I am delighted to have the opportunity, today, to speak to you on this matter of
such fundamental importance for all living in Ireland.
We are here to send out the message to the government, and to business,
that the exploitation of workers will not be tolerated.
The actions of Irish Ferries over the last weeks and months have been
scandalous; the Government’s mealy-mouthed and supine response, equally
The employer organisations, too, must declare where they stand on this issue.
We have built our recent success on partnership and mutual respect. Is that
now to be abandoned? Is short-term greed, profits built on exploitation, to be
the way forward? That road will provide a future for nobody.
This issue is but the latest example of the ill-treatment of workers in this state
and across Europe. Increasingly, workers are viewed as simply another
commodity to be used and abused at the whim of their employers.
This ongoing dispute is about resisting the actions of a rogue company who
have set about the destruction of partnership between employers and workers
in this country- a partnership which has been of the most paramount
importance in our country’s economic development and which is now glossed
over by boardroom suits across the land, exemplified by the actions taken by
Irish Ferries’ management.
Ireland is not just an economy. It is a community: a community of people.
Profitable companies are of no value if they impoverish their own employees.
The party which I represent is the oldest political party in Ireland. It was
founded in the year before one of the greatest confrontations between labour
and capital. What was then a poverty-stricken, and vulnerable, movement of
labour sought to organise against a version of capitalism that refused the
most basic rights, including that of organisation, to workers. That confrontation
required courage, tenacity, solidarity and above all a commitment to class and
history beyond the short term challenges. We are the beneficiaries of their
We cannot betray that legacy. In our generation, we must lay the foundations
for future achievement, and we must struggle against the kinds of social
injustices which our predecessors did.
Out of the most extreme conditions of 1912-13 there emerged a vision that
dealt not only with the immediate problems of working people but also a vision
for the changes that were necessary in the structures of the economy, society
and the political system.
The parallels with today’s situation are significant. Again, we are face with the
urgent need to protect working people. The choices which we make on this
matter- and let us not be any doubt, this is not just a struggle for decent
wages for Irish Ferries workers, but a struggle for decent wages everywhere
in the Irish economy- will define where Ireland goes in the coming decades.
This is a line in the sand. Ireland will either build its future as a high wage
economy with skills that are valued, or we face a dismal future with an
economy based on minimum wages and poor conditions.
What is required of all of us gathered here today is no less than these values
of courage, tenacity, solidarity and commitment which were so prevalent in
1912 and 1913.
Much of the energies of the Labour movement in the intervening period
between 1912 and the present moment have concentrated on the protection
of workers in a hostile environment. These protections have had to be won
through negotiation and more often in the past through courageous
confrontation. In the period into which we have now entered, it is clear that
this task remains.
Attempts have been made to erode many of the gains made by the Trade
Union movement in Europe as the tyranny of the neo-liberal model of the
economy is sought to be imposed in Europe by parties of the right. In the
name of alleged labour market flexibility, hard won securities for workers have
been challenged. Our current right-wing Government remains politically and
ideologically polluted by its rump, the Progressive Democrats.
It is even more important now to restate the values of socialism for a
generation that is carrying the marks of the legacy of Thatcher-Reaganism
with its extreme individualism and greed so well represented by the
Progressive Democrats, and by the Fianna Fail party that capitulated to their
message of selfishness.
The Labour Party and like-minded parties of the left, while they have to
respect the complexity of the real circumstances of the economy and the
society in which we find ourselves, are not required to capitulate to the version
of the economy or the society which the right are suggesting is inevitable.
The Left will be judged, much more, by its adherence to principle than its
competence. Both are important but the principles and vision are the most
Far from socialism being out of date, it was never more necessary. What is
old-fashioned is the 18th century version of greed and selfishness being
imposed upon us within a neo-liberal model of the economy that wreaks
death and destruction in the developing world and that deprives citizens at
home of their most basic rights.
Irish Ferries respect no one: not the Labour Court, not the elected parliament
of Ireland, least of all their own employees. They are hell bent on a strategy of
greed, which, if they succeed, will affect every worker in this land.
One thing for certain is, we are not going backwards: the advances have been
too hard-won to retreat. Today, all over Ireland, as a people we have one
simple message. United, we reject the exploiter and his vision of misery. A
prosperous Ireland has no meaning without a prosperous people.