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Irish labour movement should engage on the debate on Unity – Kearney

20 October, 2018 - by Declan Kearney


Sinn Féin National Chairperson Declan Kearney called today on the Irish labour movement to back an Irish unity referendum and campaign for constitutional change.

The South Antrim MLA was addressing an event organized by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on the theme of ‘Post Walker years - where we are now in Belfast and beyond’.

Declan Kearney said:

“A new political discourse has begun about the future of Ireland north and south, and relationships with Britain and Europe.

“The debate on Irish unity and the timing of a unity referendum have now moved centre stage.

“Previous moments of political change have required that labour should wait.

“The current strategic challenge for the Irish labour movement north and south is to engage with this emerging discussion.

“To paraphrase Connolly in his opening contributions to the Connolly/Walker debate; ‘Constitutional change’ then is almost a certainty of the future.’

“The labour movement will only successfully put its mark on the Irish unity debate by asserting the primacy of economic democracy, and a rights-based society in a new Ireland.

“That will require Irish trade unionists to take strategic positions on supporting an Irish unity referendum and then to campaign positively for constitutional change.

“The status quo has failed us all.

“Connolly’s vision of a united Ireland which serves the interests of the many instead of the few will not be wished into existence.

“Labour should not wait again.

“The Irish labour movement should now introduce a progressive labour agenda to the Irish unity debate, and the unfolding discourse on future constitutional and political change.”

Full text of Declan Kearney’s speech to the ICTU event on the theme of ‘Post Walker years - where we are now in Belfast and beyond’.

Labour should not wait again: The labour movement and Irish unity.

Any consideration of William Walker’s legacy needs to be within the historic and contemporary reality that the advancement of socialist and Labour politics has been held back due to the effects of British colonial policy in Ireland.

However limited in his political analysis, Walker was committed to improving the conditions of his fellow workers.

British policy in Ireland and its consequences for Irish society divided Irish workers along communal lines. It has paralysed the labour movement from effectively challenging partition and championing the strategic aim of Irish unity.

Partition is the central fault line at the heart of Irish society and politics.

Sectarianism remains a visceral blight within the north.

Following partition, it was used by the ruling unionist elite to cement the foundation of the state and prevent unity among citizens on issues of common concern.

Labour was indeed told to wait as the resurgent struggle for national independence grew in momentum just over 100 years ago.

The counter revolution post partition represented a strategic setback for labour and working class interests in the new free state.

However, sections of the labour movement were compliant with British policy and the imposition of partition.

That was personified in the political thinking of Walker and others pre partition.

Walker’s ‘Municipal Socialism’ became a euphemism for the self-imposed strategic and political limitations which defined the Trade Union movement in the North.

As a result, the Irish labour movement, particularly in the north has failed to challenge partition and modern British political policy towards Ireland.

Partition has been an abject failure. 

It was never designed to make the Northern state a political or economic success.

Institutionalised sectarianism in the north ensured that a substantial minority were destined to never be treated as equals.

The civil rights movement fifty years ago exposed the inability of the unionist state to treat the minority as equals.

This belligerent opposition from powerful sections within political unionism against reform of the northern state persists today in the form of DUP hostility towards implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

The refusal of the DUP to embrace a rights based society and equality has culminated in the collapse of the political institutions and associated political crisis for twenty-one months.

Those currently in charge of the DUP have turned away from power-sharing.

The party brand is now indistinguishable from financial scandal and sharp practice in government.

As a party, the DUP is permanently in conflict with all accepted democratic reforms, social modernity, and standards in public office.

The DUP is in denial about how society in Ireland views its sectarian, homophobic and toxic pact with the Tories. 

The overwhelming majority of republicans, nationalists and many others, including sections of civic unionism, have concluded that the DUP has had its chance and cannot now be trusted in government.

They will not be giving the DUP permission to get back into power at risk of allowing it to continue practicing discrimination, intimidation, bigotry or sharp practice.

And neither will Sinn Féin.

The enduring political crisis is accentuated by systemic structural weaknesses in the regional economy.

Pressures on public services are intensifying. 

The block grant has been reduced by 10.2%.

This takes place alongside;

  • Actual net cuts in take home pay for public and private sector workers
  • Welfare cuts and the universal social charge
  • Higher inflation and living costs

108,600 adults in working families live in relative poverty.

Average wages in the north remain lower than 10 years ago.

Precarious working conditions, zero hours’ contracts and the scam of bogus self-employment used by some employers are common practice.

The onset of Brexit will be a catastrophe for the regional and island economies.

It will deepen an existing race to the bottom by further undermining the potential for economic growth, and new investment.

The dawning political and economic reality is that Brexit has changed everything.

It has exposed the negative role that partition continues to play in Irish affairs, and the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the union with Britain.  

The British state has now been pushed into an existential political crisis.

This is now a defining moment for these islands.

A new generation is questioning partition.

A new political discourse has begun about the future of Ireland north and south, and relationships with Britain and Europe.

The debate on Irish unity and the timing of a unity referendum have now moved centre stage.

It’s time for a fundamental paradigm shift in British policy towards Ireland.

The Irish government needs to begin preparing for constitutional, political and economic transition towards Irish Unity.

It should facilitate an open, inclusive national conversation involving all citizens, political parties, social partners and civic society.

That is; a dialogue about our future which addresses all concerns, accommodations and compromises relevant to the negotiation of a new all Ireland, constitutional democracy.

Previous moments of political change have required that labour should wait.

The current strategic challenge for the Irish labour movement north and south is to engage with this emerging discussion.

To paraphrase Connolly in his opening contributions to the Connolly/Walker debate;

‘Constitutional change’ then is almost a certainty of the future.

The labour movement will only successfully put its mark on the Irish unity debate by asserting the primacy of economic democracy, and a rights based society in a new Ireland.

That will require Irish trade unionists to take strategic positions on supporting an Irish unity referendum and then to campaign positively for constitutional change.

The status quo has failed us all.

Connolly’s vision of a united Ireland which serves the interests of the many instead of the few will not be wished into existence.

Labour should not wait again.

The Irish labour movement should now introduce a progressive labour agenda to the Irish unity debate, and the unfolding discourse on future constitutional and political change.

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