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SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor at Alicia Brady commemoration

Date Released: 04 January 2014

Glasnevin Cemetery, Saturday, 4th January, 2014

Comrades and Friends we are assembled here in the presence of members of Alicia Brady’s family to commemorate the young woman who was martyred at the tender age of 16 during the great Dublin Lockout 100 years ago this week. Alicia, whom James Connolly described as ‘as true a martyr for freedom as any whoever died in Ireland’, paid the ultimate price for asserting her right as a young worker to associate freely with her fellow workers in the trade union of her choice.

Thanks to her heroism and to that of the thousands of others who suffered and starved through out the cruel winter of 1913 into 1914 the employers of Dublin, led by William Martin Murphy, did not achieve their objective of smashing Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union. However their value system, driven by the imperatives of individual greed, always informed public policy in both of the jurisdictions which emerged on this island following the so called Decade of Revolution. This is glaringly obvious in the continuing denial of thelegal right to collective bargaining in this Republic to this very day, despite the fact that it exists in virtually every other country in Europe and that it has been acknowledged as essential to the right of Freedom of Association by the European Court of Human Rights.

The devastating consequences of that policy approach are now clear for all to see as we struggle through our third existential economic crisis within 60 years. Tragically, it was never inevitable. Other small states in Europe such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden have been consistently able to maintain higher employment rates and lower levels of debt while maintaining higher standards of public provision and social infrastructure. The essential difference is that their value systems prioritise equality and the primacy ofthe Common Good. They focus on medium to longer term sustainability, while the culture of the quick buck has always prevailed here.

As we remember Alicia Brady approaching the conclusion of the Centenary Year, the end of the Lockout and what followed, it is time to revisit the legacy of the outcome and to reappraise the results of a public policy approach informed by the flawed value system which prevailed in that great struggle. It is particularly relevant as we strive to emerge from the implosion of the credit fuelled property bubble and its dreadful consequences for working people andcivil society in general. It is time now to abandon the failed strategy ofbasing public policy on individual greed and to revisit the task of building aNew Republic informed by the ideals of collective solidarity which were so brutally suppressed in this city in 1913.  

In that regard the trade union movement and the left are the only forces in our society which reflect the interests of the great majority and which are sufficiently organised and resourced to lead the way. However we too must face up to some inconvenient truths.  We didn’t cause the crisis but we were unable to prevent it. The fact of the matter is that the left in Ireland has been afflicted by a poverty of ambition, neutralising itself through its ongoing indulgence in fruitless sectarian factionalism, confusing tactics and strategy on the one hand with values and principles on the other.

If weare really serious about being true to the memory of Alicia Brady and all those she stood with her throughout that epic struggle, we have an obligation to offer more than protest and caustic commentary. We must face up to the challenge of developing a coherent vision of an alternative paradigm informed by an egalitarian outlook based on equality and the primacy of the common good.  We must also demonstrate that we have the capacity to bring it about and outline a strategy as to how it would work inthe context of today’s globalised economy.

It is time for us to wake up and to realise that it is the commitment to equality and the understanding that it is not only morally but economically superior as well,that constitutes the essential dividing line, instead of indulging in relentless political cannibalism on remote points of dogma. This indulgence only serves to reinforce the continuing hegemony of the William Martin Murphys oftoday to the eternal detriment of working people, those who depend most on public services and on civil society in general.

We must gradually develop a coherent unity on the left and in the trade union movement. It must be informed by an intellectual generosity of spirit that recognises that no one has a monopoly of wisdom. We must be sufficiently pragmatic to avoid condemning those with whom we disagree on questions of strategy and tactics, or dismissing their programmes as “fantasy economics” and the like. Equally any such understanding on the left must be sufficiently flexible to recognise that until we command a majority it is entirely legitimate, indeed essential, for parties and individuals to participate in government with those on the centre right either in Dublin or in Belfast. This must be so, even if it means going along with policies with which they would prefer not to, in order to defend our people from far, far worse, or to make such progress as can be made. We have to have a more rational strategy than standing aside and allowing working people to be battered into the ground in the hope that they would follow us as a result of the experience.

Some contend that such participation makes no difference, but the lessons of ourrecent history in the Republic speak otherwise. A degree of unity on the left, accompanied by a more vigilant trade union movement could have prevented the unbridled free marketeering Progressive Democrats from grabbing the balance ofpower in what was a healthy and sustainable economy in 1997. If the left had managed to retain the Department of Finance, the majority shareholding of Eircom, the ACC, the ICC and the TSB would never have been privatised and speculation would never have been incentivised while innovation was starved.The buccaneering ‘look the other way’ regulation culture would never have become as endemic as it did. And while there would have been a down turn as a result of global developments it would have been on a much lesser and more manageable scale than that which ultimately unfolded. The issue of the bank guarantee would probably not have arisen and even if it had the blank cheque which we were all signed up for on 30th September 2008 would never have beenissued. The indebtedness, the unemployment, the emigration and a great deal ofthe misery that has been endured over the past few years would never have been experienced. The Tragedy is that it did and whereas we in the trade union movement and on the left certainly did not cause it, we were not able to prevent it either. 

So while we are here to commemorate the memory of Alicia Brady and all with whom she stood during that heroic struggle 100 years ago, we reiterate our commitment to the notion of social solidarity that inspired their heroic resistance and we are inspired by their courage and their sacrifice. However if we are to be true to their memory and true to the men, women and children of today’s generations, and to those yet to come, we have to apply the lessons of past divisions and build a pragmatic and generous unity in the trade union movement and on the left, so as to create the basis for a New Republic which actually does cherish all the children of the nation equally.

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