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Immensely proud to be come leader of the Labour Party

20 May 2016

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

I learnt my politics from two great Wexford men: the former leader of this party Brendan Corish, and my own Dad, John. Each, in his own way, taught me simple and powerful truths about what is right and what is wrong. And about what politics is for.

Today I am immensely proud and deeply humble to become the leader of the Labour Party - their party. I have seen great election victories and also, sadly, some major defeats. We must learn from those defeats, but there is one obvious lesson:

It's hard to show that you stand for Labour's values when you have to go into Government to rescue the country from the vandalism inflicted upon it by those who do not share our values.

Cleaning up the mess left by others may not have proven electorally popular, but it had to be done. It had to be done to ensure this country’s future. Now, Labour and Ireland are in a strong position to grow.

I am confident about this party’s future. Because we have values that are immutable, They’re not going away any time soon.

They have endured 100 years and will endure another 100.

And they are needed today more than ever.

Labour politics is about working to improve people’s quality of life.

And because of the economic crisis those improvements have been in short supply in recent years worldwide.

Understandably people are sceptical about the power of politics to effect change.

There is talk of a global crisis in democracy.

Fringe groups variously describing themselves as right or left wing have gained ground in many countries.

In this country those fringe groups sometimes use Labour's language of fairness and equality, but that's where the similarities stop. Their’s is a critique without a solution.

They won't go into Government to deliver change. They won't compromise on some issues in order to win important victories on other issues.

Victories for working people, victories based on the concepts of fairness, inclusion and equality. Instead they do slogans. They want to "reflect people's anger".

Well if all you want to do is reflect people's anger you should seek a career on the stage, not in the national parliament. They trade in false hope.

Labour doesn't offer theatrics. We offer real change. This is uniquely Labour’s space. Democracy is predicated on a contract with the people. And that contract is based on improving people’s standard of living and quality of life.

So for Labour, getting the economy back on track is not an end in itself. It is merely a means to a more significant goal. Getting people back to work. Providing services that will improve their quality of life. Improving the opportunities available to our children.

If economic growth doesn't bring these things about, then it serves no worthwhile purpose. It's as simple as that. That is what we’ve started over the last two years and that will always be Labour’s role.

Who else would have delivered two rises in the minimum wage against the backdrop of the worst recession in our history? Or a low pay commission? Or legislation to recognise the importance of collective bargaining? Or new schools nationwide?

Today, despite the additional mandate won by Sinn Fein and the Trotskyists at the last election, we have practically a single party Fine Gael Government. Even the independents are gene pool Fine Gael.

And we can see what they're doing already. Given a clear choice they're planning a major tax break for unearned wealth, rather than easing the tax burden on ordinary workers. Simple choice: Simple Fine Gael answer. That is what a Government without Labour in it does.

Of course being a party aspiring to Government involves compromise. And compromise gets a poor press in modern politics. But, by being open to compromise, to working with others of like and differing minds, think of what we have achieved.

Over forty years Labour has been to the fore in the transformation of Ireland from a confessional state to the modern pluralist state.

No other political party has impacted on modern Ireland like Labour. From the Right to Remarry to decriminalisation and now marriage equality. From political accountability to access to contraception.

From campaigning against the ‘83 referendum and legislating for the X-case decision during the course of the last Government.

While others prefer to shout at the more conservative forces in our society, Labour believes in taking our argument to them.

There are of course other challenges. The 8th amendment. Educational pluralism.

And the reality is that they have far fewer advocates around the cabinet table than they did six months ago. Let's see what a Government without Labour in it does about these things.

Labour is a party of economic responsibility too. We are the party that others call when they’ve made a mess of things. In our last two periods in office, we have presided over significant improvements in the economy, in employment and in the public finances.

The next decade marks one of huge opportunity for this country based on our improved public finances. Of course we have to be careful. But we can’t be too cautious either. We cannot let fear of the recent past stymie our future.

The Programme for Government already reflects Fine Gael’s conservatism. Too much of the wrong tax cuts and not enough investment.

It will not deliver what this country needs.

It will not build the platform for the future.

It will not meet legitimate expectations.

And constructively, or stridently where appropriate, Labour will point out the alternative.

I want to thank my colleagues and my party for the trust they are placing in me today. It is a big challenge. I am up for it. I have sent out my stall. Mine will be a shared leadership. We are 12 parliamentarians, but we are hungry and determined. We have 50 councillors and thousands of supporters.

I will devote all my energy to not letting them, or Brendan Corish, or my late father, down.

Thank you.