guaranteed. There is no certainty that the pendulum of history will swing back in our direction. There is no certainty that this Party will survive as a major political force into the future – unless we act.
We cannot simply assume that the voters who deserted us in such numbers on May 23rd will come back sooner or later.
The stark truth is that they will only come back if we respond to the message which they sent us on that day in May. And that message was stark, very stark. Quite simply they told us to change or move off the stage.
We need to change our message; we need to change the way we do things; we need to change the image we present to the electorate. That process of change will take time. It will not happen overnight. We have the opportunity to start that process of change when we elect a new leader on July 4th next.
In simple terms (and I appreciate it is often dangerous to reduce something complex to “simple terms”) our message to the electorate over the last while has been this. The country was broke in 2011. We couldn’t borrow money. We had no choice but to raise taxes and cut spending. We faced up to economic reality unlike Sinn Fein and the extreme left, and we did it in a fairer way than either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil did, or ever would do.
In essence what we are saying is that things would have been worse if Labour were not in Government, possibly much worse. And I believe that. I do believe that we have saved the country. I do believe we did a job that needed to be done.
That said, colleagues, simple, clear and true as our message may be, it clearly cut little ice with the electorate on May 23rd last, and there is little reason to believe that it will fare any better in eighteen months’ time.
We need to change the message.
When we go to the electorate in two years’ time it will not be enough for us to point to our record and ask them to imagine how much worse things might have been. We will need to tell them that the lost decade is over. We will need to present them with a vision of the future that is relevant to them and their families. We will need to offer them policies on health, on pensions, on taxes, on social change; policies that will make life better for them and their children. It needs to be a positive forward-looking message that speaks to the lives of the people we look to represent. We cannot rely on a core vote, our record in Government, or constituency work to get us over the line.
Getting that message right will be my main task over the next year. And make no mistake: that will entail a shift in our priorities as a Party. We need to strike a balance between doing our best in Government and developing the Party for the future. All too often we get this wrong. All too often (and for understandable reasons) we get sucked in to the day to day business of Government and fail to pay enough attention to the Party, our message and our organisation. If I am elected leader that will not happen.
We also need to do great deal to reinvigorate our organisation, to help the members of the Party to work better together, to use Information Technology to better effect. For any of this to be effective we need to get the message – the mission if you like – right in the first place.
Fourteen men and women, members of our Party, served as Ministers or Ministers of State when Labour and Democratic Left were last in Government – in 1997. Of those, eight have since left the Dail. One of those eight is now President; another, Toddy, is with us here this evening. Of the remaining six, three have since been Party Leader, one (Emmet) last expressed an interest in being Party Leader a quarter of a century ago, and one, Brendan, decided not to seek the leadership a few weeks ago. The “last man standing”, or rather the last woman standing, is the person I have the honour of sharing the stage with in these election hustings.
Sooner or later we will have to look outside that class of ’97. There will simply be nobody left. The question for all of us, now, is whether to return for one last time to that generation, or whether to move on now.
In ten years’ time, this Party will be led by a new generation of men and women, people in their forties or perhaps even younger. We can start the transition now or we can wait a few more years. The timing of that transition is crucial. We have seen how some of our sister parties have suffered badly by delaying change for a few years too many. We cannot afford the same mistake.
I believe the change we need must start now, and I want to lead that change – to be a bridge to the new generation of our party.
I am asking for your support on July 4th to make it happen.
June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
June 16th 2014
One of my earliest memories as a child was watching the television coverage of the 1969 general election with my Dad. I was ten. I remember sharing in the disappointment of that election setback, but picking up from him a remarkable sense of optimism and commitment to changing things – a commitment that so many people in this party have -and that has stayed with me ever since that childhood experience.
It was from my father that I got my Labour values – the ideals and the principles that shaped my life, and my perspective on the world. Like his father before him, my Dad was a railway worker, a trade unionist, and a Labour man.
In common with many people of my generation, I was the first of my family to go to university, and it was an opportunity I grasped with huge enthusiasm and a sense of great promise for the future. I studied sociology in TCD, became a student activist, a campaigner, and a bit of a thorn in the side of the establishment. In those years we campaigned not just on student issues but also for contraceptive rights, civil liberties, community action, and democratic rights in Eastern Europe.
Later I spent ten years as a producer in RTE, and became quickly immersed in trade union activity – the old FWUI, and was very much involved then in the early years of SIPTU.
In 1994 I left RTE and started practising as a barrister. I learned a huge amount working as a lawyer. Negotiating skills. An ability to be strong and decisive. To advise and counsel. To know where to draw the line. When to fight and when to settle an issue. My principal area of work was in labour and employment law, fighting dismissal cases, discrimination and equality, injuries in the workplace.
This was fulfilling work, but I still wanted to make a contribution to society through public service. I think that’s an urge and a motivation that everyone in this room shares. People don’t join Labour for personal advancement. We join to make our country a better place. That’s what I want to do – in whatever capacity I can, and drawing on whatever skills and experiences I have.
I joined the party in 1998 in Dublin South. I’ve been a public representative for ten years, elected to Dáil Éireann for the first time in 2011. Before I was appointed as a Minister of State I was Chair of the Finance Committee, which gave me great insight into the Eurozone crisis at a particularly eventful time in 2011 and 2012.
As a junior Minister in the Department of Health I delivered on Labour’s commitment to legislate for the X case, through detailed negotiations with Fine Gael on the text, and then piloting the new law through the Oireachtas. I secured government agreement on the alcohol strategy – the first time ever in this country that alcohol misuse is being addressed in public health legislation. And I have been advancing our long-standing policy of universal access to primary care – that legislation will be at Committee Stage in the Dail this Thursday. Against what many people said were impossible odds, I recently negotiated a framework agreement with the IMO that will facilitate progress on this critical public health measure, something that we have been arguing for years, and that we are now making a reality. It’s the kind of policy area that you need to work through, negotiate, push forward, and that’s what I have been doing.
So – why am I going for the position of leader of the Labour Party?
Our party currently faces many challenges – in terms of our organisation, our message, and our place in Irish society. Our response to these challenges cannot be simply “more of the same”. We need change, change that starts on July 4th when a new Leader takes up office. The question for our party now is whether to pass the baton to the next most senior person in the current leadership, or to shift gear altogether and choose someone who is relatively fresh, who will present a new and different image to the electorate, and who has the energy and commitment for a project of renewal.
My ambition is to tackle three major tasks for the party in the immediate months ahead: how will we seek to bridge the disconnect between our members and the party in government; how can we ensure that our party, especially in areas where we have no elected representatives, retains a local presence and relevance; and how every member of our party can meaningfully contribute to policy direction, our next election platform, and the longer term renewal of our vision for a social democratic Ireland.
There have been serious problems, especially lately, in how business is being done in government. For a coalition government to work successfully there must be absolute respect between the partners. There must be parity of esteem, and I intend to ensure that there is. That parity of esteem must permeate personal relationships, all decision making processes, flows of information, the culture of government work, and the agreed programme. In short, the relationship between the parties in government must be robust and it must be respectful. As leader I will make that happen.
As far as the next budget is concerned, there can be no question of an adjustment of the order of €2 billion. We have an agreed target of reducing the deficit below 3% in 2015 and I believe we can achieve this. But there can be no more significant cuts in public spending, or any more taxes or charges affecting people on average incomes. If you elect me as Leader I will ensure that this will be Labour’s position for the remainder of the term of this Government.
The government is right to look at budgetary options for relieving the pressure on our people. Tax relief is one option that has been mentioned. But the protection of public services must also be a high priority. As much as I would like to see tax relief I do not believe it should be at the expense of essential public services.
Le coicis anois, taimse ag taisteal ar fud na tire ag ple le baill an Phairti, agus ta se lan soileir go bhfuil dearcadh thar a bheith diultach sa Phairti, maidir le ceisteanna rialtais agus rannphairtiocht sa Chomhrialtais. Ta a lan caint faoi ualach, faoi dualgas, faoi freagarthacht. Ni haon ionadh e sin, tar eis taithi na mblianta seo caite, tar eis na gnaiomacha ata curtha i bhfeidhm ag an Rialtas. Ach ta taobh eile ann. Ta se rithabhachtach nach deintear dearmad air go bhfuil deiseanna again freisin; deiseanna nach dtugtar duinn go ro mhinic – deis dul i mbun athchoiriu mar shampla – athchoiriu i bpolatiocht na tire, athchoiriu a bhaineann le cearta Deanna ar mhuintire, athchoiriu a bhaineann le seirbhiseacha bunusacha cosuil leis an gcoras leighis, rud go bhfuil suim faoi leith agamsa ann.
Cibe iarrathoir a thoghfar ar an 4u la de Iuil, no sa treimhse roimhe sin, beidh air no uirthi dul i ngleic le dushlain tromchuiseacha, le fabhbanna faoi leith, le buncheisteanna tabhachtacha. Buncheisteanna a bhaineann le todhchai an Phairti, le teachtaireacht an Phairti, le eagru agus eagraiocht an Phairti.
Se an rogha ata ag gach uile ball den Phairti, ag gach uile duine sa seomra seo, cinnireacht an Phairti a bhronnadh ar an duine is sinsire sa chinnireact ata ann cheanna fein, no duine a thoghadh go bhfuil an fuinneamh aige dul i ngleic le tionscnamh athnuathchain a mhairfidh cuig bhliain ar a laghad. Mar a duirt Eamon agus se ag eiri as a phost mar ceannaire, ta ga le guth nua ag an miocrafoin. Ta se ar mo chumas, agus beidh me an sasta an ghuth nua sin a chur ar fail ma thoghann sibh mise mar ceanaire ar an bPairti ag tus na miosa seo chugainn.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.
June 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
HOW CAN LABOUR PRINCIPLES SHAPE THE 21st CENTURY IRELAND AND WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TRADE UNIONISM IN THE CENTURY AHEAD?
William Norton House, 14th June 2014
Thank you very much Chairman, Joan, friends and comrades. I want to thank you for affording me the opportunity to be here today and to participate in this debate. It’s terrific to see such interest and involvement in the Party and the trade union movement. It is also heartening to see the solidarity and collaboration that we have as a Party with the trade union movement.
I’m very proud to stand here today as a candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party. I’m a trade unionist myself and a former member of the old FWUI no. 15 branch as it was known back then. I was a representative and an active trade unionist for 10 years. I am particularly proud to recall that I was Vice-Chair of the first Regional Executive Committee of SIPTU between 1990 and 1994 on the Dublin Executive Regional Committee. I think we called ourselves the Transitional Regional Executive Committee at that time. The merger was a remarkable achievement and a great experience to be part of.
Since that time, as many of you may know, I have worked as an employment lawyer – – for almost 20 years. The biggest part of my practice has been in labour and employment law; working with important protective legislation covering unfair dismissals, equality legislation, fixed term work and part-time work legislation. The range of statutes that have built up over the years have arisen very often as a result of the Labour Party being in Government and bringing forward the agenda that we wanted to see achieved in legislative form.
The title of today’s debate asks how can Labour principles shape Ireland in the twenty-first century and what is the role of trade unionism in the century ahead. I think that’s a very stimulating question for us to address.
In broad terms, the social democratic project is under threat. What we want to see is for the great social democratic project recover and be a beacon for progress in our country and in our world.
The economic crisis seemed to pose an opportunity for the left, but in truth the crisis revealed its weakness and inadequacy. This may be because the left abandoned so much of its programme during the period before the collapse – whether it was surrendering to the agenda of light-touch regulation in banking and finance in the UK under the Labour government, or adopting a supine attitude towards the low-tax and “shrink-the-state” programme of right-wing and centre-right parties here and elsewhere.
So when the music stopped, our chairs were gone and we have to accept that in some instances we actually removed the chairs ourselves.
We are living in an age of uncertainty. Economic recovery is not assured, and to the extent that it can be seen in Europe, it is two-speed. The fiscal constraints that were agreed in the Eurozone have not yet even begun to be matched by credible and sustainable policies for investment and growth, particularly in the so-called peripheral countries such as ours.
A critical task is to re-open this front in Europe and to press our case, not just for relief on the crippling debt, which was never the debt of the Irish people, but also on the urgent necessity for action on growth and action on investment.
We must understand the impact of global forces on our economy. They are very real and very extensive. But in recognising those forces, we should not imagine that we are powerless to act in the face of profound change that is happening in our world –change in the very nature of capitalism arising from exponential advances in technology, and the further decline in Fordist mass production that we’ve seen in recent decades. It seems to me that these issues are of enormous relevance both to the parties of the left and social democrats, and also to trade unions.
What we both need to do is not to abandon our traditional values and principles. On the contrary, what we need to do is to find policy instruments which seek to realise these values in a rapidly changing world.
For Labour, it means fashioning a new strategic role for the State in economic and social development. For the trade unions too, it requires new thinking on how best to represent and succeed on behalf of your members.
We need each other in these respective endeavours.
We have experienced, and in many ways are still living through an economic crisis; a crisis that pushed up public debt against a background of collapsing tax revenues.
As noted by Andre Sapir of Breugel, the crisis is also exposing and even accentuating the impact of long-term structural trends, including the ageing society, soaring health costs, and rising demand for public and social care services that were already there before the crisis began.
That austerity burden is exacerbating income and inter-generational inequalities. All the evidence is that younger age cohorts have been the most acutely affected by the crisis and I think that this is an unanswerable truth of what we’ve seen, specifically with what we’re seeing in the rise of youth unemployment.
So, in Labour, our task is firstly to recover as a party; to renew our organisation; to focus on a realisable set of objectives for the remaining lifetime of this government; and to prepare a manifesto together for the party to present to the people at the next general election.
The focus of this discussion is on the principles that we say must shape the Ireland of the 21st century. I have a number of principles that for me are the bedrock principles of socialism and social democracy that I aspire to.
First of all, government needs to be a force for good in rebuilding a productive economy. This is a critical role for government and the State. We should be unapologetic in demanding this. The case to “shrink the State”has lost any credibility it had, when we see the extraordinary extent of State intervention following the banking crisis.
The second principle I would have is regulation. Regulation is often described as a regulatory ‘burden’. I don’t regard regulation as a burden. I talk about regulation as a necessity, especially in the case of banking and finance, but also in areas such as wage-setting, professional fees whether legal or medical, environmental standards and health and safety standards also.
A third principle is strong, ethical and transparent public institutions. I would raise the reform agenda right across the board from Oireachtas reform which we need a lot more of, to real functioning, local government. Our courts and tribunals must be strong, transparent, ethical and fit for purpose.
The fourth principle is the public space – civic, cultural, physical and environmental.
It is of critical importance that we reach the EU 2050 emission targets, that we expand the use of renewable energy sources and develop ‘green growth’strategies.
A fifth principle is pluralism and tolerance in our society, a society free of discrimination. I think what the Labour Party has done in pressing for constitutional change, for example in same sex marriage and other areas, is critically important. Historically, if you go back over the decades, you can see that so much of the progress that the party made in our country was only done because Labour insisted on it in Government.
A further principle is supports and welfare whether it’s for individuals, families and communities. It is vital that we protect those budgets so we can protect initiatives like early investment in children and young families.
Healthcare – universally accessible healthcare. We will not ultimately solve the problems in our health services, and the additional demands on those health services without installing a proper universal system. We are bringing forward a universal system in relation to access to free GP care and primary care. The only way we’ll be able to run a progressive health service is if we have a health service with universal access.
Education for collective progress and individual fulfilment is a key principle –this means well-funded education, including higher education as a generator and engine of growth as well.
Finally, taxation: to meet fully the cost of public services we have to have a strong revenue base and we should stand up for that and not be apologetic. We only want taxes at the level they need to be, in order to provide services that a civilised society should have in health, in social protection and education. We should be clear on that. We should shift the focus from the taxation of incomes to the taxation of wealth, property and capital. I think a wealth tax should be firmly placed on the agenda by Labour and it should be kept on the agenda by the Labour Party in this period.
In regards to trade unions, it seems to me that the most important thing for the Labour Party to do in Government is seeing through new legislation on collective bargaining.
Jack O’Connor gave a brilliant speech this morning which addressed this important question of collective bargaining, amongst other issues.
The legislation that was introduced in the early 2000s was in danger of being fatally undermined by the Ryanair decision in the Supreme Court. What this Government is doing, at the insistence of the Labour Party, is rolling back that attack on the legislation of 2001 and 2004. This will be an enormous achievement, of historic importance.
The legislation will stand up for the principle in law that trade unions must be independent. The very basis of a trade union is that it is independent and is not the stooge or the plaything of the employer. If you can supplant the independence of a trade union and with a chosen group with whom the employer is prepared to negotiate, there is no real collective bargaining. This legislation will make central the absolute importance of trade union independence.
The legislation will have to include measures against victimisation, and measures to protect people who organise trade unions in a workplace and seek to bring forward demands relating to the terms and conditions for their members. There must be provisions against victimisation. We should include measures like interim relief and pre-dismissive relief in the courts, providing an option for legal intervention before a punitive dismissal takes place.
This legislation is a real example of the movement working together on the common agenda that we have as social democrats, as socialists and as trade unionists to make our country a better place, and to make sure that the legal framework is there for trade unionists to do the job that you are here to do which is to represent your members and advance their interests.
Thank you very much.
June 9, 2014 § 2 Comments
Since Alex White put his hat into the ring for the position of Labour Party Leader, some are questioning how a ‘South Dublin barrister’ will capture the imagination of the Labour Party membership. It is the members of the Labour Party and not just elected representatives, who will choose their party leader.
Alex White is a TD for Dublin South and a Senior Counsel but his closest family and friends are acutely aware of his modest background. It’s been a long road for Alex White. His family are keen to share his story as it’s his family’s past that drives him to make Ireland a fairer and better country.
As Alex’s brother Seamus White notes, “It’s ironic that when Alex qualified for the bar, one friend of Alex persistently said that he’d never succeed in the law because he was born into a working class family in Marino. Now it’s the opposite and people are saying he’s such a middle class candidate and that he won’t be able to identify with the Labour Party membership. This is hilarious because he got the other accusation thrown at him for so long. He came up the hard way and I’m delighted he’s in politics, trying to give back.”
Alex White grew up in Marino on Dublin’s Northside, the eldest of seven children. His father Bob was a train driver and his mother Agatha was a clerical assistant in the Department of Social Protection before she married and started her family. His parents first met at a Legion of Mary event on Crowe Street. According to Alex’s brother Brendan, family life with seven children was “chaotic” and “as kids we were always leafleting for my Dad who was a Labour man. Whether we were leafleting for Denis Larkin, the son of Jim Larkin or for the residents’ association or for the ground rents campaign – my Dad kept us busy.”
Alex was hugely influenced by his father who he canvassed with regularly for the Labour Party. Alex’s grandfather, a Clonmel man, was also a train driver, an active trade unionist and a Labour Party candidate in Dublin in the 1950s. As a result, the young Alex White was steeped in the values of social justice, equality and democracy. Alex’s brother Martin remembers the similarities between Alex and his father, “Alex was always the organiser growing up, very much like our Dad. He was very interested in civic and world affairs from a young age.”
Alex was always fascinated by politics. So much so, that when he was 10 years old, he and his best friend Derek McDowell regularly wrote letters to world leaders. One day a huge black car arrived from the American Embassy with a signed picture of Richard Nixon much to the surprise of Alex and his neighbours.
The Death of Alex’s Father Bob:
Alex had a great work ethic and excelled academically both in national school in Marino and at Chanel College in Coolock. He was the first person in his family to attend University. He had to work hard to pay for his education as his parents could not afford to support him financially. He worked his way through college on the train dining cars with CIE and earned a degree in Economic and Social Studies in Trinity College Dublin. As his mother Agatha remembers, “There was no such thing as grants or scholarships, so he worked summer jobs and went to London one summer when he couldn’t get work in Dublin.”
In 1979, tragedy struck when Alex’s father died suddenly. This left his mother responsible for providing for a large family. Alex, the eldest child, grew up quickly during this time and supported his mother Agatha, as she returned to work at the Department of Agriculture, while also raising her family.
“Alex was a great help at that time. He was the oldest and he was sensible. He was twenty but I often thought he was older and more grown up than he was. He had to grow up. He was very good around that time. He was very thoughtful and supportive.”
Alex’s sister Thérese, also remembers this difficult time and the support her big brother showed her, “When my Dad died, Alex had an awful lot on his shoulders. He really was my rock and always made sure I was okay. I remember on my 18th birthday, a few weeks after Dad died, he brought me out for dinner, just the two of us. He’s always looked out for me.”
Student Politics at Trinity College:
While studying at Trinity College Dublin, Alex became heavily involved in student politics alongside Joe Duffy – who would later become one of Ireland’s leading broadcasters. Alex was elected as welfare officer and subsequently as President of the Students’ Union.
Alex White, Joe Duffy and Liam Hayes were elected together to the Students’ Union on a joint ticket. Their main focus was to bring a working class voice into the representation of students and into the corridors of power of Trinity College. They wanted to put it up to the University management and senior academics that the University was reproducing elitism and that it needed to open its doors to people from a wider spectrum of backgrounds.
Alex also promoted sexual health awareness and campaigned for access to contraception in the Students’ Union. As Alex’s brother Seamus recalls, “The Students’ Union in Trinity installed an illegal condom machine as condoms weren’t legalised until the 1980s. A Northern Irish television channel did a report on the condom machine and they filmed a hand going into use the machine. Of course it was Alex’s hand! I remember seeing my father watching this on the television. We all recognised his hand and knew that Alex has been selected for the news item.”
According to Brendan White, “I remember my father freaking out that Alex’s grandmother might recognise his hand in the condom machine!” Alex’s mother Agatha was supportive of her son’s activism, “As parents, we didn’t mind. I was possibly more liberal than his father.”
During this time at Trinity, Alex would meet the love of his life – Mary Corcoran who is now a Professor of Sociology at NUI Maynooth. They’ll be married 25 years this year and have two children together.
“I first met Alex at the Students’ Union in Trinity College in 1979. My father was a milk rounds man. I was the first of my family of six siblings to go to University and I suppose we had a natural affinity. When I first saw Alex speaking about the importance of the Students’ Union, there was something about him. It was actually his blue eyes that were hidden behind this huge curtain of black hair, this big black beard and huge glasses. Even then, his left and liberal instincts were shining through.”
Campaigning for Social Change:
After Alex left university he and Mary were heavily involved in the Anti-Amendment Campaign in 1983. They were both against the introduction of a constitutional ban on abortion: “1983 we both worked on the Anti-Amendment Campaign. He was hugely proud of the fact that his constituency of Dublin North-East voted against the referendum. He was the director of elections for the Anti-Amendment Campaign in his local constituency.”
According to his brother Seamus, “This was a courageous stance to take at the time. It was extremely divisive as a referendum and he really put his head above the parapet. Alex could see that the amendment was too rigid and would come back to haunt us. Thirty years on when I saw my brother negotiating the Protection of Life Bill, it really brought home to me that we’re still grappling with these important issues.”
When it came to social reform in Ireland, Alex was leading the way, even if it proved controversial. As Mary his wife notes, “Alex is probably the most feminist man I ever met. That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to him. He has a natural belief in the equality of men and women.”
RTÉ, Trade Unionism and Section 31:
This sense of justice would continue during his time working as a producer for RTÉ where he was an active trade unionist. One of his colleagues remembers his commitment to trade union work with SIPTU, “He was heavily involved with SIPTU during his time at RTÉ. He advocated for staff who had been unfairly treated and worked for better pay and conditions for lower paid workers in RTÉ. His negotiation skills really shone through during this time.”
Alex also campaigned strongly against the censorship of Section 31 and worked to have it repealed. This form of censorship went completely against Alex’s liberal and democratic leanings. Michael D. Higgins, the Minister for Arts and Culture would eventually lift the Section 31 ban in 1994. As Mary recalls, “We now live in a world where that type of censorship would not be possible but when you look back it was draconian and Alex had a natural resistance to that.”
Alex at the Bar:
Alex worked in RTÉ as a producer on the Gay Byrne Show. During his time with RTE, he returned to education at night to train as a barrister. At the bar, Alex earned a great reputation as a skilled advocate with a flair for conflict resolution and mediation. “He is incredibly measured, he is very willing to take counsel of other people but he trusts his own instincts and judgements. He takes the temperature, looks at the evidence and makes a call. He has a great capacity to make decisions and to move things on.”
While Alex built his law practice, the call to enter politics was never too far away. As Mary recalls, “In terms of politics I can remember exactly the day that Alex decided to enter politics, in June 2002. One of Alex’s closest friends Mick Crowe, who had spent time in England and was involved in the British Labour Party, died at the age of 46. I remember Alex looked at his life and said I’m not waiting. I’m going to do the thing that I really want to do which is to get involved in politics and public service. He decided that in Mick’s memory he would make that leap and do what he could to make a contribution to the Labour Party and to Irish politics. I was 100% behind him.”
In many ways, Alex has made a similar leap in putting himself forward for the position of leader with the Labour Party. According to Mary, “This is about Alex contributing his skills and talents to make the Party better. He’s at the height of his talents. When the opening for Labour Party Leader came about, Alex would have thought, I’m a good negotiator, I understand legislation, I’m a strong communicator – I have the right skill set and maybe this can contribute to the revival of the Labour Party.”
When it comes to this decision, his family are right behind him. While his mother Agatha thinks “he’d have an easier life outside of politics”, she’s incredibly proud of him and his decision to put himself forward for Party Leader “as it’s the right thing to do.”
Bobby White: “In our family of 7 kids, Alex is the oldest and I am the second youngest. He is nine years older than me. We were not a family with the means for excursions and recreation trips but when I was young, I can remember Alex taking us on trips with him when he was working on the trains whenever he thought he was going somewhere fun. My younger brother and I would go with him and spend the day and then head back on the train. I have always recalled a wonderful day in Tramore and trips to Sligo.
“My earliest memories of Alex were his messy bed. We grew up in a 3 bedroom house for 9 of us and all 6 boys shared a bedroom. Alex always had books and newspapers everywhere and I used to think it was so funny. It took me years to realise that he was just always interested in reading everything he could about history, literature, and politics. His drive to further himself was always there.
“When our dad died I was only 12. His death was the most significant event in my life and it took me a long time to realise that this was also significant for Alex. From the second of my dad’s passing, Alex was there for us. He was only in his 20’s and he never hesitated. He was a rock and stepped in to fill my father’s role. On the nights just after I can still see him leaning over my bunk bed checking on me. He kept us all together and helped our mother at a drop of a hat. Most especially for my younger brother Seamus and me, he made the effort to be at every important event and milestone. Birthdays and confirmations, school events, anytime, anywhere.
“I recall Alex working at a petrol station at night and studying while he worked. I remember being so proud of him running for student leadership at Trinity and how hard he worked. I didn’t always understand what it all meant and how focused he was even in his youth to make a difference but I always respected him and looked up to him.
“When I moved to the States on a Morrison Visa when I was 20, I remember Alex coming out to our house the night before to wish me luck. I will never forget sitting down with him in the kitchen and just chatting about what I was going to be doing. He reminded me to take care of myself. I will always remember him reassuring me that if it did not work out and I was unhappy, not to stay just for the sake of staying. Things were hard at home but he told me just to come home if needed and he would help figure something out. I knew he meant it. Alex has never been one to say what he thinks people want to hear and that meant so much to me. I can tell you we have never discussed that conversation again but it meant everything to me.
“Alex is a great brother and friend I know for sure I could call him in a second for anything big or small and he would jump. He might be a busy politician, but we stay in contact and I follow everything he does in his politics. I admire him so much and everything he has done in his life and look forward to supporting him in the future.”