‘The rebuilding of Labour is underway’-Brendan Howlin

16 September 2016

It’s an honour to be here today to address the Labour Women Conference for my first time as Leader of the Labour Party.

The work of Labour Women will be central to the rebuilding of the Labour Party.

The numbers and the energy that is clear in this room are an example of how that rebuild is already underway.

I want to talk to you today about some of the campaigns that I want to work with Labour Women on.

And of course I want to talk about the legislation we are publishing today.

But first, I want to briefly talk about where we are, and where we must go next.

The Labour Party has a proud tradition of championing the rights of women.

It was a Labour Minister that enacted the first equal pay directive.

It was the Labour Party that enacted the first equal status and employment equality legislation in Ireland.

It was Labour who championed the right to remarrry.

It was Labour that elected the first female President and raised the bar for women forever.

It was a Labour Minister who ended the tortured journey towards open access to contraception.

It seems like a lifetime ago.  But it’s not.

In the early nineties the authorities were taking contraceptive machines from the toilets of our universities.

I was proud to put an end to that.


None of these were accidents.

For feminist activists, Labour has long been the place to go when you want something done.

The party that truly cherishes equality, and everything that term means, rather than just paying lip service to it.

I am determined we will be that for the next generation of feminists too.

We need to start with the here and now.

The RTÉ exit poll from the last election shows that we received fewer votes from women than from men.

Our work together must change that.


We are proud of what we achieved over the last five years.

Labour insisted on the legislation that finally brought us into line with the judgement of the Supreme Court in the X case.

Labour demanded the introduction of gender quotas, helping to deliver the highest representation of women in the Dáil since the foundation of the state

We increased the minimum wage twice, benefiting thousands of women in low-paid work.

We are proud of the last five years.  But we are humble too.

We didn’t get everything right. And I won’t ever try to argue that we did.

Many people were disappointed we couldn’t do more.

They felt there was a gap between what we said we would do, and what we delivered.

Partly because the work of governing, particularly in a crisis, is messy and distracting, and stopped us from being clear about some of the things we were achieving.

But partly also because we made some particularly high profile promises in areas such as third level fees or child benefit. And we didn’t deliver on some of those.

We need to be mature enough to be humble about this fact, while also being proud of all that we achieved.

Since my election as leader, I have been clear on one thing:

The Labour Party will rebuild.

We will remain the leading force for progressive politics in Ireland.

We won’t choose the path of irresponsible populism – there are plenty of others scrabbling to own that space in Irish politics.

When, or should I say if, the Government chooses the responsible and progressive path, we will support them.

When they prevaricate; when they implement measures that are unfair or regressive, we will oppose them.

But central to the rebuilding of the Labour Party will be something else.

We won’t be identified in contrast to other political parties

We will be Labour. Proudly Labour.

When feminists look for the party that will deliver a feminist republic, they will find Labour.

When trade unionists are wondering which party will really stand for the rights of working people, they will find Labour.

When young idealists who want to make the world fairer seek a party that will make equality happen, they will find Labour.

I am confident about this, because I already know it to be the case.

The first target I set as Leader of the Labour Party was to double our membership.

At the start of this week, 404 new people had already joined the party.

And another 200 young people signed up as Labour Youth members in UCC on Wednesday.

Next week, I’ll be in UCD, in Trinity College, and at the Ploughing Championships.

TDs, Senators and activists from across the country will be at other colleges, and on the streets of their communities, bringing more people into the Labour Party.

I have no doubt our number of new members will be much higher again after those events.

Our work won’t be done – not nearly done – when the stalls in colleges are put away.

The rebuilding of the Labour Party will depend on us creating a genuinely inclusive culture.

We remain a party committed to parliamentary politics.

That’s the party that Connolly founded.  It’s the party that Larkin served.  And it’s the politics advocated by Michael Davitt.

On your behalf, the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party will work day and night to advance progressive policies and legislation.

But our work does not stop at the gates of Leinster House.

We’re not interested in signing people up just for the sake of numbers.

The days of valuing members only in terms of how many doors they knock on during elections must come to an end.

We want people who are involved in devising new and radical policies.

We want people to lead vibrant campaigns at local and national levels.

We want people who will persuade others – in their workplaces, around the dinner table, at community events, and even in the pub – that Labour is the party that will strive for the achievement of social and economic justice and community solidarity.

If we do this right, we will become a movement as much as a political party.



When devising the political strategy that will support the rebuilding of the Labour Party, I was struck by the work done over recent years by groups such as Labour Women.

Your Chairperson, Sinead Ahern, along with many members of Labour Women, has been at the forefront of highlighting the behaviour of rogue crisis pregnancy agencies for almost a decade.

Sinead was one of a small number of brave women who went undercover to determine the true extent of what is happening in these rogue agencies.

This issue has come to the fore once more following similarly brave work carried out by the Times.

The work done by Ellen Coyne and Catherine Sanz was a fine example of investigative journalism.

In the best of that tradition, it forced all of Ireland to look at an area ignored for many years.

What has been revealed is shocking.

While the debate around repeal of the eighth begins in communities across Ireland, there are women who right now are being lied to in the most grotesque fashion, at a time of exceptional vulnerability.

This behaviour is an appalling abuse of a position of trust and power.

It must be brought to an end.

The right to information is one that the Irish people voted to guarantee in our constitution.

As it happens, I was the Minister of Health that enacted the legislation designed to bring that constitutional determination to reality.

None of us could have imagined that 20 years later there would still be agencies operating in a way that clearly does not give women the accurate and compassionate information they need – and by the law of this state are entitled to.

Enough is enough.

Today, the Labour Party is publishing legislation that will require those who provide counselling services to women experiencing crisis pregnancies to be registered and regulated.

It is no longer tenable to stand over a situation where dieticians and opticians must be regulated, but those counselling women in vulnerable situations face no such requirement.

Simon Harris seems to agree that action is required, and his consultation is at least a sign that official Ireland is waking up to the scale of this problem.

But frankly, I have no confidence that anything will be done.

Whenever this chaotic Government is faced with any issue that is complex or difficult, they kick for touch.

A consultation, a cross-party group, a citizen’s assembly – each of these is being used to avoid governing.

And that is the most damning indictment of this Government.

Cowering behind the phrase ‘new politics’, they are paralysed with indecision.

I don’t see any reason why this area will be any different.

That is why the Labour Party has drafted a Bill to add crisis pregnancy counsellors to the list of professions regulated under the Health and Social Care Professionals Act.

If enacted, this will be a real step forward in ensuring women have access to accurate information.

But legislating won’t be the end of the road.

We will need to be determined on this issue.

Once legislation is in place, we will need to make sure that the guidelines issued to registered counsellors are unambiguous in requiring that women are provided with full, frank and compassionate information.



This is just one area the Labour Party is working on, inspired by the work of Labour Women.

There are just three remaining Oireachtas members who in 1983 voted against the bill to insert the eighth amendment to the constitution.

All three of us were then members of the Seanad – two of us are now members of Dáil Éireann, while the third is our President, Michael D. Higgins.

1983 was a long time ago.

But the lessons that were painfully learned back then should not be forgotten.

Those of us who campaigned against the referendum were denounced from the pulpit.

We were vilified by politicians from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

We were a small minority, but we believed that the insertion of the eighth amendment into Bunreacht na Éireann was wrong.

I remember meeting on of my oldest friends in politics outside a polling station in Enniscorthy.

On one side of the entrance, there must have been at least a dozen tables occupied by politicians, clergy and campaigners for the eighth amendment.

On the other side, my friend stood on her own.

I was proud to join her and stand alongside her throughout that campaign.

But it wasn’t easy.

And we didn’t win.

As we look towards another referendum on this issue, we must all consider those on whose behalf we are campaigning.

When we hear the stories of women who have been forced to go full-term despite fatal foetal abnormalities, we need to remember them.

And we need to make sure that the end of this campaign equals an end to such appalling ordeals.

We in the Labour Party are in favour of allowing women to access abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or of rape or incest or on health grounds.

And so our work must be focussed on delivering a truly compassionate constitutional solution that will support women and their families in these cases, not fight them.

There is something to be said for a process that examines the full complexity of the issue.

You might expect the Labour Party to support the Citizen’s Assembly on that basis.

If the Government had proposed to reestablish the Constitutional convention and given this work a tight deadline for completion, we might have.

But removing all politicians from the assembly was a mistake – it was a decision that ignores the fact that Dáil Éireann is supposed to serve as the citizen’s assembly.

And the deadlines that have been set seem intended to push this issue beyond the likely lifetime of this Government.

Complexity is no excuse for cowardice.

But our do-nothing Government has once more chosen to long-finger a difficult issue.

And those who will suffer are the 12 women that travel to the UK each day for abortions.

For most who do so, it is a harrowing and traumatic journey.

But the number of women suffering does not stop at those who travel.

There are also many women who, even if they needed to, cannot make the journey at all, simply because they can’t afford it.

That is wrong, and it is wrong that no woman of child-bearing age has had the chance to vote on these laws.



A feminist republic, of course, will be about much more than abortion rights.

We are rightly proud of the success of the gender quota legislation.

For the first time in the history of the state, more than 20% of the members of Dáil Éireann are women.

Progress, definitely, but clearly not enough.

The legislation we designed is incremental – over time, the quota for each party will increase.

As we have always done, we will be at the forefront of this.

And we’ll need the help of groups such as Labour Women as we do this.

We need to identify more women interested in running.

We need to give them the support, the training, the confidence required to run;

And not just to run. But to win.

I look forward to working with your new executive to achieve that.

As I mentioned at the start of my few words, despite our achievements for women, we got less support from women than from men in the last election.

That will need real determination to change.

As we rebuild the Labour Party, we need to be aware of the need to make a broader appeal to the women of Ireland.

We didn’t get a lot of attention for it during the last election, but I remain convinced that our childcare proposals were radical as well as realistic.

Only the Labour Party proposed a truly universal childcare scheme.

One that would give children the high-quality care and education they deserve,

While also allowing women to make the work choices that are right for them.

We won’t be dropping that proposal – far from it.

In the forthcoming budget, childcare will be a huge priority for the Labour Party.

Sadly, I suspect the same won’t be true of the Government.

In the Dáil, we will hold them to account if their actions fail to match their words in this area.

Outside Leinster House, I want your help in building a national campaign for investment in childcare.



I want your help in building other campaigns too:

The Labour Party must lead the campaign to remove the anachronistic language from our constitution that suggests that women belong in the home;

Another area that the Government seems to have simply forgotten about.

We will lead the campaign to meaningfully tackle the gender pay gap, which in recent years remained over 14%.

The Government has no plan to do anything about it, but we do – we are working on legislation that would require all large companies and public sector bodies to publish the difference between what they pay men and women each year.

With your help, we will bring that campaign to every community in Ireland.

The rebuilding of Labour is underway.

Let’s redouble our efforts, starting from this meeting in this historic place.

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