Date Released: 13 May 2014
Speech in Belfast by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, at the commemoration of the death of James Connolly on Monday 12th May.
Comrades and Friends
I want to thank the organisers for the invitation to give the oration to mark the 98th anniversary of the death of James Connolly, here this evening. We in SIPTU very much appreciate the gesture because we believe our union was conceived here in the streets hereabout in the great Belfast Docks strike of 1907. I want to thank you as well given the significance of the occasion because this year’s anniversary coincides with the centenary of the commencement of the Great Imperialist War. That cathartic event, unprecedented then in the entire history of human experience in terms of the mass slaughter and misery it inflicted as well as its impact on the course of history also, I believe, decided the course of Connolly’s strategy and the ultimate direction of things on this island as well.
James Connolly was no romantic nationalist. He was a revolutionary socialist visionary who saw himself first as one of the international working class. His perception of “freedom” was constructed around the notion of freedom from want and the freedom of every individual to enjoy the full fruits of their humanity in the cultural as well as the physical sense as distinct from abstract concepts about territory. Ireland, he said, apart from its people, means nothing to me. He drew a very sharp distinction between the concept of freedom for those who are exploited and those who benefit from that exploitation.
He came to this city in 1911 to work as an Organiser for Jim Larkin’s incipient Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. He came as one who subscribed to the analysis of history which understood clearly the nature and character of the Capitalist system as well as the interpretation of all pre-existing history in terms of the struggle between exploiters and exploited. He came to a city still bubbling with the potential of the momentary manifestation of class unity which transcended the cultural legacies of the Falls and the Shankill as well as the ignominy of the defeat which followed the collapse of that solidarity.
We have to understand Connolly in terms of one of the foremost thinkers in the evolving fermentation of socialist thought in Europe and the United States of America at the end of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, which was ultimately to lead to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the potential, subsequently frustrated, for an entirely new order of human society. We have to understand his journey as a visionary leader of the international working class through the cruel defeat of the workers of Dublin by the employers of that city led by William Martin Murphy, an Irish Catholic Nationalist in the Great Lockout of 1913 which extended throughout the autumn and into the cruel winter to February 1914. He saw that Murphy and his contemporaries among the employers did not discriminate on grounds of religion or ethnic origin when resorting to the supreme depravity of starving little children to the point of death in order to deprive the working people of that city from exercising the right to bargain collectively on the distribution of the proceeds of their labour.
It was a journey that took him through the heart-breaking bewilderment of the leaders of the Socialist International at their inability to persuade workers from slaughtering workers across the battlefields of Europe in the Great Imperialist War. In that he had stood with Kier Hardie and George Lanesbury in Britain. There were others too such as Jean Juares in France, Karl Liebnecht and Rosa Luxembourg in Germany, each of whom were to die in their efforts to prevent that cruel war.
This was the road that took James Connolly, the Trade Unionist, the Labour Organiser, who loved humanity, to 1916, rather than any infatuation with romantic nationalism.
As we all know now, public policy making in both of the jurisdictions, which emerged on this Island after the so called decade of rebellion, was much more reflective of the outlook, the value system and the interests epitomised by William Martin Murphy and his kind in Dublin in 1913 and the employers of Belfast in 1907, than the egalitarian culture of social solidarity, shared by Connolly and Larkin, which sustained the workers throughout those two great struggles.
Indeed, this reality is graphically illustrated by the fact that even to this very day workers in the other jurisdiction on this island still do not enjoy the right to bargain collectively with their employers. And we now know as well the full extent of the legacy of unemployment, emigration and misery it spawned in its many manifestations not least in the experience of the people of this city over the past half century.
But, it is that same value system, reliant as it is, on the most repugnant of all human vices – unbridled greed – that has informed the one sided austerity strategy that has been so brutally imposed by those in the ascendency, in Europe, Britain and in Ireland, since the systemic collapse of 2008. The ruthless agenda of capital and the relentless pursuit of profit does not recognise national territorial boundaries, or differences of nationality, ethnicity, race, colour or creed. Whatever divides them at the top of business and the financial system, they are all united when it comes to squeezing the last drop of sweat from working men and women and children too, if it comes to that.
The horrendous consequences of their economic policy which has resulted in the generation of levels of unemployment not seen since the 1950s and the consequent impoverishment and alienation particularly among the young, is once again spawning the ingredients for the kind of conflict that Connolly and the others in the leadership of the Second International struggled so earnestly to avert exactly a century ago this year. Their memory and more particularly our obligation to the young men and women of today and those not yet born obliges us all, Social Democrats, Socialists, Left Republicans and decent Trade Unionists to step up to the mark, overcome our differences and unite together to assert the rational interests of working people everywhere which coincide precisely with the progress of humanity and even the very survival of organic life on the planet itself.
In this regard and in speaking in my role on behalf of the Trade Union that Larkin founded and Connolly struggled to build and speaking as a past President of Congress, a movement that has always transcended the cultural divisions which have separated workers on this island, I want to extend our most profound compliments and support to all the courageous leaders who brought about the Peace Process and who are working to maintain it despite all the pressures to the contrary.
I want to reiterate our commitment to help in every way that we can to assist in developing a route to a better life for all. I want, in particular, to offer any assistance and support that we can to developing the best way of dealing with the issues of the past - a way through the truth that never allows us to forget but neither allows us to dwell on it, that offers the prospect of forgiveness and a road to a future constructed on social solidarity and the primacy of the common good.
All of us as Trade Unionists must unite around the demand for a Bill of Rights for all and I reiterate that demand from this platform here this evening. We are united as well in resisting the savage attack on welfare provision, which has always being promoted under the guise of reform. The proper route to real welfare reform is through a major economic initiative on jobs and social development which recognises the need to usher in a new era of hope to sustain the Peace Process and the development of civil society here in this City, given its beleaguered history.
We all have an obligation to combine together to fight for this legitimate and egalitarian agenda which threatens no-one and offers the alternative to barbarism in Ireland, the UK and in Europe and which accords with the egalitarian vision for which James Connolly lived and ultimately surrendered his life.