Brendan Howlin’s Opening Speech to 69th Labour Party Conference
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Delegates and friends,
Good evening, and welcome to Wexford.
Here in 1911, workers faced the first lock-out after demanding decent terms and conditions.
Two hundred metres from here is the grave of John Redmond – leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
For more than two centuries, men and women in this town have dreamed and planned and sacrificed for a better future.
Just as they have across the country.
That’s the job of politics; that’s what brings us in Labour together – to dream, and plan, and ultimately build a better future.
More than 800 delegates are gathering here this weekend.
We’re coming together for the first time since an incredibly bruising general election last year.
Since my election as leader, I have been travelling the length and breadth of this country.
I’ve been to Donegal and to Dublin; to Cork and to Galway; to Louth and to Limerick and to Longford.
If I haven’t been to your part of the country just yet, I promise I’m coming soon!
Much of my time has been spent talking about the Labour Rebuild.
There was a need for us to look inwards for a while.
We needed to reflect on what we did right, and on what we did wrong over recent years.
We need to think deeply about what happened to cause the loss of so many seats, in both 2014 and 2016.
Most importantly, we needed to come up with plans to make our party strong again into the future.
The Election Review Group reported last summer.
They frankly reported on the events of recent years.
And they made recommendations for the future, which the Executive Board is now overseeing.
Their key recommendation was that a review of our party constitution was required.
And tonight, it is a new constitution that will deservedly get much of our focus.
We are doing this differently to what we have done in the past.
This is not a constitution being forced upon the members through an up or down vote.
Because, quite simply, that’s not how we want to do things anymore.
For the first time, we presented a draft constitution to our members.
And every branch, and every constituency, has had the chance to amend it.
Each of those amendments will be debated here tonight.
I have views on them, of course.
But it will be you – the members of the Labour Party – who will decide which amendments to accept, and which to reject.
I will say a couple of things about the new constitution though.
The first is to extend my thanks, on behalf of all Labour members, to Jan O’Sullivan and her team for taking on this work.
Writing a new party constitution is an unenviable task.
Proposing to change the rules of how we are governed is never without controversy.
But Jan has carried out her task in a consultative way – reaching out for the views of members all across the country, to shape a constitution that is fit for our future.
The proposal to extend one-member, one-vote to Party Conference is a radical one.
It will cement our position as the most democratic political party in Ireland.
It is evidence of us taking one of our principles – democracy – and modelling it ourselves before arguing for it in public.
In many ways, it is the logical end-point of a process we started some years ago.
The introduction of one-member, one-vote for the election of leader has been our policy since the Rock Street Amendment passed at Conference in the 1980s.
The expansion of this principle to the selection of Dáil candidates came into force later.
And tonight, we will decide on whether we expand it to Party Conference – the most powerful policy making body in our party.
It is a powerful way of telling each and every one of our members that you matter – your voice matters – and we want you to help shape our future.
For everyone in the hall here tonight, I want to ask you to do one thing between now and the next time we gather – recruit.
Talk to your friends and family.
Talk to those who used to be part of our family.
And talk to those who never have been.
Tell them about the work we are doing.
Ask them to get involved.
Sign them up.
I want to grow this party.
But I also want it to change.
To adapt to a rapidly changing world.
To refocus on policy and campaigns.
To be a party that dreams, and does as well.
Whenever the next election comes, we’ll be ready.
With the strength of our current PLP;
And with candidates like Deirdre Kingston, Andrew Montague, Rebecca Moynihan and Ged Nash already selected;
We have the people who can win.
We’ll have the policies that are right.
We will stand as an independent party.
Not beholden or secondary to anyone else.
There are those who want us to fail.
Those who see division within our PLP where none exists.
And those who want to block out what it is we have to say to the public.
Let them be.
That won’t stop us.
Because we are focussed on our future.
And on equality.
These are our bread and butter.
These are the principles that define us;
And which define what we do.
Justice means a lot to us.
We speak about it in broad terms.
We talk about social justice. And economic justice, too.
In Ireland, justice as an idea is often narrowed.
But even at that narrow level, Labour’s ideas matter.
20 years ago, I started to hear from a whistleblower.
In the end, he would prove to me that the McBrearty family had been targeted by members of an Garda Síochána.
And, along with others, I raised that case publicly.
After much hullaballoo, the Morris Tribunal was established.
Those of us in Labour know Frank McBrearty Jnr well.
But long before he was a politician, he was a powerful advocate for justice.
And he, and others like him, deserves better progress that has been delivered.
Over the last 20 years, there architecture of policing in Ireland has changed.
We have an Ombudsman Commission.
We have a Garda Inspectorate.
And thanks to Labour’s insistence in Government, we have a Policing Authority.
Because of Labour, we have a restored Freedom of Information Act.
And we have, for the first time, legislation that protects whistleblowers.
It recognises that the evidence they bring to light has value.
And seeks to protect them.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
Despite all of our legislative changes, the cultural change we need to the enforcement of justice in Ireland is lacking.
This can be a political firestorm from time to time.
But it’s more important than that.
Justice should be blind.
But we should not be blind to how she functions.
For weeks now, I have called for the powers of the Policing Authority to be expanded.
So that they are not limited to monitoring Garda reform;
And instead they can become the drivers of it.
For reasons I cannot understand, Frances Fitzgerald has been very slow to drive this agenda.
Last week, she confirmed that there hasn’t been a published update on Garda Inspectorate recommendations since 2013.
Apparently, the Garda are too busy to let us know which reforms they are implementing;
Or which have simply been cast aside.
And they have no plan to even publish such an update.
Now, this isn’t good enough.
There is no point in having international experts, making recommendations for modernising policing in Ireland, if those recommendations just end up sitting in a drawer.
There has never been a Labour Minister for Justice.
And I suppose it shows.
Because we are doers.
And there is a lot to do in justice.
This area, along with so many others, needs Labour’s attention.
And that is the ultimate reason we are gathered here this weekend.
We will decide on our new constitution, yes.
We will elect our party officers, and our executive board.
But above all else, it is here that we make policy.
As an open, democratic party, we come together to chart a way forward.
And for our future.