Labour must defend – not apologise for – its role in Government
Opinion: ‘We needed a viable Government and we needed Fine Gael’s conservative instincts tempered. We’ve made difficult decisions undoubtedly’
‘We don’t like losing elections and in Eamon Gilmore’s departure we have lost not just a friend and leader but a man who, with his team, put Ireland first. Today we elect a new leader. In Joan Burton and Alex White we have two fine candidates.’ Above, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore speaking on his resignation as Labour Party leader. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Stephen Collins is right (Irish Times, June 28th). Labour must defend not apologise for its role in Government. It is difficult though against the onslaught of criticism from people who might be expected to be more supportive of the party.
In this newspaper, Fintan O’Toole, Vincent Browne and most recently Diarmaid Ferriter subjected Labour to criticism for daring to govern in difficult times. In the latter case, Éamon de Valera seems more entitled to perspective than Eamon Gilmore.
This is not a uniquely Irish problem. Last week’s Irish Times ran a piece by Paul Krugman in defence of Barack Obama. The article sought to defend Obama not from his Republican opponents but from fellow liberals. I am proud of Labour’s role in Government. These are not easy times and in the last three years we’ve had to make difficult choices. Contrary to Prof Ferriter’s assertion there have been sleepless nights. As for Labour’s core values, decried by Vincent Browne, as a social democrat my politics is defined by a sense of the State as a force for good. To quote the Home Ruler Tom Kettle: “The state is the name by which we call the great human conspiracy against hunger and cold, against loneliness and ignorance.”
It is state activism that has transformed the poverty of the 19th century to the relative prosperity of the 21st. I am not blind to the fact that State action has created dependencies and can sometimes be less effective than it should, but in the round it has been a historical transforming force. In 2011 when Labour entered Government the very viability of the Irish State was in danger.
As a social democrat I know well who would have been the losers had the Irish State imploded. It would have been those dependent on the State for pensions, education, healthcare, people with disabilities; the most vulnerable in our society.
It is this apprehension that persuaded me to shy away from the fanciful options about financial Armageddon advocated by many at the time. They are largely quiet now.
Restoring economic fortunes In a famous 1985 speech to the British Labour Party conference, Neil Kinnock ridiculed the spectacle of a council controlled by the far left hiring taxis to deliver redundancy notices to its workers. Had Ireland fallen into Sinn Féin’s hands, our reality would have put Neil Kinnock’s in the halfpenny place. Instead we sought painstakingly to rebuild our economy from the ruins we inherited. We have succeeded to a great degree, despite a challenging global environment. The nightmare scenarios around house repossessions and debt default have n
ot happened. As yesterday’s Central Statistics Office figures indicate, recovery is under way.
Despite the fiscal retrenchment we have sought to protect people as best we could.
The Fianna Fáil cut in the minimum wage was reversed. We sought to protect front-line spending in health, education and social protection, all of them under particular demographic and demand pressures.
Reductions in spending have been far lower than Fine Gael advocated. Tax change too has been progressive: Universal Social Charge (USC) relief for low-income earners and increases in capital taxes and large pension pots at the upper end. When Fine Gael came looking for cuts in core social welfare rates they were rebuffed. Where public capital was not available we sought other ways to stimulate investment off balance sheet.
Our path away from the confessional State manifest in the scandals unearthed in recent years has been led by Labour for the last 40 years. It has continued under this Government. After 20 years the X case has been legislated for. Next year we will have a referendum on gay marriage. My long-time friend Ruairí Quinn has been broadening the patronage basis of our schools. The Freedom of Information Act is being restored. And we have enacted comprehensive whistleblower legislation.
I published the Register of Lobbyists Bill recently. The ombudsman’s powers have been increased. And We are establishing our long-sought independent Garda authority to oversee policing. Through the constitutional convention and referendums the people have been given ownership of their Constitution. They chose to retain not abolish the Seanad.
We worked hard to restore our reputation abroad, not just as an end in itself, or as an endorsement of Europe’s handling of its financial crisis, but because it was crucial to wining back investment and securing improvements in the bad deal done by Fianna Fáil.
It is difficult to be a social democratic party in Government when resources are tight. It is more difficult still when you’ve endured the worst economic shock in the State’s history. I hear a lot of talk about what Labour should have done for Labour in 2011. But for anybody interested in the long-term stability of our country there was no choice. We needed a viable Government and we needed Fine Gael’s conservative instincts tempered. We’ve made difficult decisions undoubtedly.
Selfless leader The scope for additional revenue raising was limited after Fianna Fáil’s introduction of the USC, so not all spending could be protected. But the choices were always between difficult decisions or worse decisions.
We don’t like losing elections and in Eamon Gilmore’s departure we have lost not just a friend and leader but a man who, with his team, put Ireland first. Today we elect a new leader. In Joan Burton and Alex White we have two fine candidates. We have brought Ireland back from the brink and the job of building a liberal, fairer Ireland where work is encouraged and rewarded will begin afresh.
Brendan Howlin is Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform