It is 220 years ago this year that Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Samuel Neilson and others founded the Society of United Irishmen, and with it the political tradition in
Ireland to which we belong. The aims of the United Irishmen were truly revolutionary. Not only did they seek to achieve an independent democratic republic, they sought to shatter once and for all the grip of sectarianism on the people of Ireland, and they wanted to create a more equal society where the poor would no longer be oppressed by the government, clergy, and aristocrats. Power would be taken out of the hands of the aristocracy and placed in the hands of the people. Revolutionary in their intentions, the United Irishmen were also revolutionary in their methods. Like their fellow revolutionary democrats in France and elsewhere, the United Irishmen set about agitating among the ordinary people, educating and organising those who were regarded as unfit for political rights by the elite. The United Irishmen spoke to the people about what mattered to them – issues like liberty, equality, democracy, peace, poverty, taxation, high rents – and they did so in a language that the people could understand. They used every means at their disposal to communicate with the people – newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets, songs, poems, badges – to get their revolutionary message across to those ready to hear it. As a result, they quickly built a large and powerful revolutionary organisation dedicated to changing the political, social and economic conditions in which the people of Ireland lived. When we come to Bodenstown, then, we come not just to commemorate the life and death of Tone and the United Irishmen, but also to express our own commitment to revolutionising Irish society today, along similar lines: we remain committed to forging the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in order to create a secular, democratic, socialist state on our island – a Republic, run by and for the working class.
The United Irishmen emerged as a response from the people to the realities of aristocratic oppression – to the fact that most of the wealth and all of the power belonged to a tiny unrepresentative elite that controlled the government and the legal system and used them to protect their interests. This, of course, is a situation we too are familiar with today. The current crisis of capitalism that began with the so-called credit crunch of 2007 has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the governments in Dublin, London, Athens, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Rome, Washington and elsewhere serve only the interests of the capitalist elite, especially the financiers and the speculators in property, currency and shares. We have seen untold billions stolen from the citizens of countries across the globe and given to the banks and the speculators, all in the name of satisfying the markets and preserving the financial system, i.e. protecting the profits of the super-rich who depend upon the continuation of the failed system of neo-liberalism.
We are in the middle of a coordinated, sustained and vicious assault upon the living standards of the working class across Europe, with the European Central Bank and the IMF directing the onslaught. “Austerity” is the war cry of the right across Europe. Regardless of whether any given government is of a right-wing or ostensibly social democratic stripe, the result is the same: billions of cuts to public services, social welfare and wages at a time of increasing unemployment and rising prices for essentials like food, electricity and heating oil. All this to fund the bailouts given not to the peoples of Greece, of this state or of Portugal but to the institutions of finance capital. The financiers and the speculators demanded deregulation and freedom from the state to make maximum profit in the good times, and then that the state rescue them when things went bad. So much for the free market. The free market is nothing but an illusion, an ideological smokescreen for the reality of the bourgeoisie’s class rule.
The scale of the transfer of wealth from the citizens of Europe to the bankers and the speculators is simply staggering. The figure for the Republic alone may be as high as €83billion. The banks were given public subsidies for which generations of the working class will have to pay the bill through higher taxation, lower wages, increased unemployment, poorer quality public services and emigration. As we know, the costs of the crisis have been devastating. There are now 470,000 people on the live register in the south, and 63,000 unemployed people in Northern Ireland. If we look further, we can see how things are getting worse. Those unemployed for a year or more now make up 40% of that 470,000, up by 31% from a year ago. In the north, the long-term unemployed represent 48% of the unemployed. Nearly one in five young people is unemployed in the north, and nearly one in three in the south. If you are young, your chances of finding a job are increasingly slim (and you are increasingly likely to be exploited through an unpaid “internship”). If you are of any age and have a job and lose it, your chances of finding another one are falling fast. The Republic sits atop the EU emigration league table. Workers in both public and private sector, the disabled, the sick, the old and the unemployed have been hit hard time and again. The working class can expect more pain from the next budget, unlike the bankers.
The authorities in Dublin, Belfast and London pay lip service to the need to respond to unemployment, announcing gimmicks like internships or enterprise zones. In reality, their cuts only make matters worse. Their refusal to harness the immense economic power of the state for job creation ensures that the recession continues, and that the working class continues to be hardest hit. Any hopes that a coalition involving the Labour Party would mark a difference of approach from the previous coalition have been dashed. Not only have they followed the cuts of Fianna Fáil and the Greens and the IMF with cuts of their own, but they have also adopted much of the mindset of their predecessors. This has been most obvious in the asinine comment of the Social Protection Minister Joan Burton that long-term unemployment is a lifestyle choice embraced by many school leavers. Such rhetoric belongs in the pages of a rag belonging to Tony O’Reilly or Rupert Murdoch, not in the mouth of a minister from a party that claims to be socialist.
The chief gimmick in which the DUP, Provisional Sinn Féin and the other Executive parties are placing their hopes is a reduction in Corporation Tax, as part of a right-wing agenda of shrinking the public sector and handing over more areas for profit-making by private companies. Due to the fall in corporation tax, Northern Ireland’s block grant will be cut by £400 million, £100 million more than originally expected. There is no evidence that the cut in corporation tax will automatically lead to multi-national corporations relocating to Northern Ireland. And even if they do, it is likely that there will be minimal impact on unemployment, and that further tax loopholes will be exploited to drive down the amount of tax actually paid. This is what happens in the Republic, where, for example, Google pays around 2% tax rather than the 12.5% headline rate. In reality, the cut in corporation tax may well result in a shortfall in the Northern Ireland budget which will be made up by further cutting public services and jobs. The Executive parties have made a high-stakes gamble. If it fails, we can be guaranteed that it will be the working class left to foot the bill.
We in The Workers’ Party have long called for a different approach to economic development, north and south. Instead of rebalancing the economy in favour of the private sector, we want the economy rebalanced in the favour of the working class. This crisis proves that the only viable solution is for the state to take the leading role. While the coalition government in Dublin and its allies-cum-masters in the IMF plan to privatise the successful publicly-owned companies, we argue that they should be expanded and developed, and made the engine of the expansion of the Irish economy. Instead of introducing tax breaks for corporations, the Northern Ireland Executive should be investing in developing state-owned industries. If a fraction of the money used to bailout the institutions of finance capital was spent on developing our natural resources and our industrial potential, north and south, we would sow the seeds of a more prosperous and more equal society.
Our struggle against sectarianism and clerical influence on politics and society continues that of the United Irishmen. While some would have us believe that we are on the verge of solving such questions, we need only look at the continued sectarian divide in politics, housing, education, and daily life in Northern Ireland to see that we are not. The Cloyne Report, the role of religion in the Republic’s education system, and some of the nastier elements of the campaign against David Norris’s presidential bid are a reminder that, despite some of the overheated response to the Taoiseach’s criticism of the Vatican (but not the Irish bishops), clerical influence has done – and has the potential to continue to do – immense damage to society in the Republic. The secular agenda remains a vital part of the socialist struggle across the island today. Without it, without the creation of a new sense of identity centred on equal and active citizenship, we cannot address the problems we face north or south.
There are many lessons that we have learned from the United Irishmen. The lessons learnt from them helped change the Republican Movement into The Workers’ Party. The ideological development that took place in the 1960s and after, especially our utter rejection of sectarianism in all its forms, had its roots in those lessons. But we have learnt and can still learn from the organisation the United Irishmen built as well as from their ideas. The United Irishmen changed their form of organisation to meet the demands of a rapidly changing situation, adjusting their aims, their strategy and their policies. They did not begin life as a mass revolutionary republican organisation, but became one in response to circumstances. They understood that the fundamental question in order to achieve revolutionary change in Ireland was the question of power. To be able to contest for power, they needed to raise the consciousness of the people and organise them.
To achieve revolutionary change in Irish society today, we must build a revolutionary party capable of effecting that change. This means raising class consciousness among the workers in town and countryside across the island; it also means the question of building the membership, capacity and influence of The Workers’ Party. At the core of the United Irishmen’s strategy for building their influence and their organisation lay their newspaper, the Northern Star. The Northern Star brought their ideas to a mass audience, encouraged people to think for themselves, and provided a point of contact and discussion when the United Irishmen sought to make recruits. We have seen from our own past, albeit on a lesser scale, the importance of the United Irishman and especially the Irish People in raising the profile of the party, class consciousness, and support for the Party within communities and trade unions and at the ballot box. Although a different type of publication, we cannot underestimate the importance and the potential of LookLeft to the Party. The current crisis has caused many people to look for answers, and has demonstrated to many people for the first time the true nature of capitalism and the political system. LookLeft offers us an invaluable opportunity for communicating with such people, not only through what is written on its pages, but also through the experience of selling it within working class communities, of talking to people about what it is and what The Workers’ Party stands for.
It also has a central role to play as an organiser for the Party. LookLeft, provides an unrivalled opportunity to engage with people about our politics, and there is no doubt that this has and will bear positive results in terms of recruitment and improving electoral performance. LookLeft has also been playing an important role in helping the Party reach out to others within the broad left, to making us a bigger part of left-wing and political discussion across the island, something that is all the more important while we remain without representation in the Dáil or the Northern Ireland Assembly. The importance of LookLeft to our strategic goal as laid out at the last Ard Fheis of building the Party is hard to exaggerate.
The effectiveness of our Party depends upon the efforts of the members. We are a revolutionary Party, heirs to a revolutionary tradition stretching back more than two centuries. Tremendous effort and sacrifice went in to building our Party, and rebuilding the Party is going to take similar dedication. Every member must contribute to this process in any way they can. No-one is expecting anyone to mimic Thomas Russell, and tramp across the towns and fields of Ireland bringing the revolutionary message to the men and women of no property. We do, however, expect Party members to promote their politics whenever possible in their communities and their workplaces, and to play an active part not only within Party structures but also within their residents and tenants organisations, trade unions, local and national campaign groups, and other organisations with progressive potential. We must engage with more people to rebuild our organisation and our influence. There is no other way than yet more hard work and dedication from our existing members.
We stand here today then, comrades, mindful of our proud past, but focused on our present and our future. It is no easy task we have set ourselves: the complete overthrow of the political and economic systems on this island, and their replacement with a truly human system: with socialism. This will not happen overnight. We must measure our progress in small steps, in more members, more branches, more sales of LookLeft, improved organisation, a louder voice within political life on our island. We are confident in our ideology; and we are confident in our ability to build the Party. That is our immediate task. Let us leave here and redouble our efforts to do just that.
I would like everyone for their attendance and attention in these monsoon conditions and to particularly thank our introductory speaker, comrade Eira Gallagher.