Opening address to the Tom Johnson Summer School

12 July 2019

Opening address by Cllr Níall McNelis to the 25th Annual Tom Johnson summer school

On behalf of Galway City and the great Atlantic patchwork of the West of Ireland, let me thank you for the privilege of giving the opening address of this important summer gathering.

You are all welcome to Galway, the cultural capital of our nation, Condé Nast’s fifth-most friendliest city in the world, and the youngest, most diverse city on this island.

However, that is not what I am to speak to you about. Acknowledging the approach of the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, in 1984, I want to skip the stories and the poetry and the temptation to deal in nice but vague rhetoric.

Let me instead take this opportunity to talk to you about the issues facing our country from the perspective of the West of Ireland, as we creep closer to what will be a defining general election within the coming nine months.

Two years ago, our then minister for social protection, a certain Leo Eric Varadkar, said he wanted to lead his party “for the people who get up early in the morning”.
Last year, just down the road in Salthill, Taoiseach Varadkar told his party’s faithful that every family should have a place to call home.
Last week, Mr Varadkar contradicted his Defence Department colleague about the strength of the Naval Service which patrols, polices and saves lives along this coast.

But the hard truth is that people are getting up early in the morning. They are facing many hours of delays to bring their children to school and get to work because of poor planning and chronic underinvestment in transport infrastructure nationally, and particularly west of the Shannon.
They are getting up early to roll-up their blankets and belongings after sleeping in the doorways of Galway’s bustling shops.

I challenge Mr Varadkar to stroll down any mainstreet from Letterkenny to Limerick before the shops open and he will see with his own eyes the people who get up early in the morning, trembling with damp and cold and fear of a new day.

They are rising early from couches and camp beds in parents’ or grandparents’ homes, and heading out to find insecure work as part of this city’s and this country’s thousands upon thousands of hidden homeless.

They are getting up early to commute to the east of this island because it’s too expensive to live along the Belfast-Dublin corridor where the majority of jobs are located thanks to decades of poor spatial planning.

They are getting up early to wave goodbye to the youth of rural communities who will never, ever return to the farm, the fishery or the forestry of our abundant nation because no broadband, no post office and no school means no future.

They are getting up early worrying about their children’s security and falling prey to the dangerous nonsense merchants of the Far Right who advise them their lack of a social safety net and lack of opportunity is not the fault of the grasping cronyism of the Civil war parties, but that of the foreigner, the asylum seeker or the refugee.

The rhetoric of the Far Right is infecting the national discourse in this country as it has to various extents across Europe and further afield. It is vital that each one of us here opposes facism on every front, and I am delighted to note that the first talk tomorrow morning will be on fighting the rise of the far right. No Pasaran!

Every family cannot call their house their home Mr Varadkar because insecure tenancy is the hallmark of Irish accommodation. In this city we have the perverse situation where homeless people are living in hotels, while tourists stay in unregulated houses and homes.

Expanding rent pressure zones is merely squeezing a finger into the bursting dyke of home unaffordability. The obscene cost of housing means home ownership is unimaginable for many hard-working people whose wages would have covered the costs in previous generations, and rents are beggaring us.

We have no housing development agency commissioning builders to construct social housing and recharging local authorities to do the same. The banks, which the State bailed out on the back of a financial and property crash, will not deliver low-cost mortgage finance, and the underfunded and underutilised Rebuilding Ireland loans issued by county councils have run out of money under an avalanche of desperate applications.

And lastly Mr Varadkar, Minister of Defence, we in Galway look up the road at Renmore Barracks and wince every time our Tricolour flies at half mast. Because every time a young soldier or sailor takes his life, that flag is lowered above our city.

These servants of the state are forced to camp in their cars or parks or sleep below deck because their wages do not allow them the ability – the luxury in twenty-first Century Ireland – to rent a bedroom.

They borrow money to buy-out their enlistments or commissions because a private soldier on 96 cent per day can do nothing else.

These young men and women are in fear of their lives, and not from any enemy the drill sergeant will warn them of, but the fear of hunger, poverty and stakelessness in the economy of our society.

This is a society whose ruling class not only refusesto reward the labours of those who nurse our sick and care for our young and old, but even those who are willing to die to protect them.

Speaking of mental health and suicide, Galway is famous for its glorious bay, but it also has the fastest and shortest river in Europe flowing through it. Since the Great Recession, our citizens have been throwing themselves into it, including several young students from this college you are seated in.

The Corrib has been referred to as a suicide conveyer belt slicing through our city, and less than a decade ago gardaí were posted on static duty on Bridge Street to deter people from jumping off it at Christmastime.

In response, we in Galway have installed the first-of-its-kind infra-red cameras which immediately notify our emergency responders of a person in the water.

But is this really how we chose to live?

Do we really accept racking the poor, the desperate and the sad as their half-drowned bodies are flushed into the Bay as detritus of an uncaring society and an under-resourced state?

It is the charities and voluntary organisations which are holding back this tide of misery, and it is our responsibility in the Labour movement to ensure it is the State, not charity, which performs its primary task of protecting its citizens’ welfare, health and lives.

There is however joy in living on the Atlantic coast, and I hope you all get a chance to stroll the Long Walk, strut the Prom or take a dip at Blackrock if the weather holds.

But there is real fear of the consequences of climatechange here too. I wake up early in the morning as the Taoiseach advises, but it is often to worry about the tides and whether the shop I run by the Spanish Arch will be flooded as it has been five times over the past few years.

The Spanish Arch is the remains of a fortification partially destroyed by the great Lisbon earthquake tsunami of 1755. There are very few instances in the records of it flooding since then, yet it is now often flooded a few times per year over the past decade.

Galway City Council recently announced a new nine million Euro flood defence fund for the city centre. But what about the rest of the communities and properties along the Galway coast alone? It would cost hundreds upon hundreds of millions, and may ultimately prove fruitless in the face of rising sea levels due to man-made climate change. I look forward to tomorrow’s talk on the threats of climate chaos. We’ve seen it with our own eyes in Galway and all along the Wild Atlantic Way.

We’ve also seen tourism, a vital industry in this region, ebb and flow along the Wild Atlantic Way in the wake of Recession and the uncertainty of Brexit. The sector employs many thousands, especially in the hospitality sector. Senator Ged Nash has been to the forefront of securing legislation to secure the tips of workers, and I look forward to tonight’s panel discussion on the future of worker’s rights.

One-in-ten families in Ireland are living in food poverty, and those tips may determine whether children receive the nutrition necessary to grow, and learn and thrive. Work is not only about money, it is also about dignity, and the ability to live well. The Labour and Trades Union movements secured a two-day weekend for us all. As the productivity of each worker has soared since the digital revolution, it is time we take seriously the drive for a four-day working week.

Combatting financial inequality and lifting barriers for access to healthcare are the other important panels tomorrow. As we all know, in a mixed health care system where private medicine is carried out in state-funded hospitals, inequality and barriers to care are inextricably linked. Financial inequality is not just about money, it’s about the services you receive when you’re sick, the transportation you can afford to use, and the access to education you deserve. In twenty-first century Ireland it is a travesty that your pay-check determines who by and when your medical tests are checked. Just look at how the women of Ireland have been treated during the cervical check scandal: their solicitors are now reportedly advising them to apply for five thousand euro loans to afford fast results on their smear tests. This is an injustice.

We in the Labour Party believe in something else. We as true, democratic socialists in the vein of Tom Johnson believe there is an alternative to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s watery pleas to adhere to the so-called ‘European centre’. We see the purpose and benefits of public and democratic ownership of our state’s services rather than the out-sourcing and privatisation by stealth which governments have pursued on this island. We believe in the pursuit of progressive, socialist policies through democratic means.

Tom Johnson was a man of the left. And it is the redistributive policies of the left that we must pursue. Marc Cuomo said nothing will come of any political convention if it participants leave as a babel of arguing voices. We must use this opportunity to surrender some small parts of our individual interests to build a platform we can all stand on, at once, and comfortably – proudly singing out our aims.

It is one hundred years since Tom Johnson’s original draft of the 1919 Democratic Programme. After the founding of the first Dáil, Sinn Féin couldn’t write the social programme of the new state it was hoping to create, because, as one historian succinctly put it, “they hadn’t given it much thought”. Johnson inspired us 100 years ago to with the assertion that “the Irish Republic shall always count wealth and prosperity by the measure of the health and happiness of its citizens”. Comrades, I leave you with that thought to guide us through the coming days.

Ádh mór, agus fáilte go Gailimh.

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