Connolly the internationalist would see climate as the social justice issue of the century

15 May 2022

Speech by Labour Party Leader Ivana Bacik TD to the Annual James Connolly Commemoration, Arbour Hill.

Comrades, members of the Connolly family, friends.

As Leader of the Labour Party, it is an honour to address this joint SIPTU/Labour Party commemoration of the life and legacy of James Connolly.

Connolly is the founder of our movement and the inspiration for our activism, now and into the future.

The child of Irish emigrants, born into poverty in Edinburgh, Connolly lived the principles he espoused.

Thinking about Connolly’s life and writings in advance of today I asked myself – what are the main lessons that our movement today can take from his remarkable, courageous and vivid legacy?

James Connolly, the trade unionist, never ceased battling for improved working conditions.

In Scotland, America and Ireland he fought for a decent quality of life for men and women – not just bread, but roses too.

Likewise, today our movement is at the vanguard of the fight to enhance working conditions and fight for equality in our working lives, and in our everyday lives.

In the Labour movement we know that every victory for workers rights has been hard won, and what we take for granted today as part of everyday life was once a big idea.

The founders of our state, and the founders of our party, did not trade in small ideas.

They were women and men of vision, who continue to inspire us today.

Too often in the century since our foundation we have reserved big ideas and transformational thinking for times of crises.

We need big ideas today.

The world has changed immeasurably since Connolly’s day, but what remains constant is our commitment to progress, and our core belief that equality lifts us all up.

Today I am proud to lead our Party’s work to bring big ideas to the table.

This week I joined Senator Marie Sherlock and Deputy Ged Nash as we launched Labour’s Living Wage Bill which will chart a pathway to increase the minimum wage and to achieve a living wage.

Amid the chatter about hi-tech innovation and silicon docklands the reality is that Ireland has a low wage problem.

One in five of our workforce, many of them migrant workers like Connolly, are low paid workers, whose wages don’t allow for a decent or dignified life.

The living wage gives these workers, and their families, the opportunity to live a better life, not just to exist from pay packet to pay packet.

We are also battling hard to transform the weak remote working legislation proposed by the Government.

We want meaningful legislation that recognises how the world of work has changed since the pandemic.

The right to work remotely, to balance the needs of family and community, cannot remain a favour bestowed by employers, or withdrawn on a whim.

The world has changed.

Work has changed.

The last two years have shown that employees know what is best for their working lives.

They need a proper legal framework that recognises modern ways of working and gives them the protection needed when their rights are denied or undermined by employers.

So on these issues, and others such as sick pay and paid reproductive leave, the Labour Party will continue to argue and agitate for improvements for workers.

This is one of the causes from which our movement sprang- and it is one that I intend to continue to campaign on.

James Connolly, Louie Bennett, Jim Larkin, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, were not afraid to think big and dream big.

While battling for tangible improvements for the working class, the breadth of their vision should inspire us to do the same.

Never rich in material things, Connolly’s intellectual life was a treasure trove.

He envisioned an Ireland, indeed a world, where his socialist ideals were the path to peace, equality and dignity.

We need similar thinking today.

I believe that the State is a force for good, a force for progress.

We’ve seen how the State can marshal its resources at times of crisis.

However, under the current Government that spirit of public action hasn’t been maintained.

Where is the national effort to cut hospital waiting lists?

Where is the renewed commitment to fix the housing crisis?

Where is the urgency to provide adequate, nationwide mental health services?

The truth is that we’ve tiptoed back to old conservative attitudes.

Where the State plays second fiddle to the market.

Look at the speed with which the Government moved to shore up the building industry against inflation pressures.

Why, as Senator Rebecca Moynihan, has asked, isn’t this largesse linked to affordability?

Where is the same urgency to ramp up building on publicly owned land?

Why are so many buildings, many in public ownership such as Baggot Street Hospital, left boarded up rather than transformed into homes to increase our housing supply?

The failure of the State to grasp the potential of a big idea is evident in other critical areas too.

When I became Leader of the Labour Party, I spoke about listening to women on the end of a helpline.

This week I’ve been listening again.

Listening to women expressing their grave concern that the government’s proposals for the National Maternity Hospital.

Listening to women speaking of their need for a new, modern state of the art, secular, national maternity hospital free of any lingering religious ethos.

As I said in the Dail during the week, we continue to have legitimate, well-founded concerns about the ownership, control and governance of the new National Maternity Hospital.

Unless the hospital is to be built on publicly owned land, those concerns, shared by thousands of men and women across the country will persist.

The Government campaign to dismiss and belittle these concerns won’t wash.

They are grounded in our long experience of religious interference, often facilitated by the State, in crucial aspects of education and healthcare, particularly women’s healthcare.

We now have an opportunity to bring about a big idea – an independent, secular, state-of-the-art maternity hospital.

We won’t stand for this idea to be diluted at the outset.

Let’s build our hospital with public money on publicly owned land.

Connolly inspires us with the vision he had for the island of Ireland.  And we share his vision of a united and shared Ireland.

However, we also recognise the reality that a united Ireland can only come about through the consent-based framework of the Good Friday Agreement, and that a huge amount of genuine and sincere preparatory work must be done in both jurisdictions in advance of any referendum on unity.

That’s why we have called for the establishment of an all-island citizens’ assembly, approved by the Stormont Assembly as well as the Oireachtas.

Connolly also inspires us by his internationalism.

He saw at first hand the imperialism and militarism that drove Europe and the world to the catastrophic First World War.

Today, the same rabid imperialist instinct is driving Putin’s failing aggression against Ukraine.

As a neighbouring European nation fights for its survival, I again repeat our Party’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

Labour is working for the passage of Brendan Howlin’s Magnitsky legislation, we call on the EU to move most swiftly to end the import of Russian fossil fuels – and again I call for Putin’s apologist in chief on Orwell Road to be expelled.

Socialism and social democracy represent a political tradition with its origins in rational thought, education and scientific progress.

The science is clear.  Future human life on earth is under threat.  Climate change is already impacting millions of millions of lives on our planet.

Around the world, it is the social justice issue of our generation.

I think Connolly the internationalist would instinctively have understood that.

The life-threatening temperatures being experienced in India and Pakistan recently are evidence of what is happening.

The disturbing temperature rises in the Arctic are frightening evidence of what is underway.

And this week we learned that the year the world breaches the 1.5c global heating limit is fast approaching.

That’s not some arbitrary figure – it is the limit above which climate impacts become increasingly harmful for people and our entire globe.

In face of this evidence, the climate deniers are in retreat.  But they haven’t gone away.

Instead of attacking climate action from the front, they are sniping from the sides.

Not here, not there, not now.

This is too big an issue for one party, however committed it may be.

Those seeking political advantage by blaming Greens and progressives for the position we find ourselves are engaged in the worst kind of cynical politics.

As the Senator who introduced Ireland’s first climate legislation, I believe that had environmentalists been listened to more, not less, then we might be in a better place.

The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are more than happy to use the Greens as a mudguard for trying to attempt what must be done.

At each stage trying to slow down and impede progress.

Turf aside, the national plan under the Common Agricultural Policy has been returned to us by the European Commission for insufficient climate ambition.  Irish companies do not believe they will meet their 2030 targets.

The Dáil declared the climate crisis as an emergency in 2019 – isn’t it time we treated it as such?  Where is the energy about this?

On the Opposition side things are no better.

Sinn Fein have spent the last two months trying to conflate the energy crisis and the climate crisis, attacking measures designed to tackle the climate crisis.

It certainly isn’t progressive politics and it is not politics that our party will support.

It is disappointing that the work of the All-Party committee on climate action – consensual work that has guided this issue since the Citizens’ Assembly  -has given way in the face of the first real engagement on the issue.

Nonetheless I’m optimistic about the future.  Renewable energy has the capacity to usher in an era of energy independence.  We will be in a position to provide clean electricity for ourselves and many of our European allies.

On a range of other issues, transport, food production, land use solutions are available.

But they will only work if we treat the climate issue with the urgency and honesty it requires, not as another political punch bag.

Comrades,

We gather today to remember James Connolly and to rededicate ourselves to the principles that inspired him.

Connolly said that “….the first social right of man is to live, and……he cannot enjoy that right whilst the means of life for all are the private property of a class.”

In terms of housing, in terms of healthcare, in terms of opportunity, too much in our country is still controlled or dominated by the private, not the public.

That has to change.

We need an active, interventionist public sphere that creates equality for all.

That is the role of the Labour Party.

It is the legacy that Connolly bequeathed to us

And it is the legacy I intend to fulfil.

Thank you.

ENDS.

Speech delivered at the annual James Connolly Commemoration at Arbour Hill in Dublin today (Sunday, May 15th).

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