Speech by Brendan Howlin TD to the 2018 Tom Johnson Summer School

16 June 2018

I want to start by thanking everyone in Labour Youth for all of their work in support of the Labour values of equality and justice.

Thanks in particular to Labour Youth’s chairperson, Chloe Manahan, to James Joy and to all of the team who have organised this year’s summer school.

Tom Johnson’s Democratic Programme, nearly a century ago, was a vision for Irish people of the good society that they might aspire towards.

It described the better quality of life that they might expect from independent Ireland.

This year’s theme, Renewing Radicalism: A New Republic, chimes with Labour’s development of a New Democratic Programme for January 2019.


Our New Republic project will update the landmark document produced by Tom Johnson a century previously.

If you haven’t already done so,

I invite you all to go to www.labour.ie/anewrepublic

There, you can add your voice to our deliberations on what should go into the New Democratic Programme for the 21st century.


And I know that Labour Youth has no shortage of ideas!


I want to commend your commitment and energy throughout the recent referendum campaign.

This was, in particular, a victory for younger generations of Irish women, and men.

Who will never need to know the hardship of travelling abroad at a time of crisis and stress..


Just as younger people have never known Ireland before divorce was legalised, or before homosexuality was decriminalised—let alone marriage equality—so too the next generation will not remember the 8th amendment.


Some people ask, ‘what is Labour going to do now that the “social” agenda is dealt with?’

The question is wrong, in so many respects.


It’s wrong to suggest there is any such thing as “the” social agenda.

Every generation has its burning issues, and future generations will have unmet demands that politics must respond to.

The question is also wrong, because it assumes that we can talk about “social affairs” without also talking about the economy, and the material conditions that give rise to social problem and social constraints in people’s lives.


And that is one of the fundamental differences between the Labour party and other political parties in this Dáil.

We think about the root causes of problems.

We think about the reasons for inequality and injustice in our society.

And our politics are about rectifying those injustices.


Marriage equality is not just an issue about a person’s sexual identity.

Marriage equality is about a person being able to walk into the hospital where their partner of thirty years is receiving treatment, and to be able to make decisions about their care.

Marriage equality is about a person being the legal parent of their partner’s children.

Marriage equality is about a person being able to inherit the family home and to get a survivor’s pension.

The social and economic aspects of life are totally intertwined.

And the Labour party is about social justice and economic justice.


Leo Varadkar’s government thinks that they can be late adopters of issues of social concern without giving an inch on the economic injustices that perpetuate these issues.

And they do not really give an… inch… about economic inequality.


Which is why this government is incapable of solving the housing crisis.

They do not understand the root causes of why housing is so unaffordable for most people…

Including for many students, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

While property developers are making healthy profits.

And they are intent on recouping every cent they lost in the crash, even if it cripples a generation with debt and dashes many people’s dream of a secure home.

So what will Labour do?

Labour will, quite simply, continue to fight for economic and social solutions to all of today’s problems.


And we are the inheritors of generations of that fights.

And we won’t be the last generation to fight for a more just society.


In 2018, in our decade of commemorations, we are celebrating that women in Ireland first gained the vote in 1918.

But you need to check the small print.


Women did get the vote in 1918, if they were aged 30 or older.

Which would have ruled out practically everyone in Labour Youth, if it had existed at the time.


Universal suffrage didn’t follow until 1928, when women got the vote on the same terms as men.

So we are really only celebrating 90 years of equality on that front.


The children of 1928 were the first generation growing up in independent, democratic Ireland.

They might have rightly expected that they could look forward to a better life.

Little did they know that alongside real gains, there were to be major setbacks to equality and justice to come.


For at least fifty years, until the 1970s, the economy was highly male-dominated.

Women worked.

But they mostly weren’t paid.

And their work wasn’t acknowledged.


Out of 1.2 million people at work,

There were nearly 26,000 clergymen.

And nearly 10,000 nuns.

You would be forgiven for thinking there were many more of them in the 1920s,

Given the power and influence they held in Ireland.

We know now about the legacy of the industrial schools.

And the abuse that went on there.

We know now, the legacy of children being taken forcibly from their mothers.

Given up for adoption.

With birth certificates sometimes forged.

And birth mothers told their children had died.


Lifetimes of pain and sorrow were inflicted upon women by the Church and by the State.


Gaining the vote was only one step forward for the struggle for gender equality in modern Ireland.


There were milestones.

And 1973 stands out as a pivotal year.

In 1973, the Supreme Court overturned the ban on contraceptives.

The ban on married women working in the civil and public service was overturned.

And Ireland joined what became the European Union, which brought in equal pay for equal work.


By the Seventies, Ireland was moving towards more openness and greater equality.

But there were setbacks.

In 1983, young people like you, in the Labour party, campaigned against the insertion of the 8th amendment into the Irish Constitution.

We lost that fight.

And for 35 years that lessened the rights of women.

And failed to provide them with the care that they should have received at home.

But together, we have turned the page of history.

And laid claim to a new vision of Irish society.

But there are many other fights ahead.


Since 1918, fewer than six per cent of TDs elected have been women.

Following the introduction of Gender Quotas for the 2016 election, pushed by Labour, now 22 per cent of TDs are women.

But it’s still one of the lowest rates of female participation in a democratic parliament.


Out of the 114 women who have ever been elected TDs, Labour have elected 13.

Although the Party has elected 20 per cent of all women Senators and a quarter of all women Ministers.

Countless studies have shown that better gender balance leads to better decision making… whether in politics, on state boards or in private boardrooms.

We still have a male-dominated culture of politics, where we in Labour—and Labour Youth—need to do more to encourage women.

We need to do things differently to make politics an equally accessible career choice for women and men.


The centenary of women’s suffrage has also led to a huge outpouring about gender equality.

Suddenly, we are hearing the stories of Irish women, with books describing explorers, scientists and adventurers, who just happened to be women.

Irish women like Lilian Bland, to pick just one example.

The first women ever to design and fly her own aeroplane, in 1911.


Today’s girls are being presented with a totally different Irish society.

And a totally different vision of what a woman might achieve in an equal society.


Yet, are we only going to see these stories being told once every century?

Labour has an important role in ensuring that gender equality is a story that is told every day.


We know that those on the minimum wage are predominantly women.

We know that certain low wage sectors have a large cohort of low paid female workers.

In retail, in hospitality and in homecare, for example.


Gender equality means ensuring that everyone is paid a living wage

At the very least.

Gender equality means ensuring that part-time workers have more protection and security.

Gender equality means bringing about the material conditions—such as subsidised childcare—so that women and men can both participate to the full in the workplace.

And so that men and women can both participate to the full in parenting and homemaking.


Yet, men and women continue to experience different Irelands in other ways.

In my first Leaders Questions as Party Leader, I read out some of the shocking statistics from the 2015 Women’s Aid report.

In the latest version of that report, there were 19,385 disclosures of domestic abuse against women and children.

Including 607 cases of sexual abuse.

According to Garda statistics in 2015, there were 2,146 cases in Ireland of sexual violence.

And 538 cases of rape.

Sadly, we know that behind these numbers there are probably many more victims who have not come forward.

And sadly, we know that few rape trials end in convictions.


Some of these cases involve victims who are men or perpetrators who are women.

But the vast majority of offenders are men

And the vast majority of victims are women


Sexual violence is gendered violence.

It represents a constant threat against women in our society that does not exist in to the same extent for men


And we need to face up to this threat as a society.

We can be glad that Ireland has a much lower level of gun crime than other countries around the world.

That is not an accident, but a result of years of stringent gun control and strong penalties for illegal possession of firearms.

We need the same approach to reduce sexual crime.

Above all.

If we are to reduce sexual crime in Ireland, we need a thirst for justice.


The #MeToo movement shows the power of victims to change the public narrative, and to force wider society to stop turning a blind eye to sexual crime.


It’s one example of the important of individuals being catalysts for change.

Of lone survivors coming forward, against all the obstacles that get thrown at them.

Making it possible for others to come forward.


That is the role that Labour has always played and will always play.

Standing up for people who are facing social and economic injustices of all kinds.

The social agenda is never finished, because the economic agenda is never finished.



* * *


In the context of injustice…

The Jim Kemmy Thirst for Justice Award is given each year to a person or organisation, selected by a panel from Labour Youth.

The award is for passion and commitment to the achievement of a more just society.


In the context of the #metoo movements,

And acknowledging that sexual violence is one of the pressing problems that we need to address in our society,

I am honoured to present this year’s award to the Rape Crisis Network Ireland.


I believe that Clíona Saidléar will now speak and accept the award on behalf of the RCNI.


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