Address to 2018 James Connolly Commemoration

13 May 2018


James Connolly’s path to establish our party was not an easy one.

For nearly twenty years, the Irish Trades Union Congress debated whether to establish a separate Irish Labour Party or combine our struggle with that of the British Labour Party.

In 1911, Connolly engaged in public debates on the question with the Belfast socialist William Walker.

The matter was resolved at the ITUC Congress in Clonmel, and the Labour Party and Trade Union Congress was born.

The accepted driver of that decision at the time was the imminence of Home Rule for Ireland.

But Home Rule was to be undermined by the passions roused by the national question.

Sadly, the unity of the Labour Party did not survive partition, although Congress itself did.

And Labour’s close co-operation with labour and socialist movements across Britain and Europe continues to this day.

Connolly, I think, would have been proud of Labour’s contribution to the emergence of independent Ireland.

We recently celebrated the centenary of the Anti-Conscription strike.

That momentous day did so much to raise national consciousness on a crucial issue in 1918.

And in January next year, we will celebrate the centenary of the Democratic Programme written by Tom Johnson for the nascent Dáil.

The Democratic Programme envisaged every citizen, by right, having a fair share of the nation’s product and an improvement in their working and living conditions.

This vision of ‘Liberty, Equality and Justice for all’ has inspired generations of people in Ireland.

The Labour Party recently launched our project, ‘A New Republic’.

To bring together the voices of people from across the country and from all backgrounds.

In order to write a new democratic programme for the twenty-first century, to provide inspiration for future generations in the continued struggle to realise liberty, equality and justice.

Labour holds a unique political position in Ireland’s history.

We are the reconcilers.

We are the party that has brought people together at difficult or challenging times.

The party that facilitated the establishment of democracy in the aftermath of the Civil War and objected to the shabby treatment of combatants in that bitter war.

The party that helped facilitate the peaceful transfer of power between the warring factions a decade letter.

The party that led the campaign to roll back our confessional state and fought for people’s rights and recognition of their diversity to be enshrined in law.

Not least, Labour’s longstanding commitment to advancing women’s reproductive rights and health.

Labour’s central role in the current referendum campaign is just one example of how Labour has shown leadership and courage on social issues.

It is those who are least powerful in society whose lives are most restricted by the 8th Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland.

Labour has been at the forefront of campaigning against this Amendment, so that every woman can receive the healthcare and support she needs, in Ireland, without her or her doctor fearing the punitive sanctions that currently exist in Irish law.

In Northern Ireland, it was one of our sister parties, the SDLP, that worked within the European social democratic tradition, drawn from the tradition of peaceful protest established by Martin Luther King, that brought all sides together to end a vicious and dirty conflict.

I make this point particularly because it seems to me that we are only beginning to understand the possible implications of Brexit for our country.

It is undoubtedly a destabiliser of the peace process.

Because it has disrupted devolved government in Northern Ireland.

And because it has deepened divisions within the United Kingdom itself.

One of the consequences of Brexit is that it brings forward, perhaps by a generation, the issue which is parked, correctly, in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

That issue is the possibility of Northern Ireland leaving the UK.

I make this point as one of fact not a challenge.

And I say it as a leader of a party with a track record of bringing people together, not forcing them apart.

It is foolhardy to suggest that we should put our efforts now into a border poll rather than re-establishing the institutions of the Agreement.

But the idea that we can dismiss the idea of a border poll out of hand is equally foolhardy.

Northern Ireland is changing.

At the last Assembly election, for the first time, Unionist parties did not receive a majority of votes.

One demographer has suggested Catholics will outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland by the next decade.

This is a crude head count and does not necessarily reflect a desire for a United Ireland.

But it does represent a moment of change within Northern Ireland’s society and the potential for new political relationships to be formed on this island.

On the basis of mutual self-interest and of mutual respect.

The Irish Labour Party has a long tradition of working closely with our sister parties and trade unions in Britain as well as in Northern Ireland.

And Irish people have made an indelible contribution to the labour movement in the UK, just as British people and others have done in Ireland.

Labour is well placed to be a voice for reconciliation and pragmatic co-operation across the island of Ireland, and between the Irish and the British.

Connolly himself was born in Edinburgh and served in the British Army.

While he joined the 1916 Rising in the attempt to emancipate working people, he did not have a simplistic view of Irish identity.

He was always an internationalist who sought to achieve workers’ rights and freedom in Britain and across the world.

Labour’s internationalism runs in stark contrast to the political forces in today’s world that seek to reinforce divisions among countries and between people.

As we have seen in Brexit and in the recent electoral results achieved by illiberal and xenophobic leaders.

I’ve heard some people, including the Taoiseach, raise concerns about the possibility of a fifty per cent plus one vote to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

And in that context, I’ve been taken by some recent writing by the Unionist Commentator Alex Kane.

He writes to say that this is an issue that Unionism cannot ignore.

He chastises Unionism’s failure to make the case for an inclusive Northern Ireland.

I’d put it to him that Brexit is but the latest example.

But he would no doubt put it to us, and has put it to us, that Unionists have no idea what a United Ireland might look like.

And he’d be right.

It is an issue we can no longer ignore.

And it is, in my view, an issue we in the labour movement need to focus upon.

With Brexit, major changes and instability in Northern Ireland are happening. A new constitutional settlement is possible.

Rather than focusing on the simplistic issue of a border poll, we need to focus on the economic, social and political conditions that need to be in place to achieve greater wellbeing for everyone on this island.

Rather than agitating for a border poll, we can and must take action to build on existing North-South relationships and to shore up existing institutions and co-operation.

Not least, we need to work with the labour movement in Northern Ireland to ensure that Brexit does not become an excuse for reduced rights, poorer working conditions and greater inequality.

The future of Northern Ireland affects every citizen on the island, and it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we are ready to engage in the nuanced reality of North-South co-operation.

Northern Ireland is not a binary society.

In a 2016 survey, forty-six per cent of people there identified themselves as neither Nationalist nor Unionist.

This silent minority may become a majority in time.

Their allegiance to the United Kingdom or their openness to some form of United Ireland is not about tribal loyalty.

But it will depend on the detail of what is being proposed and how well either political arrangement is likely to protect and enhance their rights and their material prosperity.

We have to wake up to the fact that for many people in Northern Ireland, the issue is less about nationalism versus unionism than it is about a range of economic and social issues.

Recent surveys also show that one in six people in Northern Ireland feel equally Irish and British. And as many as a third of young people feel that they have a distinct Northern Irish identity.

Greater political co-operation on this island may prove particularly difficult for those of us who have not been forced to rethink our national identity for a century.

But twenty years since the Agreement have shown us that greater economic co-operation across the border has benefited all of us on this island.

Likewise, the establishment of shared public services has been a sensible and cost-effective way to better meet the needs of people in health care and other areas.

I don’t subscribe to the view that Brexit means that all-island co-operation must slide backwards.

On the contrary, the prosperity and wellbeing of people on both sides of the border depends on us finding new ways to co-operate on the economy, on public services and on ensuring that the institutions created by the Agreement are all fully operational.

And I think we can count on the support of our friends in the European Union should the need arise.

The greatest challenge is cultural.

There is an obligation shared by all political parties to overcome the cultural barriers.

There are those who will say that the time is not now to begin a greater engagement with Northern Ireland.

That Unionism will perceive it as a threat.

That there are other Brexit paths that could be followed, which could deliver minimal disruption either north/south or east/west.

Our response is simple.

We are abiding by the terms of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

The principle of consent is sacrosanct with respect to Northern Ireland’s future constitutional status.

Today, only a fifth of people in Northern Ireland say they wish for a United Ireland. But that consent can shift, and Brexit may cause it to shift considerably.

We have a vision of an agreed Ireland that is based on more political co-operation, not less.

That is based on recognition of the many things we hold in common on this island.

The decision of the UK to leave the European Union has unilaterally shifted one of the fundamental underpinnings of the current phase of our relations.

We now have to prepare for all eventualities.

We once convened a New Ireland Forum to discuss these issues.

We should do so again.

Let us see if we can agree a position that addresses our cultural divide.

A position that reaches out to those with British identities and Northern Irish identities.

A position that may be attractive to Unionists and to those who are neither Unionist nor Nationalist.

One that persuades them that their future would be better co-operating more with an outward-looking Ireland rather than allowing Brexit to deepen the divides on this island and to risk losing the progress and benefits that we have achieved over the last twenty years.

A New Ireland Forum should also challenge ourselves here, to contemplate what greater co-operation with Northern Ireland would actually look like.

What deeper political partnership might mean.

What it might mean to widen our understanding of the diversity of identities held by those living on this island.

Our objective is not a border poll that might impose a United Ireland by a slim majority.

Our vision is for every person on this island to have their rights vindicated, to have their material conditions improved, and to have a political system that is fully responsive to their needs and their identities.

This is, I believe, in line with the internationalism and socialism of Connolly, and of the Irish and international labour movement.

Labour is ready and willing to play its part, now, having regard to all the complexities on this shared island, to envisage and work to build a future that includes everyone.

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