News & Media

FG cannot be trusted with national industries or major public investment

12 May 2019

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Brexit, Northern Ireland and Justice

Remarks at the Annual James Connolly Commemoration at Arbour Hill, 12th May 2019 by Brendan Howlin TD, Leader of the Labour Party.

Howlin says broadband should be publicly owned; and FG is opposed to State role in economy. 

We are here to remember James Connolly, and to honour all of those who founded the labour movement and the Labour Party.

If it was not for their courage, sacrifice and vision, Ireland would be a poorer place, in every sense.

For 107 years, the Labour Party has sought to improve the lives of everyone living in Ireland, and that is still our central aim.

One of the most important lessons from James Connolly was to envision a better future for Ireland, and to never stop striving to achieve that vision.

Labour continues to be inspired by the socialist vision of liberty, equality and justice set out in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, written by Labour leader Tom Johnson.

We unveiled a New Democratic Programme earlier this year at the 100th anniversary of the original. In it, we re-stated our unwavering demand for a more equal Ireland, where the people have control over the economy, and where the Government dedicates itself to ensure decent living conditions, with special priority given to ensure every child has a fair start in life.

This vision is as relevant today as ever.

A free market ideology is clearly visible in Fine Gael’s decision to give €3 billion of the people’s money to a private monopoly, alongside ownership of the rural broadband network.

This decision was taken within weeks of Labour leaving Government.

It shows that Fine Gael cannot be trusted with national industries or major public investment.

They are simply opposed to the State’s role in the economy.

Labour would entrust broadband to a publicly-owned company, and ensure the broadband network remains in public hands.

We see the same pattern in relation to housing.

Labour kept public land in public ownership.

And Labour would use the State to invest €16 billion to build 80,000 homes.

But Fine Gael’s idea of affordable housing is to give away land to private developers in exchange for discounted prices that are still out of the reach of many.

Their policies are unjust and unsustainable.

They leave nothing for the next generation, who need public housing to remain in public ownership.

Labour has never stopped seeking to give the public greater control over the economy.

And our vision is for the whole island of Ireland, and all the people who live on it.

I have spoken before, on this occasion, about my own aspiration for an agreed Ireland, built on the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement.

The first step on that journey must be the immediate resumption of government in Stormont, and I hope that the new talks process will yield results.

The centre ground in Northern Ireland was strengthened at the recent local elections.

I hope the majority of people will continue to exert themselves, to reject the political extremes, and to push their politicians to deliver an administration that works for the vast majority of people.

Rejection of extremism was also clearly visible in people’s reaction to the senseless murder of Lyra McKee.

The overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland rejected the reckless violence and baseless ideology of those behind her death.

It is, sadly, all too often the case that politics can be slow to change until extreme events require resolution.

Today, on the island of Ireland, we are being shaped by a number of extreme events that have the potential to bring about a wholly transformed way of life on this island.

These circumstances include our future relationship with Europe post-Brexit, the climate emergency, the threats to workers from new technology, the excessive power of multi-national corporations, and the growing inequality of wealth in Ireland.

Any of these would be a major challenge on its own.

Taken together, our collective response to all of these challenges will inevitably transform this island.

It is up to us, as democratic socialists, to envisage how we can meet these challenges in a way that will benefit working people and communities, not leave them worse off.

That is why we need to keep alive our vision of a new, more equal, Ireland.

I would love to see a coming together of people from all the communities of Ireland, to share their fears and to imagine how much more we could achieve if we worked together.

I have previously called for an all-island Forum of politicians from all parties to discuss our shared future.

We have to work together to address the climate emergency.

We must co-operate to ensure an open border on the island of Ireland.

It is essential that we have greater all-island dialogue, regardless of the outcome of Brexit.

Recent years have also shown us that political parties can trail behind public opinion on a range of issues.

Labour fought for women’s rights and gay rights for many decades when we were a minority voice in a conservative political system. But we found a pathway to secure these rights.

Similar issues, along with the Irish language, have become barriers to the negotiations in Northern Ireland.

I am confident that there is a silent majority that wants to see progress made on these issues by Stormont.

Rather than risk more years of stalemate, one solution would be to allow the voices of the silent majority to be heard.

People’s Assemblies are democratic.

They have worked around the world, including in Ireland.

They give a random selection of people the time and access to expertise to discuss complex issues and to make recommendations.

Before Ireland’s landmark votes on marriage equality and termination of pregnancy, both issues were discussed by People’s Assemblies.

This took party politics out of the debate and put the focus, rightly, on what mattered most to people in their daily lives.

The result was that the public’s views were revealed to be well ahead of Ireland’s conservative politicians, and a number of those parties changed their policies when people’s voices were finally heard.

An Northern Ireland People’s Assembly on the issues of disagreement, with a clear understanding that no party would veto the result using a Petition of Concern, could be part of the solution to break the current political deadlock.

Recent events in Europe have shown the risk of allowing narrow nationalism to dominate politics.

Across Europe, populists and extremists are trying to resurrect failed ideologies based on segregating national populations by language or religion.

We must stand firm against these illusions.

We have seen a reversion to ethic nationalism, most strongly in Hungary and Poland, but also in progressive countries like Finland and the Netherlands.

Brexit too is a manifestation of British nationalism as well as a reaction against economic inequality.

We should rightly remember and celebrate our age-old traditions and our history.

But we must resist tribal nationalism in Northern Ireland.

And we must resist a recent trend where extremists have tried to introduce racism and xenophobia into Ireland’s politics.

We have an important choice to make, across the whole island, between going backwards towards some kind of exclusive national identity, or else to embrace a vision of inclusive, diverse Irishness that welcomes and celebrates the contribution of every person.

For socialists, every person has equal status as a human being, and everyone living here is equally part of the people of Ireland.

It is not a question of holding a passport or the right papers.

In an agreed Ireland, our citizens will never belong to one ethnic group or nationality. Ireland’s people come from dozens of backgrounds.

Today, one in nine people living in Northern Ireland were not born there.

In addition, a fifth of people identify themselves as Northern Irish only, neither Irish nor British in tribal terms.

Over half a million people in the Republic of Ireland are not Irish citizens, and tens of thousands of households are a mixture of Irish citizens and people born elsewhere.

Over a hundred thousand Poles now count Ireland as home, along with similar numbers of British citizens and many people from across the European Union and beyond. One in twenty people in Ireland has an African or Asian background.

By embracing this diversity, and recognising everyone’s fundamental equality, we can be united as a single people, just as Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders came together as proud citizens of independent countries.

We must forge an agreed Ireland that recognises the complexity and diversity of modern society, and which acknowledges the role of immigration and emigration in shaping Ireland.

The Labour Party itself was co-founded by three migrant workers:

James Connolly, born in Scotland, and Jim Larkin, born in England, came from Irish-born parents, while Tom Johnson was English.

Johnson was no less an Irish patriot for being English-born. He had unswerving commitment to an independent, socialist Ireland, separate from Britain, on the basis that this would better serve working people.

In this decade of centenaries, it is high time that we dug deeper into the roots of our identity as people living on this island.

Working together, we can imagine a confident, independent Ireland, at peace with Britain and securely part of Europe.

We can build a better economy, if we make it our shared agenda to do so.

We must plan to deal with automation and AI, which may displace up to a third of all jobs. By working together can we ensure that people are not left behind.

Labour has always believed that decent work offers the best route out of poverty, and we will continue to fight for an economy that gives workers security during their working lives and into old age.

We also need a fairer distribution of wealth.

We must ensure that Internet giants pay their fair share of taxes. That is why Labour supports digital taxes and financial transaction taxes at European level, as well as a minimum effective rate of corporation tax here.

It is time to reverse wealth inequality and to move our economy into a new phase of its development, where we are less reliant on foreign investment.

Conservatives and liberals will not deliver real change. Only Labour and the Party of European Socialists have a different vision of a Social Europe.

The challenge of climate change is also a major issue for working people.

A climate emergency was not a crisis that was imagined in Connolly’s time, but it is yet another example of the failure of free market capitalism.

Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions are 60 million tonnes a year, and that has to reduce to 33 million tonnes by 2030.

We can see from the European Parliament that conservatives and liberals – including Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – have a poor voting record on climate.

In contrast, Labour and other socialist parties have provided leadership and practical solutions.

We want a new economy, based on a Green New Deal, which would reduce fuel poverty and create new jobs at the same time as phasing out our reliance on fossil fuels.

Working at both national and European level, we can transform our economy to ensure social justice at the time as sustainability.

Labour and the democratic socialist tradition continues to provide an alternative vision for Ireland. We stand for the equality of all people.

And Labour is ready to take on the new challenges of the 21st century with the same determination that we took on, and overcame, many challenges in the previous century.

We should aspire to an agreed Ireland with a sustainable and socially just economy; an agreed Ireland that offers equality, freedom and prosperity for all of our diverse people.

James Connolly spoke of a Republic that “the mere mention of its name would at all times serve as a beacon-light to the oppressed of every land”.

Its achievement would be a true legacy for Connolly.