Party Leader Opening Speech at the 72nd Annual Labour Party Conference
Friends, Comrades, It is a joy to be here in Cork City – just half an hour away from where I spent so much of my childhood – in Crookstown and Cloughduv.
And it is an honour to be addressing you tonight as Leader of the Labour Party at the 72nd Annual Labour Party Conference.
Thanks to our General Secretary Billie Sparks and all our amazing staff for the incredible work you have done making preparations for this weekend.
Thank you to Cllr. John Maher for your warm welcome – And to all comrades who have joined us for the weekend – especially our wonderful new members!
This is our first full Party Conference since 2019.
Now that the worst effects of the pandemic have subsided, we all look forward to debate, discussion – and some divilment too.
But we do so against a challenging backdrop.
This is a challenging time for politics in Ireland.
A housing disaster; a climate catastrophe; the brutal war being waged by Russia on Ukraine.
And closer to home, expenses scandals; dodgy planning applications; and the daily shouting match that passes for Leaders’ Questions in the Dail.
Is it any wonder that so many people feel disconnected from goings-on in Leinster House?
That they feel their vote doesn’t count?
Week after week, the same manufactured outrage from the usual suspects on one side.
The same smug complacency from the other side.
Some of our dear friends in the media ask me, what makes Labour different?
For me, it’s the difference between those who embracepessimism and cynicism.
And we in Labour – who embrace hope, optimism and progress.
We embrace those values – because we know that things can be better; they must be better.
Too many are well able to tell us what they are against.But they lack the courage to set out what they are for.We are not afraid in this Party.
We are the only party now in opposition that has ever served in Government.
We are the only party on the left ever to have served in Government.
That has to change. We want to see a left-led Government.
Others might be content to remain in a state of permanent opposition; but we are serious about delivering change.
It is an honour to serve as an elected representative, and it is not a mandate that I take lightly.
For all of us Labour activists, it is a privilege to stand on the shoulders of James Connolly, Tom Johnson, Mary Robinson; Michael D. Higgins; Niamh Bhreathnach;
and so many more.
Their values are our values – they are Labour values.
And we fight for them because fighting for Labour values is how we deliver an Ireland that works – for all.
Let’s remind ourselves what Labour has delivered.
As we remember the terrible injustice done to Joanne Hayes in the so-called ‘Kerry babies’ case this weekend, it’s timely to remember that we ended women’s oppression in Mother and Baby Homes through the introduction by Frank Cluskey of the single mothers’ allowance in 1973.
We delivered the building of 100,000 public homes in the 1970s.
We delivered the country’s first wealth tax in 1974.
We ended the practice of cronyism in access to public information through establishing the Citizens’ Information Service in 1976.
We delivered Mervyn Taylor’s Equality legislation in the 1990s.
We delivered a successful divorce referendum in 1995.
We delivered the marriage equality referendum in 2015.
What else have Labour done?
Again let’s remind ourselves.
The Low Pay Commission;
The Gender Recognition Act;
The first Climate Act;
Free GP care for children under 6;
Reversing cuts to the minimum wage;
A 2-year rent freeze;
The ‘Breaking the Cycle Programme’ – which formed the basis for what we now know as DEIS schools;
Anti-corruption legislation, whistleblower protection; freedom of information and the office of the Ombudsman;
The first National Anti-Poverty Strategy.
Summer-long free school meals.
And in my own case, I have achieved significant legislative change on issues prohibiting female genital mutilation; ending discrimination against LGBT teachers; tackling the gender pay gap; and establishing the right of freelance workers to engage in collective bargaining;
On abortion rights, Labour has played a really significant role.
In 1989/90, as a student activist I was threatened with prison for giving information about abortion to women in crisis pregnancy – for most of them, their panic was compounded by axes of poverty and marginalisation.
In 2013, I was proud to be involved strongly with the Labour initiative to legislate for the X Case.
And that legislation worked to pave the way in 2018 – finally – for repeal of the Eighth Amendment – so that our daughters never need to know the chill that the ban on abortion cast over women’s lives for an entire generation.
No other party has such a strong record on progressive change.
Labour has changed lives, lifting some of the most vulnerable people in our country out of disadvantage.
We have changed the law.
We have changed the Constitution.
And we have changed the conversation.
In fact, we were so successful on that front that there are other parties who now think much of the change that we have achieved was their idea!
From the time that Tom Johnson led the first opposition in the Dáil, we in Labour have been putting our money where our mouth is in in Dáil and Seanad Éireann.
And the people of Ireland have been better off as a result.
It is why I cannot abide sniping from the side-lines.Because I have seen what hope and optimism can achieve when matched by ambition and determination.
Of course, things are not as they should be in a republic in 2023.
As we face into the lifting of the eviction ban next week, more than 11,754 people are already in homelessness services.
Government Ministers who have spent this month boasting about our GDP to their international counterparts return home to 89,000 children who are living in consistent poverty.
When they should be receiving care, our sick arelanguishing on hospital trolleys, tended to by overworked and underpaid doctors and nurses.
Young people in mental health crises are facing years-long waiting lists.
One-in-five workers is trapped in low pay.
Parents must beg, borrow and steal to take a case against the state when it refuses or fails to diagnose or educate their child with a learning disability.
And so we see far too many children with autism, children and adults with disabilities, disabled persons who are failed by the state – waiting years for diagnosis or for any decent services.
When he produced the first draft of the Democratic Programme, Tom Johnson lived in an Ireland with dire housing problems, severe wage inequality, international political unrest.
Things are better now – but in many ways, they are much the same. His was a vision to make Ireland’s economy serve the people, not the other way around.
For better housing, quality work, a care guarantee, and a clean and safe environment – grounded in the values of socialism, social-democracy, feminism, and internationalism. In other words, an Ireland that works – for all.
That’s the vision that I have, and I know it is yours too.
This is our Labour vision – based on our Labour values of equality, solidarity and fairness.
Leanfaimid orainn i bPáirtí an Lucht Oibre ag obair le comhionannas, dlúthpháirtíocht agus cothroime a chur i gcrích.
We will continue to campaign on these values – to deliver for all, on Housing, on Care, on Climate and on Work. Because it is what we have always done and what we will do.
Comrades, let us continue to fight for Labour values with pride and with conviction, as we always have.Because it is who we are.
Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.