LET’S LOOK FORWARD WITH OPTIMISM
Good evening, and thank you for being here this evening.
I think it is important to take some time to give members some insight into what I am thinking.
Because Irish politics is in a strange place.
And the world looks like a scary place.
In that context, I believe that our movement is more necessary than ever.
So I hope you will bear with me while I outline why I think that is the case
2016 was a difficult political year.
This day last year, we started out by watching ballot papers tumbling out of boxes.
Sadly, we ended the day having watched too many of our colleagues lose their seats.
If that day was appalling, the horrors of 2016 had only begun.
In June, the British people voted for Brexit – a decision that has confounded many.
And after that, we faced the appalling vista one of the most impressive US President’s in history being succeeded by a man who mocks the disabled at press conferences.
A man who has now decided that he can end the idea of a free press.
Both here in Ireland, and overseas, 2016 was a terrible year.
But 2017 could be much better.
Our job is to help make it so.
We are in the process of rebuilding our own party.
Many of you will have heard me speak on that topic before.
And others will flesh out our progress later this evening.
At one level that’s the easy bit, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
Labour is deeply rooted in our national tradition.
As Connolly put it the cause of Labour and the cause of Ireland are intertwined.
Our lineage goes back further than even ourestablishment in 1912.
Our principles are reflected in the establishment of the Land League in the 1880s – the movement that more than any other transformed Ireland.
Michael Davitt, its founder was an unashamed labour man.
An Irish Party MP yes, but a friend of Labourtoo.
A man with a great understanding of the two traditions on our island.
A supporter of radical movements not just in Ireland, or in Britain, but wherever they manifested themselves.
And a man who foresaw Labour’s independent existence in a Home Rule Parliament many years before Connolly and Larkin established this party;
Before Connolly made the ultimate sacrifice to establish our Republic.
Our history isn’t just Labour history. It’s Ireland’s history.
It was Labour who organised the anti-conscription campaign in 1918;
Labour that devised the Democratic Programme; of the 1st Dáil
Labour that facilitated the emergence of democracy from the civil war;
And Labour that facilitated the transfer of power from one side of the civil war divide to the other ten years later.
When Ireland needed Labour, we stood with Ireland.
And so it was in 2011.
It’s time to let history judge our time in Government.
We took on the challenge.
And yes, along the way, we made mistakes – plenty of them.
But whatever the verdict on our time in office, we will not go away.
Slowly but surely we will reclaim our place in Irish politics.
A new generation of Labour people will emerge to take on that challenge.
People like Rebecca Moynihan, Deirdre Kingston, Peter O’Brien and Martina Genockyare coming through as the embodiment of that new generation on this side of the city.
They are working alongside experienced public reps – people of the exceptional calibreof Carrie Smyth, Alex White, Lettie McCarthy or Kevin Humphreys.
And it is not just in South Dublin that new talent is emerging – Peter Horgan in Cork, Ciarán Garrett in the inner city of Dublin, Bridin Moloney in New Ross – I could go on.
All of these are incredible political talents.
They are young people, rooted in their communities, and passionate about delivering progressive change.
They are a generation that stands ready to lead Labour for many years to come.
As a party that has been around for more than 100 years, we understand set-backs.
Our party was not established on the whim of one or two TDs.
Our party was not established to secure tactical advantage in the Dail.
Our Party was established by a political movement – Labour.
A movement with global reach.
A movement with roots.
A movement not perfect, but one without precedent.
The first movement that dreamed that ordinary people could govern their own lives.
The only movement that insists that we are all equal, regardless of birth or circumstance.
A movement that has been written off many times before,
But a movement that has bounced back each time.
And, as Martin Schulz is proving in Germany, there’s life in the social democratic dog yet!
Our politics – Labour politics – is needed now, more than ever.
What Brexit and Trump have revealed is a fear of the future in too many communities.
In particular, in communities that havetraditionally supported our movement;
Places that were our heartlands.
Our enemies say that it is because we have moved to new territories;
That we have forgone class politics for identity politics.
That we are metropolitan.
I’ve lived in the same county town for the whole of my life.
I love the place.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Dublin too.
But I am at my happiest when in Wexford;
Because it’s where I belong.
And it is the place that has honoured me by electing me to Dáil Éireann on eight consecutive occasions.
The people of Wexford know my politics.
I voted and campaigned against the eighth amendment in 1983.
They know I’m interested in Africa and third world development.
I wear it on my sleeve.
These are not issues that all Wexford people might agree with me on.
But they trust me.
The people of Wexford know that over time, my views might change, but my values do not.
I think all of us in the Labour Party need to be clear – there is no conflict between campaigning for greater economic equality on the one hand, and greater personal liberty on the other.
This is the canard of our age and I reject it entirely.
The opposite is the case.
Because the issues that are characterised as liberal issues in Ireland, are matters of justice just as much as economic issues.
If a woman is abused and lied to by a rogue crisis pregnancy agency; if a man is made to feel shame for who he loved in the years gone by;
if someone is made to feel different or lesser because of what they believe or what they look like
– each of these people is experiencing an injustice.
And we will be the party that continues to speak out against such injustice.
Wherever we see it, we will name it.
And we will fight for it to be eradicated.
Because we are social democrats.
We believe that an injury to one is an injury to all.
And we want all people to benefit from both economic and social progress.
To those who argue, tritely in my view, thatLabour didn’t benefit as a result of marriage equality – I would say, what does that change?
We didn’t benefit from many good things we achieved over the last few years – two increases to the minimum wage, the first improvements to reading and maths scores in schools for a generation, the enactment of collective bargaining legislation, or even the rescuing of our economic sovereignty.
It certainly doesn’t mean they weren’t worth doing. For those affected, they were worth all.
Because for Labour all of these issues are justice issues.
They always have been.
For us, tackling injustice and promoting equality are our reasons for existing.
And so, if we suffer policy reverses or electoral defeats, we roll up our sleeves, and we go again.
Proud of what we’ve achieved, determined to put right what we have not.
And ready to take on the responsibility of doing something about it.
After all, what point would have existed in the bus ride in Montgomery Alabama, without the enactment of the Civil Rights Act?
What point in defeating fascism, without the National Health Service?
What point Labour in Government without the Marriage Equality Referendum, the low pay commission, free GP care for young children, or the restoration of national sovereignty in good time for our centenary celebrations?
2017 genuinely is a year when our movement is badly needed.
That is why I told our sister party in the UK last Friday that, from one friend to another, they are wrong.
That Brexit is such a tragic abdication of responsibility by a great country, that it needsto be reversed.
And it is why I told our colleagues in the Party of European Socialists not to engage in a politics that renders Britain’s surrender to its darker instincts as permanent.
The continent of Europe owes Britain understanding for this temporary lapse of judgement.
And such are the consequences facing both Britain and Europe that its people are entitled to think again, and should be encouraged to do so.
Our movement is not only needed in Europe.
Look to the United States – a beacon to the rest of the world for so long, and in so many ways.
She’s not that right now.
A bully inhabits the White House.
And slowly but surely the basic tenets of democracy are under attack.
His latest action an attack on those in the media who seek to hold power to account.
Imagine an Irish Government denying access to RTE, to the Irish Times, to the Indo or the Examiner?
Simply because they seek to hold Government to account.
As some have remarked, dictatorship just got a step closer.
And our Taoiseach is set to condone this behaviour by visiting the President.
Seeking to pretend these are normal times.
They are not.
It is because we love the United States, respect its people, its unique history that we recognisethat American values are under threat.
Brexit and Trump have both come at the tail end of something which might explain them both.
The worst economic recession in eighty years.
Lives and livelihoods destroyed.
A poor response in Europe – the consequence of right wing conservative thinking.
A better social democratic response in the United States.
But still not enough to shield everyone from unemployment, from homelessness, and from fear.
That was a crisis from which we are yet to fully recover.
The last economic collapse, in the 1930s, ended in a World War.
We are not yet at that point.
Hopefully we never will be.
But we have lost the sense that we are moving forwards.
Syria, the famine in Sudan, global authoritarianism, seem resonant of a different age.
An age we thought we had left behind.
I am reminded of a phrase that used to be used about the peace process:
That if we are not going forwards, then we are going backwards.
If the life chance of our children is not better than ours, then, it is, by definition worse.
And if that is the case, we are not delivering for our children.
I don’t accept that. And I won’t accept that.
And if in Ireland we may not be going backwards, we are certainly not going forward either.
Fundamentally that is what is wrong with our current do-nothing Government.
Treading water is standing still.
Inactivity sees opportunities foregone.
So, we have posturing and jostling between the two largest parties – one without the authority or capacity to govern, the other without any desire to do so – yet.
We have a Dáil that talks about accountability, while it absolves itself of its own responsibility.
And an Executive in name only.
And the problems mount up.
A health service unresponsive to the resources committed to it, or the people dependent on it.
Indifference to the value of industrial peace.
A permanent crisis in an Garda Síochána
Fiscal conservatism as an end in itself.
Our job in Labour is to tackle these problems head on;
And we have the track record.
We preserved industrial peace in the most difficult times.
We have always championed reform in our policing structures.
Unlike Fine Gael, we want to take on the challenges of our health service.
And unlike Fianna Fáil, we don’t leave a mess everywhere we go.
Labour has a proud tradition of putting Ireland first.
And being ambitious for our country.
I’ve always said our exit from the bailout was as historic an achievement as our fall into it was infamous.
But what point that achievement, if we are not clear about where we are headed next?
What are our goals for Ireland?
Forget GDP growth.
We want a solution to our housing crisis.
We want to put an end to illiteracy.
Fairness and dignity at work.
Greater equality of outcomes.
Bus services for rural communities.
A health system that delivers.
A huge step towards equality by tackling the engrained disadvantages of the least well off.
And all these things require investment.
Because wealth is not accrued overnight.
And capacity is not conjured up from nowhere.
It develops over time.
Sustained capital investment was not possible over the last decade.
And for that reason, it is necessary now.
A ten year fiscal plan, for example, is only worth it’s salt if it is a commitment to allocate real resources.
Without it our economic competitiveness will be affected.
And our people will suffer.
What is the point of a rainy day fund when our debt ratio is declining anyway.
€3bn, over five years, won’t make a jot of difference to our debt dynamics.
But it’s raining already in our health system.
We need investment in hospitals, primary care centres and step down facilities.
That’s what we should do with the rainy day fund.
Lest anybody forget, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are signed up to this indulgence.
The first because they probably believe it.
The latter as part of a strategy to persuade the public that they are more fiscally responsible than fiscally incontinent.
But it is tokenism.
No more, and no less.
Only Labour can really make Ireland work.
But before we fix Ireland we need to fix ourselves.
I am not the first Labour Party Leader to be charged with rebuilding the party.
And I’ll give it every bit of energy I have.
I know that people get alarmed and disheartened when they see disappointing opinion polls. I counsel courage.
So far, I think we are getting some of the basics right.
We’re putting down the roots of a sustainable recovery for our party.
More campaigning members.
A sustainable financial position.
Getting active in our communities.
Asking for a fair hearing for our past and future plans.
Putting in place area reps and new candidates.
Reconnecting with our supporters in the trade union movement.
Not in a tokenistic fashion, but building on our deep and enduring relationship.
We are revisiting our core documents to ensure their relevance to a new age.
Campaigning on issues.
Building up our resources to allow us competewith others.
And calling it as we see it.
I’ve been in this party all my adult life.
It has uniquely shaped my value system.
But I don’t just have values.
I have ambition too.
I don’t believe that politics is just about expressing our values.
It is about delivering on them too.
Ours has always been the harder road.
But it is a road littered with achievement.
It is what defines us.
It is how we’ve changed Ireland in the last forty years from a confessional state to a new Republic.
Yes we have more work to do.
But progress, as in the past, will be made by those who engage.
So let’s look forward with optimism.
We are a country that has come a long way, notwithstanding our recent difficulties.
We are among the most prosperous in the world.
And what excites me most is not what we’ve achieved, but our potential to go further.
We have so much capacity within us.
We have energy.
And we have in our young people a remarkable resource by western standards.
Forget being the best country in the world to do business.
A trite line that seems to have become the pinnacle of our national ambitions.
Let’s be the best country in the world to be educated.
The best country in the world should sickness befall you.
The best country in the world to live and grow old in.
The greenest country in the world.
Not number six in development indices, but no. 1.
A beacon for our neighbours and friends alike.
That’s the task we now turn our efforts to.
Thank you all for being part of it.