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Speech by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, at James Connolly Commemoration Arbour Hill, Sunday 15th May, 2016.

Date Released: 16 May 2016

Brothers, Sisters, Comrades and Friends We gather here today to pay tribute to a fearless fighter for freedom, not just of his country, but of his class. In making his historic decision to align his fortunes and those of the Irish Citizen Army with Cumann na mBan and the Irish Volunteers, Connolly was hugely influenced by the continuing slaughter of tens of thousands of young Irishmen in an imperialist war not of their making. He was a committed socialist and internationalist and during his short but full life of physical and ideological struggle against capitalism, in Scotland, Ireland and the US he knew well that replacing the union jack with the green flag would not be enough to achieve freedom for his class.

If the 1916 Rising was a ‘Notice to Quit’ on the old regime it was also a revolt against the horrific slaughter of a world war unleashed by all the European imperialist powers on their own peoples. Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army believed that if they had to fight it was far better to do so defending their families, their class and their communities at home than go to France or the Dardanelles at the behest of John Redmond and the British government.

Connolly saw the conflict as an opportunity, albeit a slim one, to establish a Workers’ Republic while the European ruling elite was involved in its own civil war. His aspirations for his class are probably more feasible today than in 1916 when the Ireland was still an intensely conservative society. 

Today workers of hand and brain constitute the great majority of our people and the labour movement has a greater unrealised potential than ever before.

The challenge we now face is how best to mobilise this great force for change in pursuit of a society based on values Connolly and his comrades espoused. This has always been a difficult task, currently made even more so by the prevalence of quick fix solutions to our current problems offered on the one hand by the market economy mé feiners, and on the other by cynical opportunists.

When these people talk of “putting the country first” they really mean prioritising their own sectional interests or career prospects. For Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army the priority was always to put the people first, as it has remained for the labour movement ever since.

Unfortunately, the Ireland delineated in the Irish Citizen Army constitution, the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil which aspired to cherish all the children of the nation equally, has still to be realised.

Indeed the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, which Connolly’s successors in the Labour Party played a major role in drafting, declared it as ‘the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing or shelter’.

As you know there are children in this very area and throughout Dublin returning to a hotel room or bed and breakfast hostel each night rather than a home of their own. Their physical living conditions are not as stark as those of their great grandparents but they suffer from a similar sense of insecurity and second class status in our society.

In commemorating the heroism of Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army and in contemplating the profundity of their sacrifice in this, their Centenary Year, we must use the occasion to bring about the rejection of the crude winner takes all value system that led us to our third existential crisis in 60 years.

The potential exists, as never before, through a dynamically growing economy to eliminate poverty, to end homelessness, to develop a universally accessible health service free at the point of use and to afford everyone the right to a decent job by the centenary of the foundation of this state in six years’ time.

While this potential is clearly feasible it will not be achieved by telling everyone what they want to hear, or by responding to the agenda of each and every interest group, campaign, or category that now exists or might emerge. It can only be achieved by the development of a majority consensus around clear priorities that serve to attain prosperity and equality simultaneously, each reciprocally contributing to the other in an ongoing mutually reinforcing process. 

The key elements of such a project are clear for all to see. But if they are to be attained we will have to jettison the illusion that we can have the highest standards of public services without actually paying for them. We will have to tax wealth and those on higher incomes and we will have to apply all of the increased resources that accrue from the growth in the economy to serve the key priorities of public provision.

We will have to stop pretending that while rebuilding the public infrastructure, which has been devastated by the one sided austerity policy imposed by the EU-ECB-IMF Troika that we can cut everybody’s taxes at the same time. This is arrant illusionary and disingenuous nonsense. In the most rapidly growing economy in Europe all of our people deserve the best public services and public utilities possible, but we will have to gradually develop a European style tax structure to pay for them. 

Although the result of the recent election was bad for Labour, and will come to be seen as bad for working people generally in the fullness of time, there were some positive aspects. The total percentage of the vote won by parties and individuals purporting to stand on left of centre platforms, especially when one includes Fianna Fáil, which described itself as ‘left of centre and social democratic’, constituted an absolute majority.

Ironically, while the majority of the population did not vote for Labour or the Social Democrats, they did actually vote for the idea of social democracy. Accordingly the task facing all of us is to build a majority for the core ideas that constitute the democratic socialist project in Ireland as envisaged by James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army. This calls for an end to sectarian squabbling and petty one-upmanship and the building of a coherent left alternative in which, notwithstanding its recent setbacks, Labour, Connolly’s party must play a pivotal and central role. 

To paraphrase another great radical patriot, Robert Emmet, it will only be then, when all of the children of the nation are actually cherished equally that the epitaph of Connolly and his brave comrades can be written.  

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