Restoration of harmony a must for labour movement


INTERVIEW:Labour needs unity and Fine Gael has to stop protecting the wealthy, says Siptu’s Jack O’Connor

There needs to be a rapprochement in the Labour Party between the leadership and dissenting Galway East TD Colm Keaveney who recently lost the whip but remains as chairman, the head of the country’s largest union has said.

President of Siptu, Jack O’Connor told The Irish Times that all concerned had a responsibility to maintain unity in the labour movement.

He cautioned there would not be any support in Siptu “for the Labour Party leadership moving against Colm Keaveney’s position as chairman of the party”.

In an interview at his office in Dublin’s Liberty Hall, Mr O’Connor spoke of his admiration for Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore and Mr Keaveney, both of whom are former officials with the union. “I regard Eamon Gilmore very highly, personally. I understand where he’s coming from. He is preoccupied with ensuring that we don’t have to do another bailout.

“He is acutely aware of, and understands very well, the consequences for working people and people who are underprivileged and less well-off, of having to knock on the door for another bailout.

“I’m not sure that he has explained it very well, because a great many people don’t appreciate what’s involved in it,” Mr O’Connor said.

“Absolutely committed”

The other criticism he would make of Mr Gilmore is, “that he hasn’t really articulated a vision of the Ireland we could build if we manage to emerge from this crisis, which, from what I know of him, is something he does actually have”.

More than any other party leader, he says, Mr Gilmore is “absolutely committed to taking the country to a better place, even irrespective of the consequences for his party”.

Turning to Mr Keaveney, he said: “I regard Colm very highly as well, actually, and Colm is very well regarded here in Siptu, principally because of the tenacity he displayed in sticking with it for several years to win a seat in a constituency where Labour hadn’t previously held a seat.”

He also admired the deputy for “the way in which he applied himself in the interests of, quite literally, tens of thousands of workers on issues like the employment regulation orders”.

“He is very well-respected here because of his activity on those issues which wouldn’t have generated very many votes for him – because people don’t understand very much about them, crucial though they are.”

But “there wouldn’t necessarily be unanimity of opinion in Siptu around his decision to disregard the whip” in his vote on the Social Welfare Bill.

“It does weaken the party, overall, in its engagement with Fine Gael,” Mr O’Connor said.

He added: “There wouldn’t, incidentally, be any support here for the Labour Party leadership moving against Colm Keaveney’s position as chairman of the party, for example.

“But equally there would be an expectation on the part of experienced negotiators that he would exercise the authority he has in that role in such a way as to preserve party unity.”

Asked if he would like to see a restoration of harmony between Mr Keaveney and the party leadership, he said: “Yes, very much so, very much so.

Maintain unity

“And there is a responsibility on everyone in a position of leadership to maintain unity in the labour movement and as far as possible on the left, so as to ensure that things are maintained as good as possible for working people and for people who depend on public services and so on.”

Asked for his feelings about the budget, he replied: “We’re all disappointed with the budget, here in the union. We did expect a severe budget but the major problem with it is the extent to which working people and people who are less well-off have suffered ...

“But of course we do recognise here that that is entirely attributable to the insistence on the part of Fine Gael on protecting the wealthy. And we do recognise as well that the alternative for the Labour Party may well have been to leave the Government, which is not something that we would want.”

The 175,000-strong union is affiliated to the Labour Party and contributed “about €90,000 or slightly over” to the party in 2011.

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