Date Released: 14 September 2014
Oration by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, to the memory of Limerick’s International Brigade Volunteers Merchant’s Quay, Limerick City and County Hall, Sunday 14th September
We are here today to commemorate Frank Ryan, Emmet Ryan who died at the battle of Ebro, Jim Woulfe who fell at Belchite in Aragon, Gerard Doyle, Paddy Brady and Joe Ryan all heroic Limerick men who went to Spain to fight in the cause of liberty, democracy and international working class solidarity.
They came from the tradition of Jim Larkin and James Connolly and Ireland’s long fight for independence. They had lived through the counter-revolution here that followed the Truce with Britain in 1921, which saw many of the noblest aspirations of the preceding years abandoned. They had seen the egalitarian society envisaged by O’Casey in the Constitution of the Irish Citizen Army, whose ideals were incorporated in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and expanded upon in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, treated as empty rhetoric rather than the founding principle of a new Irish state which had inspired the War for Independence.
These men were members of a generation disillusioned by the ease with which those ideals were betrayed by the new Free State establishment now ascendant in Ireland. But rather than abandon the fight they sought to re-orientate the republican movement and the left in general through the Republican Congress of 1934. Frank Ryan was of course one of the leading figures in that campaign. When they saw another Republic in Spain under attack from the rising forces of European fascism they understood the necessity of standing with their Spanish brothers and sisters in the fight to defend it and, in the process, the newly won gains of the Spanish working class.
To a generation used to foreign travel and a rapidly shrinking world it is perhaps difficult for us to grasp what a leap of faith and commitment was involved for these ordinary working men to leave their homes and families to take up the battle for social justice in what was then a strange and distant land. Frank Ryan understood how crucial the fight to defend the Spanish Republic was to the future of democracy in Europe. Indeed, if he and his comrades had succeeded, they would have helped reverse the seemingly invincible rise of fascism and averted the Second World War. Important as it is that we would pay homage to their heroism – it is all the more so in the context of our contemporary unfolding history. Today the process of globalisation proceeds relentlessly. It subverts our capacity for real democratic decision making, even on issues such as climate change which imminently threatens the future of humanity.
The European political elite has cravenly capitulated to demands from the wealthiest one per cent to protect their assets regardless of the human cost. It has adopted policies which suppressed domestic demand, condemning millions of young men and women to unemployment and despair and privatising public services when those dependent on them are at their most vulnerable. Coupled with the most sustained attack on peoples’ rights at work in living memory these policies have spawned the re-emergence of racial hatred and the most serious outbreak of xenophobic nationalism since the 1930s. The liberalisation of markets and the systematic dismantlement of what remains of the European Social project so painstakingly constructed by Mitterrand and Delors in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, is now perilously close to completion. The European Social project was itself built on the historic settlement honed out between capital and labour under the auspices of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in the post-war years to ensure cohesion and prosperity.
It was designed to underpin the ongoing unity and security of Europe and to prevent the resurgence of the very forces Frank Ryan and his comrades, who we commemorate today, staked their lives to confront in the brutal battlefields of Spain. Yet even before the collapse of 2008, the champions of neo-liberalism (‘ordo’ liberalism in its German manifestation) were blindly ignoring the lessons of history and determined not to waste a good crisis they exploited the recession to apply a ruthless shock therapy. It is no understatement to say they will destroy the European Project if permitted. It falls to all on the “Left” - Social Democrats, Socialists, Left Republicans and others who see themselves as the custodians of the legacy of pioneers such as Larkin, Connolly and Frank Ryan to step up to the mark at this crucial juncture. We have no time to lose. The purveyors of strident unbridled free-marketeerism and the oppressively irrational response of xenophobic nationalism they have spawned have already established a considerable head start.
As in the 1930s, we all have a responsibility to build unity on the rational left to assert the primacy of social solidarity as the highest expression of our humanity over the reactionary manifestations of unbridled greed, racial prejudice and xenophobia, both within and between countries. At a time when the population of Europe is ageing and inward migration is essential to the future wellbeing of the Continent it not alone desirable, but absolutely essential that we defeat the atavistic forces that brought fascism to power across what is now the EU almost eighty years ago. Rational social solidarity and the organised Labour Movement are the key to the sustainability of peace and prosperity in Europe.
We seek prosperity for all through enlightened fiscal policies, stimulation of growth, the development of the social market, social cohesion and the welfare state, as well as equitable distribution of the benefits of output. This requires deepening regulation and intervention to manage the market and insulate individuals, families, communities and societies from its intrinsic instability and ruthless dynamics. In this regard it is appropriate that we would remember the heroic Limerick men who went to stand with the international brigades to defend democracy and the highest of human values in Spain. In remembering them, we are inspired by their heroism and conscious of the catastrophe which followed the defeat of the Spanish Republic, for the peoples of Europe, we re-dedicate ourselves to defending and to advancing the cause of democracy and social solidarity.