Date Released: 30 November 2013
Address by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, to the Labour Party Conference, Killarney, County Kerry, Saturday, 30th November, 2013.
Chairperson, Delegates and Comrades,
I am pleased to accept this award on behalf of all the people who are members of our Union today and in memory of those who suffered and starved throughout the Lockout during the cruel winter of 1913 into 1914 to assert the right to freedom of association and to collectively bargain with their employers.
I want to thank you all for this gesture and to say that we do not forget that only one political party in Dublin City Council stood with the beleaguered workers throughout that bitter struggle and that party was the Labour Party.
Far from being the opening salvo in a decade of nationalist rebellion as some would have it, we do not forget either that the entire project was conceived, planned and executed by Irishmen, led by William Martin Murphy, against their fellow citizens. Their objective was to deny the working people, those they referred to as the “the rabble”, any say in Home Rule Ireland. They sought to do so by destroying Jim Larkin’s incipient Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union which they clearly and correctly understood would serve as a vehicle by means of which those beleaguered people would influence the agenda.
They did not succeed in destroying the Union. Nevertheless, public policy in both jurisdictions which emerged after the struggle for national independence has always been more informed by the values espoused by William Martin Murphy and his kind rather than the egalitarian notion of collective solidarity which sustained the heroic resistance.
And that reality is graphically reflected in the absence of any legal support in this Republic for the entitlement to participate in Collective Bargaining which the European Court of Human Rights has held to be an essential corollary of the right to “Freedom of Association”. In this regard, I want to acknowledge our appreciation of the efforts that are being made by the Labour Party and by Eamon Gilmore, in particular, to ensure that that gross injustice is rectified.
The consequences of relying on individual greed as the dynamic of public policy are now tragically clear for all to see as we struggle through our third existential crisis in sixty years.
But the inconvenient truth for all of us who are of the Left is that we have collectively failed to win sufficient support among the electorate for the politics of social solidarity. Yet a much higher proportion of our fellow citizens have always shared those values than has ever been reflected in any election outcome. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for it is our perennial failure to distinguish between strategy and tactics on the one hand
and values and principles on the other and the accompanying fragmentation that has always afflicted our best endeavours.
Therefore, we respectfully look to this Party, Connolly’s Party, to apply the lessons of our history, to rise above the petty cut and thrust of day to day politics and to articulate a vision of a new Republic firmly grounded in social solidarity and the primacy of the common good, underpinned by a sustainable economy. A good place to start would be by setting the objective of a realisable guarantee of a decent job and a living wage for all.
Until the day that Labour perhaps along with others on the Left can become the majority in a government, we believe that it and, if the circumstances arise, others on the serious Left must be prepared to go into Government with the Centre Right parties to defend the interests of working people and civil society as far as possible. No-one on the Left caused the current crisis. Indeed, Labour was the only party that did not join the stampede to endorse the tragic open ended guarantee which was issued to our reckless bankers on that fateful morning of 30th September 2008.
Things are not as we in SIPTU would wish them to be. Labour has not been able to make the distribution of the burden of the collapse as fair as it should be – nor could it – because it is outnumbered by 2:1 in the Government. But the point is that it has been able to make it a great deal fairer than it would otherwise be.
We know that this Party would now be immensely more popular if it had chosen to stand aside leaving the levers of power completely in the hands of the Centre Right. But the price of that popularity would have been paid by working people
and by those in our society who depend most on public services.
This is clear because on any reading of the Fine Gael party’s election manifesto the cuts imposed would now besomewhere between €1.6bn and €2bn more than those which have been inflicted to date.
Moreover, the legal mechanisms which underpin the threshold of decency on pay and conditions for tens of thousands of our most vulnerable workers would have been dismantled and we would now be well on the way to the wholesale sell off of our most critically important public enterprises.
As trade unionists we insist on the right to aspire to a better, fairer future - but we cannot afford the luxury of standing aside and failing to influence the agenda on behalf of working people simply in order to preserve electoral popularity.
At the end of the day, it comes down to the distinction between making noise and making a difference.