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Jack O’Connor at Larkin 70th anniversary commemoration

Date Released: 30 January 2017

Speech by SIPTU President, Jack O’Connor at commemoration to mark the 70th anniversary of the death of socialist and labour leader, Jim Larkin, in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin on 30th January 2017.

Comrades, Brothers and Sisters

We are here to honour Big Jim Larkin, the founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and of the Workers’ Union of Ireland.

He took the trade union movement out of the byways of narrow sectional interest and onto the highway of public discourse.   In the process, he turned it into a great social campaigning movement that provided a vision of a better world, giving working people hope and a belief in their own capacity to bring it about.

Unlike many leaders of the Irish revolution his vision was not confined to these shores or by the claustrophobic nationalism that, unfortunately, limited the views of those who came to rule the Irish Free State.  They often ended up cynically exploiting the sacrifices of the revolutionary decade to perpetuate the misery that had given rise to the struggle for independence in the first place.  It was a gross betrayal of the ideals that inspired the resistance of the workers of Dublin during the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913, the Easter Rising of 1916, and, of course, the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, on which the War of Independence was fought. That programme promised, ‘It shall be 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’. These words were drafted by Tom Johnson, William O’Brien and Cathal O’Shannon, three leading figures in the Labour movement of their day.

Even at the drafting stage the passages in the Democratic Programme referring to the country’s right ‘to resume possession’ of the nation’s wealth and ‘aim at the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation’ were deleted at the insistence of conservative nationalism. It was no wonder that the sacrifices workers made in the War of Independence were squandered in arguments about the wording of the constitution for the new Free State that led to a Civil War and counter-revolution that copper fastened the conservative consensus of an economically backward, culturally introspective, theocratic state.

Unfortunately, this was a common pattern across Europe where the First World War was followed by further years of extreme hardship in which the simplistic slogans of fascism, feeding off the fear of people, many of whom had been left destitute, seduced them into believing xenophobic nationalism and protectionism were the best way forward. In reality, all they offered was an illusion that they could recapture a golden past that had never existed. Instead, they were led into a new global conflict, the Second World War, that was even more devastating than the First and ended with the advent of nuclear warfare.

It was one of the tragedies of this period that the international socialist movement could not prevent the First World War. But it did play a leading role in the great historic compromise between labour and capital that has underpinned peace, at least among the leading nations of Europe since 1945, of which the evolution of the European Union was a centrepiece.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, surfing on the back of the global recession caused by the 1970’s oil crisis, triggered a neo-liberal ‘race to the past’. In doing so they releasd all the destructive elements of tooth and claw capitalism, in pursuit of profit irrespective of the cost to humanity as a whole.  This ultimately led to the collapse of 2008 and its aftermath, when all those holding the key reins of power in the creditor nations were agents of the very interests and institutions that had brought about the catastrophe itself.

Even then, the centre right parties that were in the ascendant could have saved millions of their citizens from destitution and despair by measures to offset austerity with a major public investment initiative on the scale of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal that rescued the United States from the 1930s depression or the Marshall Plan that underpinned the reconstruction of Europe after the War.

They did not require the sort of courage and vision of a Roosevelt or Marshall. All that was required was a more flexible interpretation of the stability and growth pact which would have allowed countries to disregard the expenditure of up to 3% of GDP on productivity enhancing infrastructural investment and skills development.  Instead, they chose the mean-spirited strategy of underwriting loans to the stressed countries already immersed in too much debt, simply so that they could service their borrowings which were often owed to major banks in the creditor countries themselves.

Their insistence on rendering support conditional on soul sapping austerity condemned countless numbers of EU citizens to unemployment, emigration and misery. Their brutal strategy has fundamentally undermined the legitimacy of the European project in the eyes of tens of millions of workers and young people. 

If they can no longer rely on the EU to protect them, its citizens will look elsewhere.   Deprived of hope, people are willing to embrace ideologies and the parties whose political currencies are the same racism and the scapegoating of minorities than many of us believed had been consigned to the dustbin of history long ago.

Not for the first time we are again witnessing the phenomenon of millions of desperate, disillusioned and alienated citizens blaming other poor and even more desperate people, for the misery inflicted on them by those at the top of the global capitalist pyramid. The greatest tragedy of the brutal one sided austerity strategy which has been pursued by those who decide policy in the creditor countries is that they have given the franchise on HOPE, the most potent of all political propositions, to the xenophobic right wing nationalists and their fellow travellers – the Neo Fascists.

Trump’s simplistic message to ‘Make America Great’, or even ‘Greater Again’ is far more in tune with the concerns of working people.  They didn’t elect him because of his racist utterings or his bullying demeanour.  They elected him because he offered the prospect of a future that might work.  American workers will welcome the prospect of jobs created by massive public investment.  No matter that it was his same Republican Party which prevented President Obama from doing it.  But Trump’s regime will preside over the biggest transfer of wealth, from the less well off to the ultra- rich, in American history.

And it will be marked as well by the most systematic demonisation and scapegoating of minorities experienced in the developed world since the 1930s.  However, an even greater danger is that the protectionist policies he favours could lead to trade wars, recession and ultimately to war of the other kind!

It is still not too late, even now at the eleventh hour and after disintegration has already commenced with Brexit, for those at the top in Europe to relax fiscal policy to enable countries to create jobs and grow their economies. But no, they would rather run the gauntlet on disintegration and even the demise of the democratic system itself. Their strategy is to batter society into compliance with the requirements of maintaining a hard currency. This in turn entails a brutal war on working people and all those who depend most on public services. Small wonder then that the politics are catching up with the economics – as we always said they would!

Some commentators characterise the swing to the Right as a reaction to globalisation.  But the global corporations have no need to worry about the concomitant rise of nationalism, because all nationalists, from the neo fascists of Eastern Europe to the racist ultra-nationalists of the Netherlands, France and the Nordic Countries, to the British Tories, and even the pseudo Social Democratic SNP, across the Atlantic to Trump, all share one thing in common – the commitment to a race to the bottom on corporation tax.  

Tragically, while the hard-right surfs to power on the tidal wave of disillusionment and discontent across the developed world, the Left, utterly fragmented, is not offering a coherent vision of an alternative egalitarian future or how it would work.

Social democracy, which first forged the prospect of a better future for all before the First World War, led the fight against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, and spearheaded a Social Europe afterwards, is severely discredited.  It has burnt a huge amount of its’ political capital in a desperate effort to mitigate the austerity agenda by participating in governments dominated by the centre right and has consequently ended up being blamed for a collapse that was not of its’ making.

Others, on an increasingly fragmented left, seem content to be defined by reference only to what they are against rather than offering a vision of what they are for, or how it would work.

All this is happening at a time when we could have full employment and the focus of humanity should be directed towards addressing the imminent threat of climate change, instead of denying it. And it is a time as well when the endless potential of the digital revolution which is now unfolding, could be harnessed for the creation of an immeasurably better world, instead of providing platforms for new forms of slavery.

This unfolding tragedy is still capable of being averted.  But it will require all who share the noble aspiration of Big Jim Larkin for an egalitarian society based on the enduring principles of social solidarity, to realise that the time for play-acting is over.   We must all unite in a common bond to articulate a coherent credible vision of a future that works, as the only viable alternative to the descent into barbarism.

Of course, it will not be easy for many on the left who have built their organisations and reputations on simplistic and sometimes very effective negative campaigning, to invest their political capital in helping create a more positive, and productive programme and strategy – but that is the real test of leadership.  Look at the example that is being provided by the parties of the left in Portugal where they have established an alliance for government, reversing austerity, reinstating workers’ rights and charting a course for a progressive future.

The legacy of Big Jim Larkin represents all that is best in our socialist tradition.   Above all, it aspires to the creation of a democratic and egalitarian society. That is a noble aspiration and we gather once more at his graveside today, on the 70th anniversary of his death, to be inspired by his vision and to re-dedicate ourselves to the attainment of the world which he envisaged and articulated so eloquently and courageously when he arrived on these shores one hundred and ten years ago.


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