Implementing Labour’s Democratic Programmes

18 January 2019

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD, leader of the Labour Party

On the occasion of the Centenary of the Democratic Programme, Gresham Hotel, Dublin, 19th January 2019


We are here to remember.

But not out of historical curiosity.

We are here to honour the struggle to achieve a better life for working people.

That was Tom Johnson’s ambition. It was James Connolly’s ambition. And it is our ambition today.

The struggle for democracy and socialism in Ireland is a centuries-old story.

The late Eighteenth Century brought an explosion of political and social ideas alongside technical and scientific discoveries.

The 1787 Constitution of the newly formed United States of America began with the words ‘We the People’.

A profound and then-radical claim that the State existed to serve the people.

Not the other way around as had been the case for centuries under Europe’s monarchies and feudal systems.

The 1789 French Revolution was a bloody reaction to the extremes of a remote and privileged monarchy that had broken the feudal code of protecting its people.

Despite its failures and abhorrent violence, that Revolution was an attempt to install government of the people, for the people’s benefit. 

The French Revolution gave us the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, a foundational charter that paved the way for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

These radical political ideas flowed into Ireland and energised a generation, who we know as the United Irishmen.

The 1798 Wexford Rebellion was not a nationalist or sectarian fight, but it was primarily a democratic struggle.

As we know, the response of the undemocratic British government of the day was brutal and devastating for the region.

But the struggle for democracy, and for better conditions for farmers and working people, continued.

Throughout the 1800s, socialist and democratic thinking was interwoven.

The 19th century saw the human consequences of the industrial revolution, in terms of appalling living conditions and the heartless exploitation and abuse of workers.

Tom Johnson’s upbringing in Liverpool brought him into contact with the latest thinking of English socialists.

In these and other writings, revolution against English capitalism in Ireland was a central and recurring theme, necessary for socialism not any kind of ethnic nationalism.

The Labour movement developed to rally working people to defend their own interests and to strive for equality and justice.

Alongside trade unions, the British Labour Party came into existence in 1900.

It not only offered a socialist option to the newly enfranchised working people, but Labour put people from a working background into the House of Commons, whose very presence shook the Establishment.

All of this political context informed the life and times of Tom Johnson.

In Ireland, the frustrations of the economically exploited and politically excluded was ready to explode.

In 1916, with Home Rule promised but seemingly denied, James Connolly joined the Easter Rising to remove the Imperial impediment to a people’s government in Ireland.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution rocked the world.

The 1918 general election was the first to grant the vote to every man and, for the first time, included women, although it was not until 1928 that women got the vote on the same terms as men.

Socialist suffragettes, such as Tom’s wife Marie, continued to actively campaign for recognition of the rights of women, including their full political rights as candidates as well as voters.

Our separate Trade Union Congress and Labour Party had been founded in Clonmel in 1912, which acknowledged that the path of socialism in Ireland was bound up with the goal of self-determination and independence rather than becoming a part of the British Labour Party.

Despite this, Labour has always remained the most internationalist of Ireland’s political parties, retaining close ties and good relations with the British Labour Party, with trade unions in the UK, and with socialist and democratic socialist movements around the world.

And the Congress of Trade Unions has retained its all-island role since 1912, with many trade unions here linked with or part of trade unions in Northern Ireland and Britain.

In this context, Labour did not stand candidates in 1918 because to do so would have split the vote between Eamon de Valera’s nationalist movement and Labour.

And there is little doubt that this would have occurred under the first-part-the-post voting system in use.

The national movement saw the debt that was owed to the Labour movement, or else they saw the tactical necessity to reach out and include Labour to strengthen the delicate new political entity that would become first the Irish Free State and later Ireland as we know it.

The Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Johnson, was asked to write the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.

Although edited and diluted by the nationalists, the socialism of Johnson’s programme is evident in its vision of the State’s role in the economy, designed to bring all wealth-producing processes to serve the whole people.

Equally, it proposes an end to hunger and the lack of shelter, and the development of what became our system of social welfare.

In 1916, one in ten deaths that occurred was of a child.

Working people’s living conditions were brutal, with rampant disease and dire housing.

Life expectancy for men and women was around 54 years, compared with 78 for men and 83 for women today.

The Democratic Programme was the plan to combat poverty and to share wealth more equally.

In the early years of Ireland’s independence, there was no other document that advanced such a strong vision of social and economic progress for working people.

The Democratic Programme has been a foundation for Labour’s policies throughout the twentieth century.

Successive leaders have referred to Tom Johnson’s inspiring words.

Times have changed, and we face new challenges like climate change.

I pay tribute to all of the hundreds of people who took part in Labour’s New Republic project last year, whether they attended roundtable discussions or sent in their thoughts by email or post.

My thanks especially to Evanna Craig for managing the project, and to Alex White for his guidance in steering it from start to finish.

Today, I am delighted to unveil Labour’s New Democratic Programme.

I think it is appropriate to read the text in full.


We reaffirm the Republic’s independence and sovereignty. We also acknowledge the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. Through the European Union and the United Nations, the Republic shall promote international peace and co-operation with other countries, further the wellbeing of all peoples and strive for worldwide ecological sustainability.

We embrace the diverse origins and traditions, ethnic, historical, political and spiritual, of our people and our several social and cultural heritages. The Republic shall protect the individual and collective right to hold beliefs and to practise religion. We aspire to the unity of the island of Ireland in peace and reconciliation, on the basis of free and concurrent consent.

We reaffirm the fundamental principles of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, as the essential foundations of our democratic and civic republican form of government.

We restate the right of all the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and its resources, we reaffirm that all rights to private property must be subordinated to the public good and to the public’s welfare, and we restate the people’s right to a fair share of wealth so as to combat inequality and inherited disadvantage.

It is the duty of our people to contribute to society and the Republic, including through taxation, and it is the duty of Government to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of our people, in all of their diversity and differences, without discrimination.

The first duty of Government is to provide for the wellbeing, education and development of the children, regardless of origins, and to give them all an equal chance to fulfil their potential.

The Republic must ensure a minimum, adequate standard of living, especially supporting those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged and who cannot meet their needs unaided.

Work is a source of dignity which must be fairly recompensed and meaningful. The Republic shall strive to ensure that decent work is available, that working conditions are fair and that wages provide for decent living standards for workers and their dependents.

The Republic shall ensure a robust, sustainable and ethical economy and shall require enterprises to adhere to social and environmental standards. The Republic shall respect and support trade unions, co-operatives and other associations striving for a sustainable and ethical economy.

The Republic is under a duty to protect the environment as the common heritage of the people, to promote and follow policies of sustainable development and to safeguard the interests of future generations. It must work to mitigate and if possible reverse climate change, habitat loss and destruction and the degradation of the natural world. It must support those whose current livelihoods are unsustainable and ensure a just transition to new economic activity.

The Republic is committed to the continued public ownership and development of our infrastructure and resources, and our built and natural heritage, and shall maintain an active role for public enterprise in water, energy, transport, communications and other areas.

The Republic shall ensure that the essential needs of all our people, including for lifelong education, health and social care and other public services, are provided for by the State as secular services.

We acknowledge and value care work, paid and unpaid, and the role of organisations in the community and voluntary sector.

We declare that the wellbeing of our people derives from balancing work, care for others, personal development and leisure. The Republic shall ensure for all the means and opportunity to participate in sporting, artistic and cultural activity.

It is the duty of the people to respect the democratic institutions of the Republic. It is the duty of the Republic to ensure that its democratic institutions continually renew themselves and to ensure the fullest participation of all in public deliberations and decisions.

The Republic shall stand by the people against corporate and commercial interests and shall by its laws protect and defend personal privacy and individual autonomy. It is the duty of Government to regulate technology to prevent the concentration of economic power and to ensure the public wellbeing.

It is the duty of all those administering the State and our public services to conduct themselves ethically, transparently and accountably and to strive for continuous improvement.

We pledge ourselves to secure a future that promotes intergenerational solidarity and delivers sustainability, prosperity and equality for all of our people.


Tom Johnson’s legacy will continue to guide the Labour Party in this renewed form.

This brings me on to the final set of points I want to make… the core question for my remarks today.

How best should Labour implement its democratic programmes, to fulfil our aspirations for our people?

Labour has entered government eight times since 1918.

Four times in two-party coalition with Fine Gael, once with Fianna Fáil and three times in multiparty coalitions.

On every occasion Labour has been outnumbered by conservative TDs from the larger party in coalition.

But on every occasion Labour has secured economic reforms and social policy gains on behalf of working people.

Labour’s progressive contribution to Government is often overlooked.

Labour takes the blame.

Others take the credit.

But Labour in government built Council housing, strengthened pensions and social welfare, and ensured legal recognition of the rights and protections for workers.

Labour achieved marriage equality and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

And Labour ensured ethical government, with laws to combat corruption and to ensure transparency and stronger democratic accountability.

Labour has done proportionately more than any other party to promote women into ministerial roles, and Labour’s men and women have been the leading progressive and radical reformers across a wide range of government departments.

But entering into government as a minority partner has not always worked out well.

Too often Labour loses seats by going into Government.

Despite the myths and lies spread by our critics, Labour did a great deal of good in government, and historians will recognise how we served the public against overwhelming odds.

While there were policy mistakes and errors, Labour once again put the interests of working people before the interests of the Party.

But if Labour made strides on behalf of working people in each of the eight governments where we participated, lack of progress and actual regression was a hallmark of many other governments since 1919.

Today’s Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties are economically conservative and liberal in equal measure, but not socialist nor social democratic.

Both espouse ‘market’ solutions and ‘enterprise’, and reliance on tax competition and multinational investment, rather than a stronger role for the State in the economy, robust social protection and the fostering of Irish industries.

Ireland needs the alternative of a democratic socialist party.

Today, we are again regrouping, marshalling our forces for the next election.

Labour remains a vibrant, broad movement for social progress, with many new members and first time candidates.

The first step for Labour in advancing the ambition and aspiration of our New Democratic Programme has to be the election of serious, progressive politicians.

Labour Councillors, Labour TDs and Senators, and Labour MEPs are our front line in advancing our vision of a democratic socialist Ireland.

If working people do not have representatives arguing for their interests, then there will be fewer new laws and public spending to improve their lives.

The State is the means to achieve economic, social and environmental progress for working people.

We need to take back the State as the instrument of social progress.

And, as I said at Conference, and as I will continue to say, if there is a constituency where we cannot have Labour, let us have other progressives.

I ask all Labour voters to give their next preferences to progressive candidates, from the Green Party and the Social Democrats, and to Left independents.

Only a progressive platform, for economic equality and climate justice, will deliver a New Republic for all our people.

We need to put aside our petty differences and focus on a shared vision of the kind of country that we want to create, based on equality and a sustainable, fair economy.

We need to defeat myths and misperceptions, often peddled by our opponents, that say Labour is just about getting the benefits of ministerial office or that Labour betrays its principles once in office.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Labour in government has fought ferocious battles to preserve social welfare and public industry.

But we have done so behind the requirements of our Constitution for decision making to be made behind the veil of government confidentiality and for collective responsibility to be taken by all ministers of government.

Government confidentiality and collective responsibility has not served Labour well.

But another approach is necessary for Labour to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

Social and economic progress in Ireland has been fitful and halting because Labour and other progressives too often get knocked back at the next election, despite making headway every time we are in government.

An additional step towards implementing our democratic programme must be to simplify and clarify to the public what we can achieve by influencing government policies.

That step, which we have taken, is to set out a small number of priority issues that must urgently be resolved by the State.

These priorities are non-negotiable demands as far as Labour is concerned.

We will not support any Government, in terms of coalition or support from Opposition, unless each and every one of our priority policies is agreed and implemented as part of the programme for government.

We have been setting out these priorities in recent months, based on our analysis of the current state of the economy and of social conditions.

Labour’s new democratic programme extends over dozens of policy areas, and our manifesto for the next general election will be comprehensive.

Labour will continue to seek the implementation of our whole manifesto.

But priority will be given to just a small number of priority issues, and I will name three of them today.

Labour will not support any Government that does not accept our policies for a State-led solution to the affordability crisis in housing.

That means strong protection for tenants and regulation of the private rental sector.

And it means a State-led investment fund of €16 billion, over five years, to build 80,000 homes on public land, which must remain in public ownership as a rental stock.

These homes will include traditional Council housing, but also a new form of public housing available to rent at an affordable rate to people from a wide range of occupations and backgrounds.

Anyone who supports Labour at the upcoming local and European elections, and at the next general election, can rest assured that we will not support any Government that does not accept our analysis and agree to implement our housing solution.

Labour recognises the existential challenge of climate change.

We will continue to argue for strong action to reduce Ireland’s emissions and to play our role in reducing the real harm of rising temperatures to people here and to people across the world, especially those in equatorial countries who are already experiencing drought and crop failure due to climate change.

But we won’t allow working people to be worse off because of necessary changes to our economy.

We need to transition to a low carbon economy, which means that petrol, diesel and home heating oil will inevitably become more expensive. But Labour will insist on a just transition that protects people from unfair costs and eliminates energy poverty.

We will insist on policies to provide incentives and support for home insulation, the purchase of electric vehicles and the development of sustainable forms of electricity generation such as wind and solar power.

Where jobs are unsustainable, Labour will insist on investment and jobs plans to ensure that jobs of equal or better quality are created to replace them.

The just transition approach to climate action is agreed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and we will insist that any government fully embraces this approach if it wants any support from Labour.

Finally, to quote one sentence from Labour’s New Democratic Programme:

‘The first duty of Government is to provide for the wellbeing, education and development of the children, regardless of origins, and to give them all an equal chance to fulfil their potential.’

The State must guarantee every child a fair start in life.

Coming into the next general election and its aftermath, that is a non-negotiable demand for Labour.

Every child must have access to quality healthcare, housing, childcare and nutrition.

Primary education must be truly free-of-charge.

Citizenship and parentage must not be any barrier to the full realisation of children’s rights and protection by the State.

A comprehensive strategy to eliminate poverty and deprivation in childhood must be funded and implemented.

We cannot blame children for the circumstances of their birth.

We can eliminate the poverty and deprivation which is still, to this day, experienced in the daily lives of far too many children and young people.

We must fulfil the rights of all children equally, so that every one of them can reach his or her potential.

At European level, the Party of European Socialists have proposed a European Child Guarantee to make this vision become a reality.

Labour will not support any government unless it will guarantee a fair start to every child.

These approaches are our answer to the question of how to implement Labour’s new democratic programme.

We are a party committed to democracy, to parliament and to progressive government policies.

Labour has always been the party of decency, justice and equality.

We will not support any government that will not sign up to our core demands on housing, climate justice and guaranteed fairness for every child.

Tom Johnson’s legacy lives on and is renewed in the text of our New Democratic Programme.

Let’s each of us today recommit ourselves to making those inspiring words a reality.

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