Following in the footsteps of Big Jim – speech delivered by Senator Marie Sherlock, February, 2023

03 February 2023

Thank SIPTU for organising this today.

We are here today to commemorate Big Jim Larkin, a man who arrived in Ireland in 1907, carrying with him only his basic belongings, a heart bursting with empathy and passion for his fellow working class and a brain armed with a deep understanding of the possibilities of socialism.

Last January, we commemorated 75 years since his passing and in the 12months since then, the world as we know it has dramatically changed. The war in Europe, in Ukraine, has had a profound impact but it would be a mistake to see it as the sole cause of the changes that we now see around us.

Instead, the war has expedited changes that were already afoot.

The retreat away from unquestioned globalisation.

The move away from fossil fuel dependence. And of course this is now, not only an urgent environmental necessity but also a geopolitical one.

A growing ugliness in discourse and public engagement.

There is a genuine and very real anger felt by so many in this country about the housing disaster and shortage of health and other services. But terrifyingly, those frustrations have been ruthlessly exploited by those driven by hate and pure racism.

We’ve been here before. Those who lived through the 1920’s and 1930’s saw what happens when genuine frustrations are exploited and we all know what happened back then.

The European Union as we know it was formed to secure the peace. And it is in response to the war on Europe’s borders and the war on climate change that the true value of the project is coming to be seen. However, there is an irony that the zeal with which fiscal rectitude, the now widely discredited policy of fiscal rectitude, was pursued over 10 years ago in response to the fiscal and financial crisis is now being replicated a decade on in the monetary policy arena.

Today we see interest rates increase for the fifth time and there are very real questions to be asked about whether it is dogma or data that is driving this monetary policy zeal. There is a serious doubt whether monetary policy targeting will cool asset price and consumer price inflation, when the real impact in this country is only to drive home purchases into fewer hands and to displace retail banking with institutional funds and all the consequences that flow from that.

I stand here in front of you because of Big Jim Larkin, who along with James Connolly and William O’Brien, drove the foundation of the Irish Labour Party in 1912 – this party was to be unashamedly the political wing of the wider trade union movement. Its mission was clear, to stand candidates for election to ensure the interests of working people, women and men, were independently represented on every board, council and parliament in Ireland.

And I want to speak about that mission today and in particular, the agenda we are pursuing  to improve the rights of workers, their families and communities.

First and foremost, we are determined to work with you in the trade union movement to ensure that the ground-breaking adequate minimum wages directive, will be transposed both to the letter and in the spirit that it is intended, in this country.

Extending collective bargaining coverage will be an important development, but it will be only a first step. As we all know, getting the framework is one thing, having the power and the numbers to negotiate a good agreement is a very different other and so we need to ensure a strong emphasis on unionisation.

Ironically, in what should have been a good news story for trade unions and for collective bargaining, there should have been a ERO signed into law for the security sector in 2022.

But that was not to be. Three small employers injuncted the agreement and took the Government, the AG and the Labour Court to the High Court. Since last August, the Government has sat on its hands and on each of the three occasions where the matter came before the court, the Government hasn’t even bothered to turn up.

All the while, 16,000 security workers have to survive on low wages and no pay increase since 2019. I think it is fair to say we should be under no illusions as to the commitment and approach of this Government to collective bargaining.

Number two.  This year the Labour Party will advance legislation that seeks to end the exclusion of apprentices from a statutory right to be paid the minimum wage. I know from talking to contractors that they are finding it really difficult to retain apprentices and this is confirmed  by Connect Trade Union who have said that excluding apprentices from being paid the minimum wage is forcing young workers out of the crafts.

We know that people are entering apprenticeships at a later age, many already have financial commitments and paying below the minimum wage is undoubtedly reducing their up take.

But leaving all that aside, paying anyone below the minimum wage for a day’s work in this country is simply unacceptable. We continue to fight our battle with regard to banning unpaid internships and as such we need to set down the same standards for apprenticeships.

Number three. In 21st century Ireland, it remains wholly unacceptable that so many with a disability have been kept out of the workforce. With the highest number of jobless disabled persons across the EU, something needs to change here and we will bringing forward legislation to ensure more can be facilitated in Irish workplaces.

Last year at the Larkin commemoration, we said we would bring forward legislation on a right to flexible work. This was to benefit disabled persons, lone parents and all those who want to work or want to work full time but cannot because of practical issues in their lives. I’m conscious some within the trade union movement worry about it’s impact on the logistics of organising. But it is a long time since we have had the large factory floors and we now have very powerful tools in each of our pockets and bags that can be used to enormous effect.

But those tools are also the medium for so much hate and disinformation that is currently being spread throughout our communities.

Unfortunately and very sadly, I believe that this hate has been allowed fester because of the scale and depth of Government failures.

The vile politics of hate must always be unequivocally condemned.

But in order to overcome those views, to prevent it from becoming worse, we need to understand the seeds that have sown such views in this country.

 Twelve months on since the start of the war last year, it is simply unbelievable that our State is still foundering trying to accommodate the tens of thousands of people seeking refuge in Ireland. It is simply unbelievable that a single modular home has yet to be built.

And it is unbelievable that with the wealth of skills and desire to make a life here, that Government has made no attempt to produce a roadmap setting out how it intends to economically and socially best utilise the largest migration event our society has ever experienced.

Again there is an irony that at a time where employers groups are crying out for migrant employment permits, we have people seeking refuge and shelter here condemned to waiting at least six months before they can take up a job.

Any of us who have ever spent time in our lives jobless know that awful sense of feeling unwanted and unproductive. It is my personal view that this wait time to start a job for refugees and for those seeking asylum here should be halved to three months. There is no doubt that this change would have to complemented by a very serious beefing up of the labour inspectorate.

That many are seeking to make our island their new home should not be something that provokes fear, it should be something that provokes pride in how far we have come from the days when it was Irish people, such as the parents of Big Jim Larkin, who were forced by economic necessity to look abroad for a better life.

It is not too late.

The communities that surround us  here have shown a great ability to adapt in a positive manner to the reality of the new more multicultural Ireland.

In seeking to pursue a positive approach to the social changes that are taking place around us, we can draw inspiration from Jim Larkin.

During the Great Lockout of 1913, he spoke out against “bigotry and intolerance” and called out “those who wanted to divide the workers resorting to the foulest methods.” In doing that he was also offering hope of a better, fairer Ireland built on a better planned economy and social services which can deliver for all.

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