Speech by Brendan Howlin TD at the campaign launch for Cllr. Andrew Montague Labour Party candidate Dublin North-West
17 October 2017
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland
It is a real pleasure to be here to help launch Andrew Montague’s campaign.
There are few councillors who can claim to have the impact Andrew has had during his time on the council.
In 2004, he was first elected to Dublin City Council.
That same year, he proposed the creation of a Dublin Bike Scheme.
At the time, there was great scepticism from many of his colleagues on the Council.
Many thought it would never work – that Dublin was too wet, or that cycling was too dangerous.
But Andrew never accepted the arguments against.
He persisted with a quiet determination, and five years later Dublin Bikes were launched to the public.
But he didn’t stop there.
Re-elected in 2009, he became Lord Mayor in 2011, and I remember his year as Mayor well.
He focussed in a straight forward, but determined way, to improve the quality of life for people living in Dublin.
In fighting for better public transport and more cycling, he recognised that Dublin had the potential to get out of our cars.
And in particular in tackling social problems, he recognised that those who suffer the impacts of crime and anti-social behaviour are often those who can least afford such impacts.
Throughout his time on the City Council, Andrew has remained firmly rooted in his community.
But he has always also had an eye for our broader community – for what our country as well as his constituency could become.
The role of the state
Tonight, I want to mention just a couple of the areas where I think Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are both taking their eyes off what our future could be.
The Labour Party believes, fundamentally, in the power of the state.
To liberate, to support, to nourish and to protect – the state can do all of these things.
But only if it is given the capacity to do so.
In advance of the Budget, we argued against tax cuts worth little more than a cup of coffee each week.
Some like to say that people deserve a break.
But we don’t see it like that.
We think people deserve more than three or four euros extra in their pockets at the end of the week.
They deserve secure homes.
They deserve top quality healthcare and education, free at the point of use.
They deserve childcare they can afford; and communities that are safe, clean and green.
Tax cuts deliver none of these.
The only thing tax cuts deliver is short-term political popularity.
So we argued against them. Unfortunately, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were not for turning.
In truth, both parties are stuck in a debate that feels like it belongs in the 1980s.
One example. Ophelia was a reminder to us all of the real dangers of climate change.
Tragically, three lives were lost.
But for the actions of Met Éireann, our rescue and emergency services, and indeed our Government, it could have been much worse.
But let’s be honest.
Ophelia is a sign of things to come.
It’s been clear for years that climate change and climate uncertainty are part of our futures.
This is the third weather based disruption in four years.
And that frequency will most likely increase.
And preparing to meet those challenges will require considerable investment.
Along the lines we haven’t seen before.
Climate change is an immediate threat to our communities.
And mitigating that threat will be expensive.
A penny or two off tax is not preparing for the challenges ahead.
It is ducking them.
The last couple of days have shown us that, when confronted with great challenge, our state can rise to meet them.
We just have to decide that is what we want.
The challenges we face are indeed great.
But so too is our capacity to rise to them, if only we would reach for the opportunity.
To borrow from Dickens, this need not be a winter of despair – a spring of hope lies within our grasp.
But realising that hope will involve empowering the state once more.
Not cutting taxes, but building homes.
Not funding private hospitals, but eliminating GP and hospital charges.
Not increasing college fees, but getting rid of them.
Instead, we have Fine Gael pursuing a clearly right-wing agenda to keep chipping away at income taxes.
And we have Fianna Fáil – a party that has destroyed our country more than once, and who would have no hesitation about doing so again – happy to back up Fine Gael’s plans.
I listened to Micheál Martin carefully on Saturday night.
His speech verged on parody at times.
He denounced Leo Varadkar as a right winger, as if he hadn’t just supported the Fine Gael budget.
He castigated a lack of progress on health and housing, but had not one single idea to solve the crises we face.
As he thundered on and on, it was difficult to imagine that he believed a word of what he was saying.
He didn’t even dare mention the eighth amendment, for fear of upsetting the old men in the Fianna Fáil room, who had voted by a margin of six to one to protect the 8th amendment that does so much harm to so many women.
As a brief aside, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil conspired to hold an election prior to any referendum on the eighth amendment.
If Micheál Martin was trying to show himself to be a leader in waiting, he failed.
Leadership involves honesty and bravery – we saw neither.
Above all else, he never mentioned anything that happened before 2011.
He knows that his party drove our country off a cliff.
He just hopes that if he pretends it never happened, we might all forget.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly won’t.
The unwillingness to grapple with the biggest issues we face annoys me.
I have always believed in the power of politics.
But for power to have purpose, it must be used towards a particular end.
A slightly lower tax take won’t inspire many;
It certainly won’t address the epochal scale of change we face.
In truth it will do the opposite.
But in case you think my only criticism of this Government is around money, that is not the case.
The risks we face from Brexit are another area where I worry about our timidity.
The European Council will meet this Friday.
They will make clear that not enough progress has been made to move past the first three issues identified – the issues of the rights of EU and UK citizens; Ireland and the peace process; and the bill the UK will pay upon exit.
That is welcome.
If Irish concerns are not dealt with upfront, it will be too easy for them to get forgotten about later.
There was a late effort by Theresa May on Monday to allow discussions on trade to begin.
This was resisted by the EU side, but it is concerning that much of the public reasoning has been a lack of progress on the bill the UK will have to pay post-Brexit.
In other words, if Germany can be satisfied that Britain will pay their bills, the talks might be allowed to skip ahead.
This would be an incredible risk for Ireland.
There has been some progress, apparently, on how the common travel area might be continued.
But anything short of keeping the UK in the single market and customs union will result in a real border on this island.
Now, I think the British Labour Party could be playing a much more active role in achieving this.
I went to Brighton last week to make that case, and I am reassured that some are listening.
But we need our Government to do the same.
Fine Gael has links to the Tory party, and should be using them.
Fianna Fáil are supposed to be a sister party to the Lib Dems, but I haven’t heard of Micheál Martin doing much.
We all need to do more.
I speak about these issues not because I enjoy doing so.
I speak about them because it is important that we are honest about what we face.
And honest about what we can do about it.
But there should be no confusion – I don’t believe our future is a dark one.
I believe in the power of the state, and in the power of the Labour Party to shape the state.
Back when he gave his inaugural speech as Lord Mayor, Andrew quoted Seán Lemass.
He once said: “a defeatist attitude now would surely lead to defeat, we can’t opt out of the future”.
Now, Seán Lemass was no Labour man.
But with that statement he was absolutely right.
The Labour Party has never had a defeatist attitude.
And we have no intention of opting out of the future.
In Andrew Montague, we have one of our next generation of Labour leaders.
In them, our future will sit in safe hands.