Howlin targets ‘right wing’ Fine Gael and ‘racist’ Trump in leader’s speech

Labour leader addresses party conference in his home town of Wexford

The Labour leader Brendan Howlin described US President Donald Trump as "a racist, a homophobe and a bully", lauded an "activist state" that spent on investment rather than tax cuts, and told party members to stop lamenting the result of the last general election and prepare for the next one.

Mr Howlin was addressing his first party conference as leader which is taking place in his home town of Wexford this weekend.

In a speech that was heavy on rousing political rhetoric but light on specific policy plans or pledges, Mr Howlin sought to restore Labour spirits after the electoral massacre of last year and refocus the party on the possibility of an early general election.

He said that the role played by the state was needed "now more than ever". He said that Brexit, climate change and the future or work were the "great causes of insecurity of our age" and said that the "sham of a government - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and a rag-bag of independents" showed no ambition to deal with the problems faced by Ireland.


And on the day that the Citizens Assembly voted to amend rather than repeal the anti-abortion article in the constitution, Mr Howlin promised to repeal the eighth amendment to loud cheers from the audience of delegates.

Addressing the forthcoming Fine Gael leadership election, Mr Howlin said, “Leo and Simon square up to each other. Playing to their base, dragging the country further to the right. Running a false election based on tax cuts and shutting down Bus Éireann.

“Dog-whistles to their supporters on the right. Pitting the private sector against the public sector once more. Meanwhile, Enda and Micheál are content to play for time,” Mr Howlin said.

Acknowledging that Labour “made mistakes” in Government, Mr Howlin said that

“Ireland in 2017 is undeniably in a better place than it was in 2011; that we got little recognition for that is simply the hard truth of politics.”

However, after an introduction speech by Dublin councillor Rebecca Moynihan which acknowledged Labour was "down but not out", Mr Howlin urged delegates to focus on the future.

He said that Labour would concentrate on investment, reversing the Government’s plans to establish a €3 billion “rainy day fund” and instead “use that money to build hospitals, to create jobs and to support our communities. And particularly, to build local authority homes.”

“While money is cheap,” Mr Howlin asked, “why would we not invest in our future? I think the reason is simple. On the economy, we have a single-party, right-wing, Fine Gael government.

“They waste money on tax cuts that people barely notice. But provide little of the investment we need so badly.”

Mr Howlin also devoted part of his speech to climate change and the environment, and said that Labour would bring forward a bill to ban microbeads.

Though he did not name them, Mr Howlin attacked the parties and candidates who benefitted from Labour’s electoral implosion last year.

“A year ago, people thought that changing the Government would make things better.

“They voted for change. They believed that politicians - who agreed with every person on every doorstep on every issue - would deliver that change,” Mr Howlin said.

“But they won’t. Charlatans and conservatives never have,” he said.

“The slogans they spout are not simple truths. They are falsehoods. Complex questions don’t have simple answers.”

Responding to Brexit, Mr Howlin said, “is our greatest national challenge.

“That is why Labour has published 20 detailed proposals,” he said, citing the party’s plans to institute “an early warning system to help support sectors that face a hammering”; a “Brexit trade adjustment fund” and increases in capital investment.

“All of these could be done,” he said, “And they could be done now.”

Mr Howlin said that he would “love to see a United Ireland”.

“Historically, partition has been bad for both north and south,” he said. “Instead of living together, we created two narrow, sectarian states.Neither has worked as it should. “

However, Mr Howlin warned against against a rush to border poll

He said Ireland needed to “think deeply, with an open mind . . . Before we rush to border polls, or headcounts.”

The conference at Whites Hotel in Wexford continues today.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times