De Rossa stresses basic values of real equality and democracy to build socialist movement

 

IN the course of his presidential address to the annual Democratic Left conference in Dun Laoghaire, Mr De Rossa said:

BLUEPRINT is emerging for a socialism of the future that would represent neither an outright rejection of markets nor an uncritical acceptance of them. Differing forms of collective ownership - co operative, municipal, regional, national - of the major means of production would be combined with market exchanges between them under the guidance of broad public planning.

Such a system of regulation would have to be accountable to a democracy far more profound than anything that we have known under capitalism: encouraging electoral participation rather than apathy, ensuring that all sections of society are active in political life, reducing barriers between electors and elected, facilitating openness in public life and diversifying arenas of decision making.

If the aim of socialism is to liberate humanity, we should see this as the work of generations and recognise the need to bring people with us step by step. Socialism, if is to be achieved, must be pursued and consolidated through political means. Determined political socialists must rely on popular support to realise socialism.

We have survived the upsurge of neo liberal triumphalism and the `new realism' that characterised the early 1990s. As a party, we survived a baptism of fire and have shown that we are as effective in government as in opposition. By remaining true to basic values of real equality and democracy we are well positioned to help build a socialist movement appropriate to the conditions of the 21st century.

At the time of our last conference there was still some lingering unease about the presence of our party in Government. This may have been fed by the scepticism expressed by some commentators about the ability of Democratic Left, a new and relatively small party, to fight its corner in government with two long standing parties which were vastly more experienced in terms of ministerial office, not to mention our ability to actually deliver on the issues that were crucial to our members and voters.

Nearly 18 months later any doubts that commentators or pundits may have had, about our ability to perform and fight our corner at this level, have been dispelled.

No one would be so arrogant as to suggest that this Government has not made mistakes.

Where there have been differences - as inevitably there will be in a three party coalition - we have tried to resolve them through a process of discussion, consultation and consensus. The commitment to this process, by all Ministers and by each of the three party leaders, has been at the core of this very effective government. As indeed has the excellent working relationship between myself, John Bruton and Dick Spring.

Indeed, one of the things that has set this particular Government apart from other recent coalitions has been our collective ability to resolve problems without the sort of bitter infighting that destroyed the last two governments. It may well be that the particular dynamics of a three party as against a two party government are in fact more conducive to political stability.

This is an honest government, a reforming government and a principled government. It is a huge improvement on the Fianna Fail administration that went before and is a vastly preferably, proposition to the only alternative currently on offer - the lethal cocktail that would be produced by the combination of Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats. We know all too well the potentially poisonous ingredients of that concoction - take a splash of outdated PD Thatcherism, add a double measure of Fianna Fail opportunism, top up with a generous portion of creme de menthe to cater for the green nationalist vote, and serve with a slice of bitter lemon in the form of Michael McDowell!

The intolerant - sometimes bordering on the racist - comments of prominent Fianna Fail members, their inconsistent approach to Northern Ireland, their failure to come up with a single significant new idea while in opposition, their hesitant attitude to important social reforms illustrated by their opposition to last year's Abortion Information Bill and their ambivalent attitude on the divorce referendum; all suggest that Fianna Fail are still too trapped in their own past to be any use in opposition or in Government.

Democratic Left was formed in 1992 to be a dynamic, democratic party. The three party government of which we are part has impressive achievements to its credit, some of them initiated or driven by Democratic Left.

. We have introduced the biggest ever increases in Child Benefit - almost 50 per cent in 12 months - to the direct benefit of half a million families.

. We have ended the shameful discrimination against married women in the social welfare and a total of £260 million is being paid out to some 70,000 women.

. Long term unemployment has been put at the top of the economic agenda and a major programme of job creation initiatives was put in place in the last budget.

. Inflation has been kept under control and mortgage rates are at their most sustained low levels for 30 years.

. More than 600 net new jobs, have been created every week that this Government has been in office.

. Tens of thousands of low paid workers have been taken out of the tax net and the majority of taxpayers are paying less tax.

. Legislation for abortion information was introduced.

. A referendum held to remove the constitutional ban on divorce.

. An important contribution to this government's firm, balanced and effective handling of the peace process.

DEMOCRATIC Left's vision is of a society in which human values are given precedence over market values when the two conflict - as they often do - and where market forces can be restrained, when necessary, in the interests of society as a whole. At the core of this vision is the concept of social solidarity which embraces the right of the individual to benefit from the support of family, community and state, and the responsibility of the individual to contribute to providing those social supports. It is, if you like, the modern day version of the socialist dictum "from each according to ability to each according to need". This concept of social solidarity permeates all Democratic Left policy - on the economy on tax and welfare reform, industrial relations, on health, education, environmental and other concerns.

The economy is in good shape.

We see low inflation, low interest rates, booming exports, the huge trade surplus and record job creation last year. It could never have happened without the wage moderation, increased productivity of workers and the work of, thousands of employers and self employed people, and the dedication of our public servants who provide the necessary infrastructure for Ireland's social and economic development.

But one of the most pressing problems for society has yet to be adequately addressed. Chronic long term unemployment persists. The new jobs are going to the well qualified people coming out of our schools and universities, or returning home to Ireland after working abroad. They are not automatically going to the long term unemployed.

The Government's strategy on unemployment was forcefully vindicated this week by the National Economic and Social Forum, an independent body representing a broad cross section of social interests. Launching the NESF report on Long term Unemployment Initiatives, the chairperson Maureen Gaffney stated that the unemployment problem in Ireland could be solved if the political will to do so exists. The report challenges the Government on a number of points, very critically and very specifically, and it also insists that "much more needs to be done if the long term unemployed are to share more equitably in the record number of jobs being created."

But as Ms Gaffney also pointed out, this Government has made a start, and a good start, and the NESF saw it as its role to encourage, criticise and monitor, and suggest what more we should be doing. This is constructive criticism and we welcome.

An area in which the main opposition parties are currently out bidding each other with opportunism and outdated ideas is, of course, taxation. It's hard to decide which of them is worse. The PDs think tax reform should start with the wealthy and specifically with people whose incomes are over £30,100 per annum and whose homes are worth more than £110,000. They want to scrap property tax, to slash income tax and abolish PRSI; and they make no bones about the fact that this would involve denying people on social welfare and reducing the level of payments they receive.

Fianna Fail, on the other hand, want the same kind of tax cuts for their wealthy backers but can't admit to the corollary of social welfare, health and education cuts because they want the votes of the working class as well. Bertie Ahern is on record as wanting to make cuts but not wanting to tell the public where, this side of an election. I cannot see the people buying that.

Democratic Left's position on tax continues to be crystal clear we want a fair taxation system which raises enough revenue to pay for the services that give us both economic success and social solidarity. We believe that economic success without social solidarity is a sham. I have to ask what real value do wealth and profit have in a society, even to those who possess them, if the hearts and souls of other members of the same society are lost to poverty, unemployment, frustration and sometimes despair?

Of course the better off want tax cuts: everyone who pays tax would like to pay less and to have more money in their pockets. But most of us also want good pensions when we retire, good health services so that we can enjoy those pensions for as long as possible, good services and schools for our children, good roads and railways for both private and commercial use; good income support if we're unemployed, or too young, too old, or too sick to work.

By and large, Ireland's state services and its semi state bodies have served society well. For historical and economic reasons rather than ideological ones, our public sector has been relatively large. It has also been enterprising and innovative. Like all organisations in today's fast moving world, it needs rejuvenation and reform; self examination and public scrutiny; change and renewal. Reforms are needed in our public service and, to a large extent, they are now happening. That process must not be disrupted by cynical calls for lower taxes that would starve our public sector of essential funds.

Democratic Left is by no means complacent on the issue of tax. We have consistently argued that on income tax, the way forward is to further increase the personal tax free allowances, so as to pushy up the point at which people enter the tax net. We must certainly lighten the tax burden on the low paid, by shifting it on to those who can afford to pay.

Unlike Fianna Fail and the PDs, we have no difficulty with taxing wealth or property for the common good, with raising some extra revenue from those whose resources are greatest. But such taxes must themselves be fair.

The anti Dublin bias of the present Residential Property Tax has allowed the ideological opponents of any form of property tax to run amok with their imaginary axes, with the aim of cutting down the whole tree rather than correcting its lop sidedness . . .

In recent months there have been speculation, declaration and perhaps a little consternation about whether or not a new national agreement will follow the expiry of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work.

PROGRAMME FOR COMPETITIVENESS AND WORK

WHATEVER is wrong with the present agreement can be addressed, and must be addressed. What we must not allow ourselves to forget in the present climate of grievance and frustration, are the features of the PCW and its predecessors that proved so positive and constructive. David Begg, the general secretary of the Communications Workers' Union, put it very clearly at his union's annual conference last week, when he said that the arguments which influenced the trade union movement to enter centralised deals in 1987 had not fundamentally altered, and indeed, were arguably now even more compelling: a desire to trade modest wage increases for an influence on social and economic planning.

Would anyone really want to return to the chaos of free for all bargaining, which is only free for some, where only the strongest can survive and the weakest sections of the workforce are ruthlessly trampled underfoot, where the organised labour movement has no united voice in shaping the society we live in, but is relegated to the role of the perpetual protester.

National agreements have over the years given genuine financial benefits to thousands of workers who could not otherwise have hoped to succeed in claims against their employers, and have created the conditions of security which has allowed the economy to thrive. These are gains we must preserve.

EUROPEAN UNION

IT is not acceptable that in the drive towards a single market, the pressure should be on social standards as the main factor of adjustment. It is not acceptable that the great god of competition should be used as a means to diminish social protection - as if it was in the interest of the citizens of Europe to have more choice between a range of worse services. This Government fought hard and successfully to ensure that in the deregulation of health insurance the Irish consumer did not end up with such a choice. And we have to maintain our vigilance to ensure that in the opening up of monopolies in power, communications and postal services that a real public interest remains our guideline. It must be the function of Europe to preserve the principles of public interest and social protection, rather than to allow the total supremacy of the market.

Recent events have focused attention on the issue of international security. We know exactly what peace and security mean when we see Canary Wharf or when we hear of a loyalist bomb threat at Dublin Airport. Peace and security mean the absence of fear, it means the right to let your children play safely; the right to go into town to work, shop, meet friends, live freely in your society. In Lebanon, and elsewhere in the world, our soldiers and our Garda Siochana are supporting the maintenance of civil society - often in the face of insuperable odds - for just these rights.

Yet the domestic debate on peace and security issues often takes place on a level of unreality. Who seriously thinks that membership or non membership of a military alliance are the only options facing the Irish people? There has been little public debate yet on the issue. I, for one, am utterly sceptical that the Partnership for Peace has anything to offer Ireland - at this juncture in history, in the context of our geography and stage of political development.

There are serious issues to be addressed. The issue of European security is on the agenda and we should not be defensive about discussing the issue of international peace, security and co operation in that context. There is no inevitable conflict between maintaining a strong commitment to active and positive neutrality while participating in the debate on a common EU security policy which is consistent with the UN Charter and OSCE principles. The development of an EU security policy mindset, which is rooted in humanitarianism and peacekeeping principles seem to me an option worth exploring - particularly if we see security policy as complementary to economic and social investment.

CRIME AND DRUGS

IN recent years drugs appear to have taken a firm hold on part of this country, particularly in our cities. Communities already under pressure from unemployment and social exclusion now find themselves battling to cope with a society which appears increasingly lawless and where now the law of the "hit" seems to hold sway.

A breed of criminal marked by `B movie' style nicknames have come to the fore. But we see them; for exactly what they are ... traitors to their own communities, traitors whose currency is misery and who visit hardship and fear on the very communities that, bore them.

But what Democratic Left will not do is join the growing chorus of doom and gloom, the purveyors of panic who tell us that society is breaking down and that harsh quick fix measures are the only solution. Tabloid remedies, no matter who they are trotted - out by, do not work for real problems. Innocent until proven guilty is a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system.

Democratic Left will not play any part in the erosion of civil liberties and we will protect the rights of those who are victims of crime with the same tenacity.

This Government has taken action to tackle crime and speed up the administration of Justice reform the court system, confront the drug problem in prisons, create prison places, regionalising the Garda organisation, appoint more judges. There is more to follow. The issue of crimes committed while on bail will be dealt with by this Government. We also need to address the problem of our most marginalised areas being besieged by gangs of petty criminals and drug dealers. We must support local communities in their fight against drugs.

NORTHERN IRELAND

THE forthcoming elections offer the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to break free of the divisions and conflicts of the past. They will lead into all party negotiations with a view to reaching an accommodation between nationalism and unionism and just as importantly - a recognition of other equally legitimate political identities.

Confidence building measures and gestures are required on all sides. There is a need for all those who genuinely want to see a resolution to the problem of Northern Ireland to show a willingness to respond to reasonable demands and requests of others.

Democratic Left is contesting the elections in Northern Ireland as an independent socialist party. The fundamental principle of our party is equal recognition and respect for the opposing national allegiances that are at the heart of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Democratic Left seeks an accommodation between nationalism and unionism that will acknowledge difference and will welcome diversity but which will end the divisions that have led to violent conflict in Northern Ireland. Such an accommodation will protect the identity of both nationalists and unionists while also acknowledging the existence of the third strand in Northern Ireland politics. Simply stated, the third strand is a broad political constituency that is neither unionist nor nationalist and encompasses differing political philosophies.

Democratic Left believes not only in the need for democratic structures in Northern Ireland: but also in the need for a politics based on the needs of actually existing society rather than on the eternal quest for either orange or green utopias. Let us now move beyond Orange and Green with apologies to no one.

Sinn Fein insists that it must be in attendance at the negotiations. It is Democratic Left's wish that Sinn Fein should play a full and active role in the talks. All that is required is a restoration of the IRA ceasefire. Sinn Fein has a case to make and a constituency to represent. The only obstacle to the party's full participation in negotiations is IRA violence. Nothing more.

To unionists, I say: take another look at the Joint Framework Document. I am aware that many unionists see it as a blueprint for rolling integration with the Republic, but I consider this an alarmist perspective. The Framework Document in fact contains pointers towards a settlement that would have three elements: a responsibility sharing local assembly; a remodelled Anglo Irish Agreement; and a new North South body, all of which are underpinned by the acceptance by all the key players of the principle of consent.

CONCLUSION

I WAS struck by a comment I heard Nuala O'Faolain make recently - that those of us who grew up in the 1950s Ireland had experienced an ugly society.

If you happened to be a mother and not married, you were ostracised. If you happened to be the child of a mother who was not married, you had less rights than the child of a marriage. If you happened to be gay you couldn't even read about like minded people. If you happened to be Protestant you lived, to most intents and purposes, outside the political context of this State, your own country. The reports from Goldenbridge, Madonna House, Trudder House and elsewhere shock us. Should it really surprise us that a society which until recently defined a child born outside marriage as filius nullus, the child of nobody, would put little value on the rights of a child and less value on the rights of an extramarital child.

There can be no going back to that unlovely and repressive form of social organisation. There can be no truck with the process of exclusion, scapegoating and incitement to hatred.

In any democracy, the treatment of minorities is one of the principal tests of human rights protection and the social protection of vulnerable people is the hallmark of a civilised society.

Democratic Left stands for these values. It stands for real family and community values, not for repressive traditional norms. It stands for real recognition of plurality in economic and social life and, in identity. To be an Irish citizen is not just a right and privilege. It is an enabling provision, not a form of cultural strait jacket.