Jack O’Connor to address Parnell Summer School – Thursday on 21st Century Democracy

15 August 2018

Labour Party Chair, Jack O’Connor will address the Parnell Summer School, tomorrow Thursday 16th August from 11.30am on the subject of 21st Century Democracy.

He will deliver the following paper, embargoed until 11.30am tomorrow.

The paper outlines several key measures required in Ireland to deliver economic equality and justice for all including housing for all, the reconstruction of our public health and education systems, development of public childcare, meeting our obligations on climate and the environment, and providing for a right to collective bargaining.

‘21st Century Democracy – Opportunities and Threats’

The title assumes unanimity on the interpretation of the word “democracy.” However, there is more than one interpretation, ranging from a narrow classical perspective to a broader one which emphasises the quality of social participation and the role of civil society organisations, including Trade Unions.

The point of reference for this discussion should be the 1918 Democratic Programme as distinct from the 1918 election. That short document scoped out a vision of a participatory democracy, based on the primacy of the Common Good, along with the principles of “Liberty, Equality and Justice for all” on which the War of Independence was fought.  The Programme was the product of a compromise between the representatives of Native Capital and Labour and it reflected this in its essential character.

Flowing from it our discussion should be within an all-island framework.

It should also be conducted in the wider European context because that’s where we are, both geographically and politically.

In that regard, the democratic system in Europe is facing its most serious threat since the 1930’s. The authoritarian neo -fascist and indeed openly fascist right is now running riot across the continent. The far-right AFD Party – which includes among its leadership people who are openly fascist and in some cases apologists for Nazism – is the biggest opposition Party in the biggest country in Europe. Their fellow travellers are dominant in the Government of Italy and are either sharing power or gaining momentum in several other countries, trading on a toxic concoction of xenophobic nationalism, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

But how could it be otherwise given the last decade-and-a-half, so dominated by the dreadful ‘Barroso years’? First, we had the wholesale abandonment of the essentials of the basic post-war compromise that underpinned the entire ‘European Project’ in an uncritical embrace of a particularly pernicious version of winner-takes-all  globalisation, replete with its exponentially growing inequality and utter contempt for labour standards (and indeed for environmental concerns).

This was followed by the lurch to brutal one-sided austerity from 2010, resulting in increased levels of unemployment and dislocation, particularly among the young, unprecedented since the immediate aftermath of WW11. (Indeed, the parallels between German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble’s, procyclical policy and those of 1930’s Chancellor Heinrich Bruning, which ultimately ushered the Nazis into power, are frighteningly uncanny). Then the migrant crisis, itself the ultimate product of crusader-type adventurism, was pitched into the toxic cauldron – creating an ‘all their birthdays came at once’ scenario for the ultra-right.

The traditional vehicle of working people and those aspiring to incremental social progress, Social Democracy, has been marginalised and the franchise on hope for tens of millions of

people left behind by globalization and one-sided austerity has fallen to the greatest enemies of democracy – the fascists and their fellow travellers.

Doubtlessly, this analysis will be deemed as overstating the threat. “Things will settle down”.  These Parties will play within the rules of constitutional parliamentary democracy with the passage of time and the restoration of “normal” economic stability. But what if “normality” isn’t restored? What will be the consequence of the next downturn in the economic cycle, if protectionism or Brexit doesn’t usher in another recession even before the “normal” downturn?

Time is evaporating, but there is still an opportunity to save democracy in Europe. However, it is well past time to smell the roses. There is an urgent requirement for a “Marshall Plan” programme of ‘productivity proofed’ public investment in the stressed countries (and in some North African Countries as well). With a degree of imagination and a more  flexible interpretation of the fiscal rules, this can be accomplished. It could be modelled on the so-called “Junker Plan,”(or the much more imaginative proposal by the European Trade Union Confederation). The essential principle involves the deployment of some public money to leverage multiples of that from the  private sector for  investment in thoroughly screened environmentally sustainable projects. Parallel with this the countries which are running surpluses should invest in their own infrastructure and in re-skilling their workforces for the age of digitalisation.     

All of which brings us to focus on our own domestic situation. How robust is our ‘democracy’? How well are working people and whole sections of our population ‘included’? To what degree are they actually ‘participants’? How does our ‘democracy’ measure up to the aspirations of “Liberty, Equality and Justice for all” enunciated in the 1918 Democratic Programme?

Let’s remember, we’re living in one of the ten richest countries in the world as measured by the IMF, with among the highest growth rates in the EU over the past four years.


  • About 100,000 households languish on Housing Waiting lists,
  • Our Public Health Service is in an ongoing state of crisis,
  • 25% are “at risk of poverty” ( 30%  of those under 30)
  • and 22.5% of those at work earn less than 2/3rds of median earnings.

While we don’t seem to have recent reliable figures on the extent of ‘precarious’ or low-quality insecure employment, the anecdotal evidence is not encouraging. Moreover, Eurofound has published data based on 2015 research to the effect that no less than 46% of those under 35 who are at work are on ‘nonstandard’ contracts of employment.

It doesn’t take much wit to realise that these young people must feature prominently among the 1/3rd of households who rent their accommodation – in a market in which prices are increasing at multiple times the rate of inflation or wages.  The picture that emerges for whole sections of our population, especially the young, is one of being exploited at work and ripped off at home!

So, what does that say about the quality of our democracy?

Yes, we have moved beyond the oppressive theocratic paradigm into which we had descended for the first half of the century since 1922. The progress of the past few years particularly on issues like same-sex marriage and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment has been very welcome.  We in the Labour Party campaigned for these changes for many years – and long before it became electorally advantageous to do so.

However, such progress has been confined to the individual liberty side of the equation. It has not been paralleled to any degree in terms of economic equality or justice for all. Indeed, if anything, the thrust has been in the opposite direction.  Welcome though it is, it is progress by reference to a “Liberal” rather than a “Social Democratic” interpretation of “Liberty”. It is very clear from a cursory perusal of the Democratic Programme that this wasn’t what the authors had in mind when they scoped out the vision of Democracy on which the War of Independence was fought. They understood, as we should, that there can be no real “Liberty” unless there is freedom from want.

Thankfully, now that we have regained our economic sovereignty, whilst preserving the core infrastructure of our Social Welfare system, all our strategic State Assets and indeed the body of law that affords a measure of protection for people’s rights at work, we have an immense opportunity to make considerable progress towards the realization of the egalitarian participatory democracy envisaged in the Democratic Programme, between now and the Centenary of the foundation of the State.

In the absence of a catastrophic “hard Brexit, if we can resist the temptation of buying people’s votes with their own money through tax cutting or locking €8bn in cold storage in the so-called ‘Rainy Day Fund’ we can accomplish a great deal. (Moreover, if we engage in some degree of revenue generation through a slightly increased contribution from the wealthy, we can of course do even better).

We can solve the housing crisis, expedite the reconstruction of our public health and education provision and begin to develop a proper public childcare system, while complying with our obligations on climate change and the environment.

Parallel with this we can increase investment in industrial Research and Development and in reskilling our workforce in the face of the challenge of digitalisation, as well as supporting strategic start-up companies through Public Equity investment.

Additionally, we must amend our Constitution to provide for a Right to Collective Bargaining for every worker. This is enshrined in EU law as a ‘Fundamental Right’ in Article 28 of The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Lisbon Treaty, which was approved by a referendum in 2009. This right is enjoyed by workers in most EU countries, including those in Northern Ireland, but not here in the Republic.

Collective Bargaining is crucially important for workers, because it takes place at the point where the benefits of output are distributed and very often where jobs are designed as well.

It was never correct to discuss democracy in Ireland in an exclusively 26-county context. It has always been a major mistake to do so. In light of Brexit and taking into account the Constitutional arrangements now in place, especially with regard to the principle of consent, it is now even more imperative that we think in an all-island framework henceforth.

Immense opportunities are opening up. It is interesting that the potential of the moment has been grasped by the former Leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, even to the degree that he feels confident enough to speak publicly about it. As someone who has served as President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions – one of the few all-island institutions that transcends both traditions (even to the degree that tens of thousands of workers across every occupation on the Island are prepared to subscribe to it financially from their wages and salaries) – I very much welcome this development. It would not be wise to proceed with a plebiscite immediately. This is not just because there is not much evidence that it would be carried. Much more importantly, it is because virtually no preparatory work that transcends civil society in either jurisdiction has been done. In those circumstances, there is a very real danger that a plebiscite could do a great deal of harm.

It is essential that we publicly and in the most socially inclusive manner possible, tease out all the issues. We have to consider the Constitutional arrangements which would need to be put in place to absolutely guarantee the position of those of the Unionist tradition and how these would be protected in the context of the EU and the UN. Then we have to consider the economic and fiscal implications of unification. How would we address the absence of  the UK subsidy, which is estimated at approx. £9,5bn by the Treasury? After that, all the transitional arrangements would have to be finalised. In this regard, an Oireachtas committee should be established to interrogate the implications of unification. The issue should also be dealt with by the Constitutional Convention and perhaps another New Irish Forum should be established.

Although the threats to democracy are very real, we are living in a moment of immense opportunity.  But it is only by enhancing our democracy in terms of Economic Equality and Justice for all, as envisaged by the authors of the Democratic Programme a century ago, that we can actually protect the freedoms we enjoy in Ireland – and in Europe.


Jack O Connor is Chairperson of The Labour Party, former President of ICTU and former General President of SIPTU.

Delivered to the Parnell Summer School, Avondale House, Co Wicklow on Thursday 16th August 2018.

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