Advancing a New Republic – Remembering Brendan Corish

24 November 2018

Brendan Corish was my political mentor.

He shaped my earlier political years, sitting at our own kitchen table in William Street here in Wexford.

My father, John, was Brendan Corish’s adviser and election agent.

And, of course, I was named after Brendan.

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When I became politically active, I was Brendan Corish’s Director of Elections on his last Dáil campaign.

And I had the privilege of driving him around the constituency as he linked into communities from Rosslare Harbour to Ballykelly, to Ballycanew.

This close contact with Brendan formed an essential part of my own political training.

I witnessed Brendan’s values of integrity and steadfastness in practice.

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And, of course, I saw the humanity of the man too.

One Sunday morning, we were to start a canvass of the south of the constituency, beginning in Rosslare Harbour, moving through Kilrane to Tagoat to Mayglass.

At least, that was the plan.

Unfortunately, we fell at the first hurdle, when a tumbler of whiskey was pushed into Brendan’s hand at Mick Farrell’s home at the harbour, causing all further progress to be abandoned.

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Brendan also taught me the human side of politics.

Let me share two stories with you that illustrate that.

In one election campaign, Brendan decided to start the campaign in the heartland of Wexford town, to reinforce morale for a long campaign.

Going in the back door of a stalwart Labour family, Brendan announced “I’m here for the vote, as usual.”

To be greeted by the matriarch of the family, saying “Oh. I don’t know, Brendan.”

Brendan said “Didn’t I get the daughter the house? Didn’t I sort out your pension?”

“Yeah,” came the response, “But, what did you do for me lately?”

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On another occasion, Brendan had just finished his Saturday night clinic in the Corish Memorial Hall and returned home to Belvedere Road.

A knock was heard on the door.

The man outside said “Mr Corish. Sorry I missed you in the office. But could I have a word?”

Brendan, of course, invited the man to say his piece.

And so the man went on to say, “I have to tell you, Mr Corish, I’ve never voted for you. I’ve always given my Number 1 to Sir Antony Esmonde.

“But I couldn’t go to a gentleman with this problem!”

… Labour TDs are always required to be well-grounded.

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And among the experience required in any TD’s grounding, perhaps none is as instructive as spending time in a count centre.

There are the fevered hours, sometimes days, as the late Tom Carr would tell.

Taking tallies,

Counting tallies,

Listening to endless rumour and conjecture,

And drinking too much coffee.

Time slows down as we wait to see how the people have delivered their verdict.

And in the 1981 general election I was doing tallying for Brendan Corish, with a team.

Unusually, it looked throughout the whole day that Corish was going to lose his seat.

Late into the night Brendan, looking grave, told me he was leaving the count centre.

But he pressed me to ensure I would give his thank you remarks to the count staff when the vote was finalised.

… We kept counting.

And counting.

And it became clear he was going to win a seat after all.

Not even the last seat, he was going to come fourth.

I ran, breathlessly, to Brendan’s house to tell him the good news.

When I arrived, Brendan was watching the RTÉ coverage.

And we both watched a visibly shocked Brendan Halligan on the TV panel announce the coming defeat of Brendan Corish in Wexford.

I told him then, “For the first time, Halligan was wrong”.

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And I don’t know if there has been an occasion since that when I’ve said the same thing.

I’m delighted to see Brendan here today and I enjoyed his remarks earlier.

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There are many things that we held in common, Brendan, Brendan and I.

One of them is the idea of ‘A New Republic’.

The concept of a New Republic captures Labour’s spirit of optimism.

It is the promise not only of economic and social progress, but the promise of a new social order where the benefits of progress will be shared more equally.

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Brendan Corish’s 1969 Conference speech – entitled The New Republic – was truly a milestone, as Brendan Halligan wrote at the time.

It was and remains “a statement of socialist intent” and “outlined the philosophy and purpose” of Labour.

And that in a nutshell is what is so distinct about Labour.

We are a party with a purpose and a distinct, socialist philosophy.

In 1967, Corish said “There is serious doubt and concern about our present rate of progress. It is widely believed that we are unable to solve any of the major problems confronting us. Disquiet and apathy, cynicism and indifference are not healthy attitudes in a democracy, but they are widely prevalent in ours.”

Every single word could be said about the state of Irish politics fifty years later.

But what Corish said next was that “Many people are looking for a new approach.”

And that was and is the challenge for Labour, and the challenge of Labour to the political system.

While conservatives argue that we are better off without change, progressives argue that we can change things for the better.

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As many of you may be aware, the theme of the Labour annual conference earlier this month was also ‘A New Republic’.

This generation of Labour party members continue to carry the torch lit by Brendan Corish over fifty years ago.

At our conference we talked about decency, justice and equality.

Core Labour values.

Corish values.

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What Corish has to say about sharing wealth as the economy grows, goes to the heart of the progressive agenda.

He said: “Are we to leave things as they are or are we going to root out social injustice wherever it appears?”

And he went on to say: “There is an uneasy truce at present in our society because equality is not really accepted as a social objective. We may have political equality but this is not enough, since real equality can only be achieved by ensuring social and economic equality as well. In many ways this is the central problem of democracy.”

… I agree with every word, bar one.

… I don’t see it as a “problem” for our democracy.

It is, quite simply, a choice that our people are entitled to make.

How much do we want to keep what we have, and keep things as they are.

And how much do we want change, and to improve the situation of others.

… No one is suggesting that we vote for some utopia of perfect equality.

But we do have real power over how equal or unequal we make our country.

And we do that in very simple ways, through wages policy and worker protections, through tax policy, through social protection and through the provision of public services that even-out life chances and provide everyone with a better standard of living.

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I’d like to make a final quote from Corish’s New Republic speech:

“Labour unreservedly commits itself to the concept of a classless society in which each child will have the same educational facilities, in which each sick person will receive the same expert treatment, and in which each young couple will have an equal chance of securing a home.

“Labour commits itself to a society which permits no class differences, in which great disparities in wealth are eliminated and in which the resources of the nation are devoted in the first place to the needs of all the people.”

… What more can I say?

Corish’s legacy lives on in the Labour party.

And I am proud to lead a diverse collection of people who are determined to improve the lives of people, as Brendan Corish envisaged in the New Republic.

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And what would a New Republic look like?

Corish gets to the heart of it when he talks about ‘a society which permits no class differences’.

We know Ireland has a class system.

People are categorised on the basis of their jobs, how they speak and what streets they live on.

Ultimately, people are judged on the basis of their wealth.

How can we get to a situation where Ireland is truly a classless society?

I return to the three core values I mentioned earlier: equality, justice and decency.

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An equal society is one where everyone can hold their head up with dignity, where no one treats others with distain because of how they dress, how they speak or the colour of their skin.

Government cannot bring about a classless society.

It is up to each of us how we treat others.

A just society is one where the law protects people, especially vulnerable people, from exploitation and abuse.

Labour introduced the laws that ban discrimination and offer people redress.

Labour also championed freedom of information and other laws to enhance transparency and accountability of those with power to those subject to their power.

Above all, Labour has pushed for laws that protect workers, to end exploitation in the economy.

The bottom line in creating a classless society in Ireland is that everyone should be able to enjoy a decent standard of living.

Not an identical standard of living, but a decent minimum standard for all.

Not based on handouts, but on the guarantee of a good job with decent pay and conditions.

And a decent lifestyle should be available to those who cannot work due to illness or disability, and for pensioners.

A decent minimum standard of living means that everyone should have a home that is secure and affordable.

Everyone should be able to afford to keep their home warm and lit.

Everyone should have food in the cupboard and clothes in the wardrobe.

But decency is more than just basic survival.

People are entitled to small comforts.

And everyone should be able to participate fully in society and the economy.

Everyone should be able to meet a friend for coffee and to enjoy a simple meal out.

Decency includes having a basic mobile phone and access to the Internet.

These are not luxurious standards. They are frugal.

But we don’t meet them.

Our country can afford to ensure everyone has enough for a decent life.

But as a society, we don’t meet these standards.

Far too many people at work are not paid a Living Wage that would allow them to meet the kind of basic standard of living that I have outlined.

There are still far too many people, especially here in the South East, who can’t get a good job.

Or who can’t get full-time hours, even if they have a job.

The bottom line is that we all have to work to achieve a decent life for ourselves, our families and our communities.

Which is why, at the end of the day, it is all about the economy.

A classless society, based on decent, justice and equality, will only be achieved if we have a model of the economy that is based on trying to achieve a decent life for everyone.

That means a market economy, but a well-regulated, environmentally sustainable market economy, with strong protections for workers and consumers.

That is the model that works well in Demark, Sweden and the Netherlands.

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What some have not recognised is that we are at a decisive point in our history.

In the coming months and years, we have to make serious choices about the future of our country and our place in the world.

Now that Ireland has emerged from the last economic crisis, we have to ensure our economy is sufficiently different so that such a crisis cannot occur again.

Now that the UK is leaving the EU, we have to align our economy more to the European continent and less to the Anglo-Saxon world.

Now that worldwide Corporation Tax rules are changing, we need another engine to drive the Irish economy forward.

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The post-war social democratic economy was based on decency, justice and equality.

It is an economic model that has stood the test of time.

And it is the type of economy we should aspire to as part of our vision… Brendan Corish’s vision… of a New Republic.

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