Speech by Jack O’Connor, General President, SIPTU, at Connolly Commemoration
We are assembled here today, in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, to commemorate the heroic figure of James Connolly, trade unionist, labourite, socialist and revolutionary martyr.
We are here, 101 years after his brutal execution, to reassert his continued relevance in the context of a seminal moment for the people of this island, for the people of Europe and indeed for all humanity.
Connolly, always the internationalist, warned:
‘War is ever the enemy of progress. … The first blast of the bugles of war is also the requiem note of human brotherhood’.
He was one of the few to correctly anticipate and predict the horror of the then coming great imperialist war.
A war that wasn’t over in six weeks or by Christmas 1914, as was the conventional expectation at the time, but that endured for four harrowing years. A war that took with it nearly 20 million lives and left as many more wounded and maimed and that led directly to the even more devastating carnage of the Second World War and the loss of another 60 million lives.
What is now the EU originated in the aftermath of that second great conflict in the context of the historic compromise between capital and labour that has underpinned peace in most of Europe for nearly three-quarters of a century, and that has provided an inspiration for all humanity, not least for the peoples of these islands.
The EU came about in a period that saw the emergence of the welfare state, public provision of essential services such as health and education, and the extension of the entitlement to engage in collective bargaining as a right in many countries – although regrettably not yet in this Republic.
Until the global implosion of the capitalist system in autumn 2008, which was a collapse on a scale not witnessed since the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the people of Western Europe had experienced the most sustained improvement in the standards of living of any population ever over any similar period in human history.
The EU has been the most successful peace process ever. In fact, it has been so successful in guaranteeing peace, security and prosperity that its original purpose has often been forgotten.
Indeed, it is taken for granted, even dismissed, as no longer necessary.
But we are now at an historic juncture for the future evolution of Europe.
The European project itself stands in jeopardy as a result of the one-sided austerity policies implemented by the centre-right parties that have dominated the continent’s politics since 2008.
Their absurd and self-defeating strategy has been imposed on an unprecedented scale in the stressed countries. Indeed, its effects are still being felt here in Ireland, in the housing and health crises. This strategy has led to levels of unemployment, job destruction, human misery and inequality not seen since the immediate post-war years in several European countries.
And it has been directly responsible for driving tens, now approaching hundreds, of millions of working people and those who depend on public provision into the hands of their deadliest enemies, the xenophobic nationalists, as well as the re-emergence of a phenomenon, neo-fascism, which all of us thought had been condemned to the dust-bin of history.
For too many people, democratic politics is losing the franchise on hope and is falling into the hands of those whose promise of a simplistic nationalistic Nirvana has nothing to offer to working people and those who are most vulnerable to the implications of unbridled free market globalisation, as the lessons of history have taught us.
Actually, this process began before 2008. Its origins lie in the policies pursued during the dreadful Barosso presidency of the European Commission after 2004. For it was during those years that Europe’s policy-makers increasingly abandoned the core values of the post-war compromise between capital and labour, which have underpinned the whole European project, and instead embraced unbridled free market globalisation – as we all know any project that abandons the core values that underpin its foundation is ultimately condemned to collapse.
There is a now very real danger that unless those who determine Europe’s politics realise this, destruction will be irretrievable, with the inevitable and dreadful consequences that will follow.
We in the trade union movement, in the labour movement, in the great tradition of democratic socialism and social democracy, utterly reject the false choice between free market globalisation on the one hand and primitive xenophobic nationalism on the other that is being presented today.
This is an utterly false dichotomy.
We urge instead the adoption of sustainable policies aimed at regaining the allegiance of the millions who are succumbing to the nationalist myth.
The key ingredient in the struggle for the allegiance of human beings, communities and whole societies is of a better tomorrow. America’s workers did not vote for Trump not because of his racist utterings, his misogyny or his bullying, but because he held out the prospect of a future that looked as though it could work. Of course we know that it won’t – but they were able to present it so that it looked as though it could.
Hope of a better tomorrow means policies that provide sustainable, decent jobs, quality public services, and the opportunity to enhance skills and develop capabilities, that enable young people to establish families and to aspire to the reasonable prospect of a full, free and happy life.
It means the abandonment of rigid fiscal rules, designed to ring-fence the ‘haves’ at the top of society from the ‘have-nots’ who increasingly populate the landscape of Europe.
It means investment in better public services – roads, trains, transport, schools, hospitals, universities, centres of excellence etc. – on a scale not seen since the Marshall Plan, which was developed to win the allegiance of the working people of Europe over the attraction of revolutionary socialism.
It means the adoption of a pro-active progressive strategy on immigration, which incidentally is absolutely essential for the sustainability of our populations given demographic trends in Europe. This in turn means reinforcing collective bargaining rights and protecting European labour standards in international trade agreements to prevent exploitation and the race to the bottom.
It means putting working people and civil society at the top of the agenda.
Today, the challenge is to win the allegiance of working people and civil society from the lure of xenophobia. This applies whether it manifests itself as the ridiculous Brexit project, which cannot be justified on any rational grounds for the peoples of the UK, of Ireland or of Europe, or in the simplistic, racist laden programmes of the Trumps, Le Pen and Wilders of the modern world.
And comrades there is little prospect of appealing to the tender mercies of the centre-right. Their mission is the sustainability of a hard currency, the impregnability of the banking system – particularly in the creditor countries – and of late a growing and increasingly depressing narrative around defence, in other words, of the machinery of war in a remarkable renaissance of the narrative of the years that preceded the great imperial war, which Connolly exposed and condemned so uncompromisingly.
No, as history teaches us, it isn’t just the ultra-nationalists and the xenophobes who have nothing to offer, neither do the centre-right, whose policies are directly responsible for bringing the peoples of Europe to their current precarious state.
It behoves all of us here in the presence of Connolly’s remains to reflect again on the lessons of history and to urge all trade unionists, labour people, social democrats and democratic socialists and others on the left, to abandon the destructive sectarian politics that divide and compromise our efforts, to build an alliance for a progressive and sustainable future based on social solidarity and our collective interdependence as human beings. We do not have the luxury of allowing ourselves to be defined simply in terms of that which we are against but must focus on creating positive and productive programmes and strategies. And we must be able to describe in some detail the egalitarian society to which we aspire and how it would work.
In this regard, we can learn from the example being provided by the Portuguese left who have established an alliance for government that is now reversing the ravages of austerity, reinstating collective bargaining and workers’ rights, rebuilding public provision, and charting a progressive course for the future. If we don’t, we will simply allow the centre-right and ultimately the neo-fascists, to set tomorrow’s agenda.
We owe this to the memory of James Connolly, and to all those who stood with him in the Irish Citizen Army, but most of all we owe it to those who live today, particularly to our children, who will live out their lives in the future that will be framed by our actions and our omissions.