Negotiations should begin now with all public sector unions-Howlin
24 October 2016
Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Brexit, Northern Ireland and Justice
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Welcome to the first of the regional meetings that will take place across the country between now and March.
These meetings build upon a series of meetings I have attended at branch and constituency level over recent months.
Tonight, I want to speak about the work we are doing to rebuild the Labour Party.
But first, I want to describe the state of Irish politics.
There are two kinds of approaches to politics:
There are those who like to talk about problems;
And there are those who look to solve them.
Labour is in the second of those categories;
And we are good at it.
In the nineties we entered Government with an economy in chaos and returned it to growth.
In 2011 we were handed an economy that Fianna Fáil had driven into an iceberg, and we steered it back to safety.
Over 40 years we have been the parliamentary vanguard of a change that has seen Ireland transformed from a narrow intolerant society to one which is much more pluralist and liberal.
And we will continue to lead that change.
There are many – too many these days – who only see problems as opportunities for political gain.
They might always have some advantage over those of us that seek to solve problems.
As soon as we make progress in one area, they shift the goalposts elsewhere.
And the new problem is always made out to be more significant than the last.
Had Sinn Fein or the anarchists entered Government in 2011 Ireland would now have no economy to speak of.
We wouldn’t have been talking about health and housing at the election just gone.
We’d have been talking about our economic implosion, the collapse in foreign direct investment, soaring joblessness and unimaginable hardship.
There would have been no debate about the scale of the recovery, because things would still be getting worse.
But no matter what the potential gain, we in Labour will never stoop to seeking political gain from personal suffering.
Because you don’t play politics with people’s lives.
Every family experiencing unemployment, is a family experiencing hardship.
Every child in poverty is one too many.
A housing shortfall is not a statistical problem, it is a human tragedy.
These hardships and tragedies deserve solutions, not soundbites.
And that is and will remain our focus.
I still believe that the policy platform we presented at the last election was a principled, progressive one.
I believe that we had already laid the foundations, and that we could have gone on to tackle the challenge of rebuilding a fair society after the crash.
But frankly, I think many Irish people had stopped listening to Labour.
We are proud of what we achieved over the last five years – rightly so.
As a nation, our recovery from our crisis is as significant achievement as the ignominy involved in our descent.
And more importantly to our people, our achievements included a halving of the unemployment rate, the first improvements to reading and maths levels in a generation, and two increases to the minimum wage.
These aren’t esoteric achievements divorced from people’s lives.
These are genuinely progressive steps, each of which will have moved people away from hardship or disadvantage, and towards a better future.
But when it came to the election, none of these achievements of which we are so proud mattered very much.
And let’s be honest enough to recognise why.
By the time the election came around, we faced an enormous challenge in having any of our messages heard.
I’ve said this before, and I will continue to say it – we recognise that we made plenty of mistakes along the way;
That there is a gap between what people heard us say and what they saw us do.
Some of this is because governing, particularly during a crisis, is messy and distracting, and stopped us from being clear about some of the things we were achieving.
But partly also because we made some particularly high profile promises in areas such as water or third level fees.
And we didn’t always deliver.
We are rightly proud of the many things we did in office.
But we’re also honest enough to recognise that we didn’t get everything right.
Our people have survived an existential crisis by making sacrifices.
We have moved to a far better place.
What was that for, if we don’t show real ambition now for the kind of society we can become.
Unfortunately, at a time when we need ambition, we have chaos.
A government for whom existence is an end in itself.
Where collective cabinet responsibility is a dated notion that deserves no loyalty.
A do-nothing Dáil.
Where there is no issue of sufficient importance that a committee or commission can’t be established to spend years looking at it.
If the Government survives at all, these will be known as the lost years.
As a Minister in the last Government, I passed into law 25 Acts.
Some of them were technical, some difficult, but most were reforming.
At the current rate of progress, Paschal Donohoe will only need one hand to count the number of laws he will enact.
But if nothing else, there is a lesson in this.
If new politics is only about process or the illusion of false consensus it is no politics at all.
Politics is about the resolution of differences in a peaceful and civilised manner – not pretending they don’t exist.
When the Government refuses to countenance an acceleration of pay recovery for public servants, they are making industrial unrest more, not less likely.
We are now days away from strikes by both Gardaí and teachers.
The doctors too are showing discontent.
The most responsible unions are warning that the edifice is crumbling.
Yet day after day, the Government line remains that Lansdowne Road is the only show in town;
That there can be no acceleration of pay recovery;
That no actions are planned that could maintain industrial peace.
If any issue has shown how the Labour Party is missed in Government, it is this.
Our relationship with trade unionism goes back 104 years – right back to the very foundation of our party.
In my own case, it goes back to my childhood days playing in the kitchen.
While I watched on, my father, a trade union official, would sit at the kitchen table discussing and debating terms and conditions for local workers.
He never led people up the garden path.
But he always negotiated the best possible deal he could for working people.
His work with the Transport Union was intrinsically linked to his work as a local councillor.
This link is in our DNA.
For much of my life, it has been used as a stick to beat the Labour Party.
The relationship was characterised as one of unequals – a weak Labour Party doing the bidding of strong trade unions.
But now, with Fine Gael governing without the Labour Party for the first time, people are seeing the value of a relationship we have long understood.
We understand the position of workers’ representatives, at an emotional as well as a political level.
It means we pick up the phone to talk to them regularly.
Together, we can assess the shifting sands of opinion within their membership; and strategically plan for the issues that are coming down the line.
Without the Labour Party, we see few such conversations.
Ministers declare themselves astonished when unions vote to take action.
That, in a nutshell, is the core of the problem.
They are surprised, because they don’t know what they are doing.
They don’t get trade unionism.
They don’t get the values of community, solidarity and democracy that underpin both trade unionism and social democracy.
When the Haddington Road Agreement was in place, we in Labour knew it couldn’t last as a standalone agreement.
Economic recovery had begun, and so had the expectations of the public servants who gave so much during our recent crisis.
And so we planned.
We accepted that pay restoration must accompany economic recovery.
And we negotiated a successor deal – the Lansdowne Road Agreement, and folded HRA into it.
For weeks now, I have been arguing that the Government should now be taking the same approach.
The Budget should have included some allowance for acceleration of pay recovery.
And negotiations should begin now with all public sector unions.
To put in place a longer-term deal, delivering pay restoration, with Lansdowne Road folded into it.
That would have been both the logical and the strategic choice to have made.
But as with their foolish tax cut, their refusal to reduce class sizes, or their abandonment of ODA and the arts, this Government didn’t make the right choice.
Instead, they stick their heads in the sand, and repeat ad nauseum – “the Lansdowne Road Agreement is the only show in town”.
Well, that mantra isn’t good enough.
This area of public policy requires agility and surefootedness, none of which is evident from this Government.
For us in Labour there is no easy road back.
But let there be no doubt – we will rebuild this party.
We will win back our support in workplaces, in community centres, at doorsteps and in the local pub.
We will win it back by running campaigns once more, and by proposing genuinely progressive solutions.
We will win it back, not by me making statements in the Dáil or elsewhere, but by building an inclusive leadership that means we all put our shoulders to the wheel.
We believe in the authenticity of our politics.
A politics that is about solving problems and creating opportunities.
A politics that is about how people live their lives.
As a party of the Left we do not believe in ceding political power to the forces of conservatism – locally, nationally or internationally.
Staying out of Government, particularly at a time of crisis, because you might do better next time is not politics, it is surrender.
As it was in Government, our focus will remain on the things that impact on the lives of the people we represent.
A people for whom we are ambitious.
That is Labour at its best, and it is the basis on which our political recovery will be based.
I have visited 15 constituencies over the last five months – from Laois to Limerick, and from Cork to Carlow.
In each of these, I’ve found a group of members and activists who are ready to get to work.
You’ll hear later this evening about some of our plans to support members to do exactly that.
I’ve found radio stations and local newspapers willing to hear what the Labour Party has to say
Most encouragingly, I’ve found people on the streets – some of whom didn’t vote for us last time, wishing us well as we rebuild our historic party.
We are also growing our number of activists and members.
200 new people have visited Labour’s website, and said count me in – I want to be part of what you are doing to rebuild Labour and to rebuild Ireland.
Another 900 young people have joined Labour Youth at fresher’s stalls, transition year fairs and other youth events.
For the first time in my time in the Labour Party, we are not just adding those to a database and hoping they will become active.
We are actively connecting them with local organisations, inviting them to party events and working to provide them with a welcome pack explaining how we work as a party.
We are transforming our internal communications.
We are working on a new party constitution that will underpin a truly inclusive and democratic culture throughout our party.
We are creating new structures that allow members to have an active say in policy development, and in campaigning ideas.
And last week, we began the work of selecting new local area representatives.
The first 12 of them are now in place.
Their job is to get to work, campaigning in communities, and learning lessons from their localities.
We are trying to do more than restore the Labour Party to what it was before.
We are trying to build a new movement around the Labour Party.
Through hard work;
Through progressive, principled policies;
Through parliamentary procedure, allied with grassroots campaigning;
We can, and we will rebuild this historic party of ours.
That work has already begun.
Thank you for being part of it this evening.