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Ireland’s youngest Oireachtas member speaks at Progressive Students Conference in London

13 October, 2012 - by Kathryn Reilly


Sinn Féin Senator Kathryn Reilly is in London today speaking at the Progressive Students Conference on the subject of Europe against austerity – building an alternative to cuts.

Below is the text of Senator Reilly’s speech:

I am Senator Kathryn Reilly of Sinn Fein. I am the youngest Member of the Irish Houses of Parliament and Sinn Féin’s Spokesperson on EU Affairs and Youth Affairs. I am also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

That combination of roles means I follow closely the economic and political policies which come to a large degree from the EU and their slavish implementation in Ireland.

My role in Youth Affairs means I see the disastrous consequences of austerity policies on young people across Ireland.

It has also become abundantly clear to me through my role that conservative forces never miss a good crisis and that for them this is the perfect time for them to do things they always wanted to but could never get away with.

Hence in Ireland we see the increase in speed in the process of privatisation of health care and education.  The rights of Irish language speakers are thrown into question in the name of financial prudence. The Labour Party which previously defended the rights of all children to benefits now is supporting moves to means test children’s benefits. Disability services and allowances for carers have been attacked.

What we are experiencing is more than cuts; it is an attack on citizens’ rights and on the concept of equality.

What we are fighting is the politics of fear. For the first time in a long time the absolute victory of capitalism is in question and there are huge establishment forces who do not like that victory being put into question at all.

That is why those of us who question the dominance of uber-capitalism must co-operate and learn from each other. That is why I will now spell out how this battle is unfolding in Ireland.

Ireland today is a country still divided by a partition which has bred incredible economic and social fragmentation. That has been the case for most of the last century and now hopefully a course has been plotted that will bring about Irish unity and the creation of a democratic republic.

Ireland, north and south, today does however face some common challenges- challenges depressingly similar to those faced by Britain and its people across Europe today. These challenges are mounting as the austerity mongers ramp up their attacks. It seems the more they fail, the more they insist.

Youth unemployment in the south of Ireland is running at at least 30%. As horrendous as that figure is it is highly camouflaged by the sky high level of emigration mainly to Australia and Canada. In the north emigration is similarly high. It is estimated that as many people leave Ireland each year as complete the Leaving Cert (the state exams at the end of secondary school). In effect we are losing a generation to emigration, to austerity.

These common challenges north and south unfortunately cannot be taken on in the same manner due to the political situation in Ireland.

Starting in the south we have a government which still, despite its protestations, does have the power to tack a different course and to not blindly follow the path of austerity as laid down by the IMF and the Troika.

In the north, things are more complicated with economic matters generally being a “reserved matter” meaning the London government still control such policies. In effect we have a government situated in a different country making decisions for Irish people. Neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats stood for election in Ireland. Between them they received 0 votes from Ireland, yet they are insisting on their austerity being implemented in the north of Ireland.

These two different situations complicate matters for an all-Ireland party like Sinn Féin but our answer is the same north and south- No to Austerity!

This is an ongoing campaign, an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the population. It is also a battle against some very powerful forces. The European Commission, the IMF and the ECB, the so-called Troika, are pushing their ideologically-inspired agenda through their programmes in Ireland. A conservative Irish media and regrettably compliant Labour movement and Labour Party refuse to consider the alternative.

Against these forces Sinn Fein is leading a campaign for a change in direction, a campaign for workable policies that will see the Irish economy regain strength without having to dismantle our public services or inflict brutal cuts against working people.

Greater fiscal autonomy is required in the North.  This would allow the freedom for the North to generate revenue and to develop policies of benefit to the people of the North without the current restrictions, and would help facilitate an economic strategy which is underpinned by budgetary and fiscal decision making

Sinn Fein will not simply allow the Tory cuts to social welfare to be implemented in our country. We will fight tooth and nail to resist them in the Assembly and on the streets. We will not shirk from our responsibilities to the most vulnerable in our society and will not stand on the mandate we were elected on- that is “No Tories Here!”

Last week we brought to the Assembly in Belfast a motion calling for a reversal in direction and a growth centred policy. Our motion read:

That this Assembly notes, with concern, the continuing pursuance of austerity measures by the British and Irish Governments, and the subsequent detrimental effects on our local economy; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to impress, on both governments, the need to follow a path to economic recovery that is based on job creation, progressive taxation, the protection of the most vulnerable, and the provision of first class front-line public services.

Our alternative ideology

Our opposition is based on our core beliefs and ideology as Irish Republicans. It is also based on the mounting evidence that austerity simply doesn’t work. Unemployment figures in the south of Ireland are stuck at at least 13%, a figure which as I mentioned doesn’t include the ten s of thousands emigrating each year.

Sinn Féin believes we need to grow our way out of recession.

We would stop the payments to bad banks and instead use those billions to invest in and stimulate our economy.

We would reject flat taxes being levied on lower and middle income families at the same level as they are on the wealthy. We would introduce a wealth tax similar to the French model on wealth exceeding 1€ million. Those that can afford to pay more must be made paid more.

This week in Dublin our party launched our Jobs Proposal. This document is what we believe can be done to create jobs. The current Fine Gael and Labour government have stated explicitly that it doesn’t believe governments create jobs. We fundamentally disagree and will not be shy about showing how a state can stimulate, facilitate job creation and directly employ citizens.

Our document clearly shows the resources of the state can be leveraged to restart an economy.

Our proposal is difficult for the conservative parties in Ireland to conceive. They are stuck in love with an economic model which has clearly failed yet cannot even contemplate a change in policy.

So what precisely would Sinn Féin do?

We are proposing a €13 billion additional investment package in job creation and economic growth over 4 years in the 26 Counties. We identify funds for this from the remaining €5.8 billion in discretionary funding in the National Pension Reserve Fund €1.5 billion in funding from the European Investment Bank; a €3 billion incentivised investment from the private pension sector; and by maintaining €2.6 billion in the Capital budget spend, making necessary budget adjustments from the current spending and taxation.

That in a small island is the amount of money needed to make a difference. You can’t have half a stimulus. You must commit fully and only the state with the people’s backing can follow through on such a package.

Our stimulus, excluding the jobs retention fund, entails almost €13 billion additional expenditure on top of planned capital expenditure. This approximates to 104,000 short-term jobs and 52,000 long-term jobs. The jobs would be spaced out over the course of the stimulus and the length of the projects.

We would force the banks, more or less all nationalized now, to lend money, especially to indigenous enterprises rooted in the community.

According to Government figures, each person unemployed costs the state in the region of €20,000 directly - that is money lost in PAYE and social welfare costs. This doesn't include indirect costs such as those felt in the local economy from dampened consumer spending. While the effects of a stimulus must be studied in a more sophisticated way- the simple calculation of providing 104,000 jobs in this climate, saving the state €20,000 per person directly (€2 billion in total), is a massive pro of stimulus.

So what would we spend the money on to ensure it hits home?

Ireland lags behind our neighbours in terms of communications technology especially outside of Dublin. 2.5€ billion invested in our broadband network is needed to catch up while at the same time creating jobs in construction and engineering and providing a high-tech communications infrastructure capable of hoisting a computer age economy.

We would harness our natural advantages by kick starting the wind power industry. We will reform and reduce the lead in time necessary for projects and will mandate the ESB (state electricity company) to develop an extra 300 MW of off shore wind generation in 5 years. It is estimated that this industry has the capacity to create 50,000 jobs over 15 years.

Rather than charging people for water the state should invest in our water infrastructure where currently 40% of water can be lost through leakages.

Socially necessary projects must now be prioritised. This means the redevelopment of Dublin, Cork and Limerick cities where social deprivation can be very high and drug abuse prevalent.

Rather than close schools we would invest- building 100 more to serve our children, stimulate growth and ensure our education standard remain at a level fit for a modern economy.

These are just some examples of how a government can create jobs and how a state should lead the way out of recession.

We would focus very much on employment for young people. Currently the youth unemployment rate in the south runs at 30%. Again if emigration was factored in it is clear that we are looking at a huge social and economic disaster affecting our young people.

Here, while would be prepared to put our money where our mouth is, a change in policy alongside investment could turn things around. Specifically we would:

Reverse the extension of the retirement age - a government policy which, as well as forcing people to work longer, will actively keep younger people out of jobs, particularly in areas like the public sector.

Organize an individual plan for the long-term prospects of every person under 25 on the live register.

Organize A skills audit of all those under the age of 25 who are currently unemployed, to be carried out within 3 months, to identify the gaps between the skills of the unemployed and the skills required for those sectors of the economy identified as potential growth sectors

Lift the suspension on the early farm retirement scheme to make farming an option for younger people.

Tackling youth unemployment and underemployment is not just good economic sense it is a mark of a society with decent priorities and some ambition for its future.

That briefly is Sinn Féin’s alternative. It is not based on the logic of austerity or cuts.

It is based on the idea that the vulnerable need to be protected, that a cohesive society is worth fighting for and that wealth is created by workers working.

We are very conscious of similar struggles facing peoples right across Europe and right across the world. It is one of the lazier clichés trotted out by pro-austerity forces in Ireland to point at Greece and to say that were it not for austerity Ireland would be in an equal mess.

It is a malicious argument designed to divide the working people of Ireland from the people of Greece and it is not working. More and more Irish people are rejecting the Merkel view of Europe and focussing on the need for solidarity across Europe. More and more austerity and cuts are hitting even the middle classes and they don’t like it. Moreover they see it is not working.

As a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I was delighted to contribute to a debate on two reports which blew apart many of the myths about austerity. International solidarity has always been a bedrock of Irish Republicanism and so it remains when the enemy is austerity.

I hope my words today have shown a little light on the battle raging in Ireland at the moment against failed economic policies. More than ever before, the need to reassert the rights of the Irish people to sovereignty, political and economic, needs to be discussed.

That is the approach Sinn Fein is taking today-on the one hand to outline our detailed progressive alternatives and to campaign on the streets and workplaces for their implementation instead of more and deeper cuts and on the other hand to assert our view that Irish sovereignty and democratic control of our economic future must be part of the solution. Establishment forces should not be allowed hide behind the IMF or the Tories in London.

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