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Address by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, at the annual James Connolly Commemoration

Date Released: 10 May 2015

Sunday 10th May 2015 Arbour Hill Cemetery We are assembled here to mark the 99th anniversary of the execution of James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizen Army and acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union who, alone among the signatories to the 1916 Proclamation, approached the rebellion from an international socialist perspective.

He understood the great imperialist war as the ultimate barbaric consequence of the implosion of the capitalist economic system in Europe with all its attendant implications for the very survival of the human species itself. Moreover, he never shared in the simplistic nationalist illusion that ejection of the colonial oppressor would itself liberate the exploited majority of the Irish people. 

Apart from his socialist analysis of history his lived experience led him to a strategy of aligning the Irish Citizen Army with the forces led by the most progressive elements of Irish revolutionary nationalism in the Irish Republican Brotherhood to launch the insurrection of 1916.  He had experienced first-hand the role of the British authorities who deployed all the resources at their disposal to support the new emerging Irish ruling class around William Martin Murphy and the employers of Dublin in their brutal and merciless attempt to smash the incipient Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union through the Great Lockout of 1913. 

That crushing defeat was followed by the failure of the European Social Democratic and Labour Parties to prevent the butchery of the Great Imperialist War which, by 1915, was already unfolding as the greatest conflagration, at that point, in all of human history.  This was despite the heroic efforts of a minority, led by figures such as Keir Hardie and George Lansbury in Britain, Jean Jaures in France and Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany. 

Connolly’s assertion that the “The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour. They cannot be dissevered.” reflected the then prevailing view in the International Socialist Movement, which saw national liberation as a necessary stepping stone on the road to building societies based on a collective common wealth. 

Connolly also understood that it was inevitable that conscription would be introduced in Ireland to feed the endless appetite of the war machine in Europe and very correctly asserted that if the bloodshed of a generation was to be spilled, it would be better sacrificed in the struggle for national emancipation than in the pointless orgy unfolding on the battlefields of the old Continent.

Today, we are commemorating his memory against the background of an enfeebled recovery in the global economy from precisely the kind of collapse of the prevailing economic system which Connolly and his contemporaries in the Socialist International would have understood as the root cause of the Great Imperialist War itself. 

Indeed the events of 2008, epitomised in the fall of Lehmans and what was to follow, constituted the biggest economic collapse across the entire capitalist world since the Wall Street Crash of 1929. 

With the wisdom of hindsight we can now survey the landscape that is the history of the near century that has passed since the decade of rebellion which opened with the great Dublin Lockout and concluded with the counter Revolution which followed the Treaty of 1922.  Sadly, the egalitarian paradigm, which Connolly envisaged, has not materialised in a world which was to endure another great war within a generation and an endless series of regional wars, some of which are being waged even as we speak.  We have also witnessed the inadequacies of the Soviet bloc, the collapse of which has served to shift the balance immeasurably in favour of the oppressors against the oppressed and the exploiters against the exploited.  Indeed, we are in the throes of a period in which the very existence of the European welfare state and its accompanying social market economy, which, despite its inadequacies, still represents the greatest egalitarian advancement in all of human history, now stands threatened by a policy agenda which is being ruthlessly driven at the behest of those at the top of the banking system in the creditor countries.

Here, the consequences of the approach to public policy formation are clear for all to see, as we are unique in all of Europe in that, despite an abundance of resources and one of the most temperate climates in the world, our population is now lower than what it was in 1840.  In this Republic, we have the distinction, along with the Baltics and Greece, of having experienced the largest economic collapse, in the entire developed world, since the Wall Street crash.  This is directly attributable to the actions of some at the top of the economic pyramid who were responsible for inflating the net foreign debt of the Irish banks from the equivalent of 10% of GDP in 2003 to 60% in 2008, mostly for the purpose of speculative investment in property, thus bringing about the collapse. 

However, we have to look beyond political ineptitude and incompetence at the top of the banking system for the cause of the domestic calamity, because this has been our third existential crisis in sixty years.  Those who bear personal responsibility for 2008 cannot justifiably be blamed for what unfolded in the 1980s and certainly not the dark days of the 1950s.  Therefore, so that we can plan to prevent re-occurrence, we have to reach beyond the necessary exercise of holding individuals to account, as appropriate, and tackle the core issue of the very value system which has informed all public policy making since 1922 and which provides the context within which individual actions unfold.  Otherwise, we will simply replace one group of people with another and return to “business as usual” embarking on the journey to the next catastrophe.

It is time to abandon the value system which reflects the interests of the wealthy and powerful who came into ascendency in the years following the Treaty and to assert the primacy of the common good over individual property rights as the key and essential tenet of all public policy formation. 

The impending general election offers an historic opportunity to embark on this new course.  In this regard it is still the responsibility of Connolly’s party to promote the vision of an alternative society, based on the principles of social solidarity. By going into the Government, as a minority party outnumbered by more than 2:1, during the most challenging period in the history of the State, when it could have opted to enhance its own popularity by staying out, Labour has managed to secure the reinstatement of the minimum wage, maintain the basic infrastructure of our Social Welfare system, prevent compulsory redundancies in our public service, limit the divestiture of state assets and place the country on the road to fiscal solvency.  These mirror the core, medium term objectives of the recently elected Syriza government in Greece for which they are correctly applauded by all on the Left.  Yet, the Labour Party here has achieved them all despite their minority position and the fact that in 2011 the State deficit here was the largest in all of the Eurozone, higher even than Greece. 

They have also brought about the proposed legislation to reinstate the Registered Employment mechanisms and to strengthen the Collective Bargaining rights of workers.  Apart from protecting the pay and conditions of tens of thousands of workers, the Registered Employment infrastructure is critical to maintaining a threshold of decency in the workplace across the economy.

Moreover, we are unaware of any other country in the developed world where the Government proposes to enact legislation to strengthen the Collective Bargaining rights of workers, against the background of the economic circumstances which have prevailed since 2008, even though the IMF is on record as holding that its decline was central to the global economic collapse itself.  These measures, together with the establishment of the Low Pay Commission and the work that is underway, which we are confident will result in a significant increase in the minimum wage, as well as legislation to limit the exploitative zero hours contract regime, assert the primacy of the common good against considerable odds and we should particularly acknowledge the work of Minister Ged Nash in this regard.

Given all the sacrifices that have been made, Labour must not allow the general election to descend into a contest between one set of tax cuts versus another, all of which ultimately serve the interests of the better off, instead of a choice between alternative visions for the future of society.

 Abolishing property tax is no more socially progressive than cutting the top rate of income tax.   This is especially so in a country where the levels of public investment have been dramatically reduced over the crisis years and in which they compared unfavourably as a percentage of GDP with developed European countries even before the collapse occurred.  As resources become available in a recovering economy, we should at least insist on the reinstatement of public investment at the 2:1 ratio at which it was cut vis a vis the increase in taxation during the fiscal adjustment.  Thereafter, any resources that are available for tax alleviation should be exclusively concentrated on low to middle income earners, through significantly reducing the rate at which the Universal Social Charge is levied, up to the standard rate band threshold.  This must be the minimum required to rebuild the public health service, expand educational opportunity and provide housing and other Local Authority services to the degree required to ensure the development of a dynamic economy and sustainable society.  It should not be impossible.  Other small countries in Europe such as Denmark are able to combine the highest level of public provision, while maintaining one of the most dynamic and competitive economies in the world.

In today’s context this is the best way to reflect the egalitarian aspirations for which James Connolly lived and ultimately surrendered his life, in the medium term at least.

 


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