Connolly lit the flame for independence

15 May 2016

Speaking at the James Connolly Commemoration Arbour Hill,

It is a privilege to be here as Labour Party Leader at this event.

I’m here too on a more personal level as the grand- daughter of James Burton, railway worker and number 73 on Dr Ann Matthew’s Citizen Army membership roll.

This is a poignant and proud day for the family of James Connolly and the party and movement he founded.

His daughter Nora famously described her father’s last meeting with his family.  She wrote:

Mama could hardly talk.

I remember he said: ‘Don’t cry, Lillie. You will unman me.’

Mama said: ‘But your beautiful life, James,’ she wept.

‘Hasn’t it been a full life? Isn’t this a good end?’ he said.

But the truth is, as perhaps Connolly anticipated, it wasn’t the end at all, because his legacy would be lasting.

Connolly and his fellow leaders of the Rising lit the flame for independence.

We commemorate the centenary of 2016 as an independent, democratic, and by international standards, prosperous if far from perfect state – that is Connolly’s legacy.

The words ‘A full life’ inspired the title Donal Nevin’s superb biography. 

Nevin described him as a soldier, agitator, propagandist, orator, socialist organiser, pamphleteer, trade union leader, insurgent, political thinker, social democrat, revolutionist, syndicalist, and, of course, one of the co-founders of the Labour Party.

As an organiser he had a practical as well as inspirational mind -set that was evident in such detail as the arrangements to print the 1916 Proclamation at Liberty Hall, quite an immense task on the eve of the Rising.

I would add he was a staunch and committed feminist too, one of a small number of men absolutely ahead of his time at that time in Irish history.

Connolly’s core vision was one of equality and it’s a vision the Labour Party has sought to fulfil from its foundation.

Indeed, the historian Diarmaid Ferriter directly ascribes to Connolly the electrifying sentence in the Proclamation that begins:

“The Republic guarantees civil and religious liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens…”

That sentence remains as strong a call today to equality and freedom as it did back in 1916.

Not for nothing did historian Joe Lee describe Connolly as being in ‘a class of his own’ and probably the most remarkable thinker produced in 20th century Ireland.

Connolly’s vision lives, and that is crucial, precisely because of the many challenges we still must overcome as a country.

These challenges, of course, are no longer confined to national borders, if they ever were.

Globalised problems like inequality, tax avoidance and evasion, the hollowing out of workers’ rights, and the dismantling of individual freedoms need globalised solutions too.

Even such august bodies like the IMF and OECD now acknowledge that low economic growth and inequality are two sides of the same coin. Moreover we must be alert here to the siren messages now emerging here in Ireland to frustrate legal changes to strengthen workers’ rights in situations such as the Clery’s scandal last year not to mention the tepid nature of any commitment to a Living Wage in the new Programme for Government.

It is therefore a matter of great concern that, for us as social democrats, the standing of social democracy in Europe, in particular, has been shrinking.

But Connolly wouldn’t have shirked from the challenges ahead at any time.

It was Connolly who, reflecting upon electoral defeat in his 1903 Wood Quay address, said:

“Our defeat of last year… did not in the slightest degree affect the truth of the principles for which we contested.”

As members of the Labour Party, the wider Labour movement, as trade unionists, socialists and social democrats, we recognise the lasting truth of those principles.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1889, socialists from all over Europe gathered in Paris to found the Second International.

They agreed a programme seeking:

  • democracy and equal rights for all, including women
  • separation of church and state
  • free education at every level
  • free healthcare
  • progressive taxes
  • the eight-hour day, decent wages and work conditions
  • and the right to organise unions.

It was dismissed at the time as the stuff of utopian fantasy.

But as we stand here now, we now that this programme underpinned the great strides made towards building a truly social democratic Europe in the 20th century.

Recent decades, the rise of conservative politics, trickle-down economics, and a banking and economic crisis fuelled by greed has threatened to set back a lot of progressive gains.

That makes it all the more vital now that we take the fight to those opponents of progress, those who promote inequality because they regard it a competitive spur.

How could Connolly regard the Republic of 2016?

It’s hard to know. I suspect he and the founders would marvel at how far we have come in some respects and be immensely frustrated at how far we have to go in others.

Which is why, in as much as we mark Connolly’s historic death, we should reflect more on his life and the relevance of his legacy and vision to our world today.

One hundred years on there is still so much unfinished business for the party and followers of the inheritance of James Connolly to achieve.

We will remember him best by striving to redouble our efforts comrades to finish his mission in the coming years.

We remember on this day A.E.’s stirring poem   “Salutation” in 1917:

The hope lives on age after age,

Earth with its beauty might be won

For labour as a heritage,

For this has Ireland lost a son.

This hope unto a flame to fan

Men have put life by with a smile,

Here’s to you Connolly, my man,

Who cast the last torch on the pile.




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