Speech by Labour Party leader, Alan Kelly TD, at the James Connolly Commemoration
17 May 2020
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Health and Disability Services
‘Labour, the Party of Work’
Commemoration of James Connolly
Arbour Hill, Sunday 17th May 2020
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As we gather today to remember James Connolly, my thoughts are also with everyone who has lost loved ones during the last few months.
We have had to witness tough scenes in the last nine weeks. We cannot see those who matter to us most, such as family and friends, and our main streets are a very different place to what they were back in February. Tomorrow we begin a new chapter in our COVID story and hopefully brighter days are ahead of us.
I am honoured to speak today as the leader of the Labour Party, to add my own words to our annual commemoration of the life and work of James Connolly. While this is not how we would ever have imagined this commemoration taking place, I would like to thank the Labour Party’s members for respecting health and safety guidelines and for honouring Connolly’s life and legacy in their own way in their homes across the country.
Connolly once said that “we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times.” We are living in exceptional times and one thing is for sure, we cannot go back to how things were before. We need to use Connolly’s word as a creed for how we approach our “new normal”
As a society, we have made real progress over the last century.
In Connolly’s time, Ireland suffered from extraordinarily high infant mortality rates.
And life expectancy was around 54 years, compared to 78 or higher for men and women today.
In Connolly’s time, nearly half of all workers worked on the land and many more worked in manufacturing, building or domestic service. Pay and conditions were dire for most of them.
Today, the economy has been transformed. Four out of ten workers are now in professional occupations. Real household incomes for most working families have greatly improved.
But some things have not changed.
Today, like in the past, many workers’ wages are too low for a decent standard of living.
Many jobs are precarious.
Women do not have equality in all aspects of work and pay.
In the 1912 report of the meeting in Clonmel in my home county of Tipperary at which the Labour Party was founded, James Connolly spoke about the need for a political party for workers.
Recognising, with sharp foresight, that new political groupings were likely to be established in Ireland, Connolly asked where should the workers align themselves.
Connolly argued forcefully that workers were not going to tack themselves on to some political party of employers to advance those employers’ ambitions and fortunes at the expense of workers.
He called on workers to be ready to enter the new Irish parliament to represent their fellow workers.
Connolly’s message to his comrades in Clonmel in 1912 is just as true today.
There is nothing more important for the Labour Party than to represent the needs and desires of Ireland’s working people.
As we enter into a new Covid chapter tomorrow, now more than ever the working people of Ireland need a strong and united Labour Party that represents their interests and calls out the struggles that they may face in their workplaces in the coming weeks and months.
There has been a sense of togetherness over the last nine weeks but we know that inevitably bad employers will return to type. We’ve seen this in meat factories where HSE safety guidelines are bring ignored. We’ve seen this where employees are getting letters from their employers stating that wages an hours will be unilaterally slashed.
The Labour Party as the Party of workers won’t stand over a race to the bottom fire sale of workers’ rights just because we are in the middle of a pandemic.
As a society, our workers are hurting at the moment. Those who have been temporarily laid off are hurting; those who aren’t sure if they’ll ever set foot in their workplace again are hurting; nurses who have maxed out all of their annual leave because the State’s inaction has denied them childcare options are hurting; those who are working from home with the added pressure of the uncertainty of this global pandemic are hurting.
The Labour Party needs to show these people that we are and always will be on their side and will take whatever action necessary to help them get through this.
Through the action of the Labour Party and the trade union movement workers have stronger rights and protections.
But the basic relationship is still one between employers and employees.
And that basic relationship is not a partnership of equals.
Workers do not have the same power as their employers.
So organised labour and the Labour Party have to counter-balance the inherent power of employers in our economy.
Not just employers, but we have to stand up for the interests of workers against other parties who work for the best interest of big business owners, landlords and the financial sector.
As we are gathered here today, we are suffering from our greatest health emergency in a century.
COVID-19 will leave deep scars in our society and in our economy.
There is a real risk that when the economy re-opens, some employers will tell workers just to be thankful to have their jobs and to put aside any ambition for better pay and conditions.
Likewise, there are landlords who are waiting to collect arrears and bankers who are waiting to cash in on high compound interest rates on overdrafts and loans.
A market economy can only work to meet people’s needs efficiently if it is strongly regulated to protect workers, tenants and consumers.
We want the advantages of a productive, innovative economy, but it must be based on strong workers’ protections, strong consumer protections and strong environmental protections.
Even before COVID-19, many people have been subject to an “always on” culture.
More people than ever are self-employed, although in some cases this is bogus self-employment because employers refuse to give people the protection of a contract.
With COVID-19, these changes have accelerated.
There will be some benefits for the economy, but there will also be tens of thousands of people who are more vulnerable in the post-COVID-19 economy.
The Labour Party will be there to ensure that everyone at work is given protection, including the self-employed and employees now working from home.
Working with our comrades in the trade union movement, I want to see a renewal of trade unionism
We need to make sure that all workers have at least a minimum decent standard of living. Labour will campaign for a Living Wage and for all workers to have the right to negotiate with their employers through the trade union of their choice.
When it comes to the transition to a low carbon economy, we will work closely with trade unions to ensure that a Just Transition Fund is put in place to safeguard workers and communities who are most affected.
We also want to ensure that no one is brought up a second-class citizen in our country. Today, nearly one in seven people in Ireland have a close connection to another country. But that does not dilute their claim to full equality as workers and as residents of Ireland.
Whether it is workers in our health service or those working in shops, public transport and supply lines, migrant workers play an equally important role alongside Irish-born workers, and the Labour Party will be a strong voice for each and every one of them.
The COVID-19 epidemic has been an awful tragedy that is still a real and present danger.
I’m sure we all wish that it had never arisen.
But if there is some consolation, it is that the fight against the virus has shown the importance of a well-resourced State response.
If we are to be truly revolutionary in these exceptional times, like James Connolly would have wanted - then we can’t have old wine in new bottles. We need a new revolutionary social contract between the people and the State that will enhance how we all interact with the State.
Even before this strange pandemic began, Irish people were running just to stand still - the social contract that had once existed between the worker and the State has completely broken down.
People deserve to be able to afford a home. They also deserve to know that their children will be provided with a good education. And, also, they need to know that if they are sick or a loved one is sick, that the State will look after them. They need to also know that public services will always be there for them and that our environment will be protected. That is not the case in the Ireland of 2020.
The idea of Universal Basic Services should not be a revolutionary idea but in the Ireland of 2020 with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail at the helm, it is. Their unwillingness to look at ways to broaden our tax base by placing emphasis on taxing the wealthy demonstrates a dearth of ambition.
Affordable housing built on public land; healthcare free at the point of access; truly free education that places an emphasis on learning from the cradle to the grave; a State public childcare scheme; sustainable transport - these things that are so basic in many countries not far from this island are seen as revolutionary ideas in Ireland of 2020.
We shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for these things nor should we be afraid of taxing those who earn hundreds of thousands each year or companies who are profiting billions but barely coming close to paying the agreed 12.5% corporation tax rate.
As we remember James Connolly today, that is my promise to the people of Ireland: the Labour Party is and always will be the party of work.
Others are trying to claim Connolly now. They can’t have him.
He is our founder and our inspiration.
He is the very soul of our party.
Connolly, along with Hackett, Larkin and Johnson and many others are our political heritage and ours alone and we will always cherish them and honour them.
We will fight for every single person in Ireland to have a decent quality of life. Fight for bread and roses. We will raise the Starry Plough on high again.
We will work with trade unions and other comrades to achieve a New Social Contract for Ireland, based on equality.
Working together in the coming months and years, we will further realise Connolly’s vision for Ireland.