Brendan Howlin address to the Wexford Chamber of Commerce
21 October 2016
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland
It’s always a pleasure to be here with members of the Chamber of Commerce.
Firstly, and briefly, I want to talk about how we can begin to build a shared prosperity in Ireland.
And perhaps a little more substantially, I want to share some of my thoughts on the impact of Brexit on our people.
As most of you will know I’ve had the honour of serving in Government for the last five years.
I say honour because I am not one of those lefties who believes that the holding of office should be confined to Tories.
In fact, that, to me, is the opposite of being what left wing is primarily about.
Advancing our causes in good times, and sometimes, when called for, defending those advances in bad times.
I don’t think anybody could suggest that the last eight years have been good times.
Quite the contrary.
Often the choice facing us in Government was an unpalatable option, and something worse.
It wasn’t easy and we got some calls wrong.
As the Labour Party rebuilds, I am very clear that we will be proud of what we achieved.
And we will be humble and honest enough to recognise the mistakes we made.
Overall, it is my firm view that we acted in the national interest.
We left Ireland in a far better place than we found it.
If other governments could say the same we’d be in a far better place.
Electoral consequences aside, that is how history will judge us.
Of course I now lead a party of opposition.
Let me say at the outset that I believe opposition to be a noble pursuit as essential to democracy and government as supply is to demand for our businesses.
Our job is to oppose this Government vigorously when they get things wrong, because democracy requires a vigorous holding to account.
Opposition is not the same as opportunism however.
Indeed, it is weaker in my view, if it is deployed persistently and permanently.
Unfortunately, over recent years we have seen a growth in the number of opportunists in Leinster House.
For this cohort, politics is not about choices about the rational distribution of resources; Rather it is a permanent critique of the system.
A system that has, over the arc of time, delivered reasonably well for our people.
Labour will not go down that road.
The fiscal correction we engaged in over the last eight years was not the rejection of counter cyclical Keynesianism;
It was a fight to restore our capacity to engage in it.
And now is the point where it should be engaged to build a shared prosperity for our people.
This week, my Party tabled a motion in the Dáil that would have seen class sizes reduced a little for the next school year.
We proposed this because we know that class sizes matter – particularly for younger children, and those with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds.
And we proposed it to build on work done in the last Budget, rather than bringing progress in this area to a shuddering halt.
The Government opposed this proposal, and succeeded in blocking it because Fianna Fáil abstained.
That, apparently, is ‘new politics’.
In advance of the Budget, Labour published a fully costed alternative Budget.
We argued against the tax cut that will deliver about the price of a cup of coffee a week to those on middle incomes.
And instead we argued for greater investment in education, in childcare, and in capital infrastructure.
We argued for these things because we believe that productive investment is good for our society, and also helps to build a prosperous economy.
But the Government ignored our suggestions.
While Fianna Fáil abstained again.
Is it because spending is out of control?
Is it that we calls for additional spending constitute lapsing in the habits of the past.
Not a bit of it. Public spending has incrased by just over 8% in the last three years. Well below growth rates. Our capacity to invest remains robust.
There are some that believe that my tenure in Government should preclude me from critiquing and opposing the current Government.
In fact my recent experience in Government allows me to critique and oppose from a particularly informed viewpoint.
And being in opposition allows me to make a more blunt and honest critique than is sometimes possible for a Minister.
The aspiration to achieve full employment remains, in my view, the defining cornerstone of progressive politics and Labour advanced it considerably over the last five years.
While we were at it, we legislated for collective bargaining and increased the minimum wage twice.
Because work in and of itself is not enough – it must bring people dignity as well as purpose.
My sense of equality and solidarity cannot be reduced to an equality of outcomes or equality of opportunity;
It is driven by a notion of an equality of participation.
As our President has put it many times, it is about the quality of the public space.
Services define solidarity so they matter.
The education system as a leveller matters, the health system matters.
And solidarity requires ambition.
I wanted to take a moment to talk about this notion of a shared prosperity because I think it matters
Four months have now passed since a majority of people in Britain voted to leave the EU and the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain.
The implications for Ireland are considerable and understandably this is a source of some concern – to many businesses in particular.
The peace we enjoy on this island is the work of a generation of politicians.
Only those of us who remember the troubles know how far we’ve come.
It is John Hume’s gift to a younger generation.
He was the leader who provided the Republican movement with a path out its own history and contradictions.
There can be no returns to hard borders on this island.
We worked too long and too hard to remove them.
The challenge facing the Government in looking to protect Ireland in the Brexit talks is a considerable one.
For all the supportive words, those that drive the European Union are not privy to the intricacies of this issue.
That is why Labour has offered our support, including access to our sister parties in Europe, to the Government on the issue.
This isn’t new politics: it is national interest.
It is why we also supported the SDLP call for an all-Ireland forum on Brexit, and I am glad that this national discussion will begin on 2nd November in Dublin.
I hope and expect that some unionists will participate.
It is time now for them, and for the DUP in particular, to respond to the challenge of a problem that they have, in part created.
Brexit is fast becoming a challenge of historic proportions:
As challenging as the economic recession of the last eight years;
As challenging as the ending of the violence of thirty years that cost 3,000 lives on this island.
The petty nostalgia passing as policy formation amongst the Brexiteers is a deceit on the British people, who were promised prosperity without compromise during the referendum campaign.
It is clear now that the Brexit camp, having campaigned on a platform of lies, have no idea where to go now.
Worse still, neither does the new British Government.
The decline in the value of the pound is not the problem in itself.
Rather it is a manifestation of the uncertainty that now grips the United Kingdom on this huge issue.
The new British Prime Minister, having effectively hedged her bets during the referendum campaign, has nowhere to hide now.
It is the job of those who opposed this referendum to hold her, and her Government, accountable.
It is one thing to say, as the Brexiteers do, that you remain in favour of multilateralism and engagement in the outside world.
But quite another to turn your back on an institution that has manifested the way the countries of Europe have cooperated for fifty years.
That this crisis has been brought about without, it seems, a second thought for the people of Northern Ireland and their hard won peace and prosperity, is a tragedy.
It says much about how the ‘mainland’ cares for Northern Ireland.
It says much about how little regard is afforded in the United Kingdom for the Good Friday Agreement.
We in Ireland are between a rock and hard place.
We value our relationship both with the UK and the EU.
We are committed to the EU.
We are committed to the biggest trading bloc in the world.
And we remain absolutely committed to our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement.
We remain committed to our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland, nationalist and unionist;
Whose relationship with our state is fundamental to our shared prosperity.
In Labour we regard this as an issue of national importance.
We will support the Government in its endeavours to get the best deal possible for the people, not just of this Republic, but of Northern Ireland as well.
We have a long road ahead.
But there are few battles, I believe, as important to the peace and prosperity of our country as this one.
Labour has always had regard for the national interest.
We do not play party politics when the stakes are as high as this.
We will not do so on this occasion either.