Labour conference: Full text of Brendan Howlin’s speech

Leader’s speech delivered to 69th Labour Party national conference in Wexford

'I introduced Eamon Gilmore as leader in this room 10 years ago. So, Rebecca, you never know!

Fáilte romhaibh uilig go Loch Garman!

Seasann Páirtí an Lucht Oibre ar trí bhunphriosabail:

Daonnacht, cearta agus comhionannas.


Geallaim daoibh anocht go mbeidh an páirtí seo ag díriú go hiomlán;

Chun iad seo a chur chun cinn -

Do mhuintir na hÉireann.

Welcome to Wexford!

There is nowhere I would rather be than here.

It has been my home all my life.

I was born 10 minutes from here, in William Street.

I started school in the Faythe primary school.

And some years later I returned to that school as a teacher.

This town made me the person that I am.

And it was here too that I learned my politics.

My father, John Howlin, was a trade unionist. A Labour man to his core.

My mother Mollie shared his strong views.

They’d sit at the kitchen table. And talk about politics, and local issues.

As a young man, I watched. I listened. I argued. And I soaked up all of it.

John Howlin had a desire to help people.

And a belief that this party – Labour – was the vehicle to do just that.

I like talking about Wexford.

Not because it is special, though clearly it is to me.

I speak about it because it is typical.

Wexford’s problems are Westmeath’s problems.

And Wicklow’s.

And Westport’s.

And Walkinstown’s.

The people of this town care.

They have ambition:

For their community, for our country;

And above all, for our future.

They, like all Irish people, are being let down by a do-nothing Government.

At a time when the state is needed more than ever.

Sometimes, it feels like a dark wind is blowing across the world.

For many of us on this island, it all seems strange.

And maybe more than a little scary.

Brexit happened.

Trump happened.

Tomorrow, the French people go to the polls;

Against the backdrop of yet another horrific terrorist attack.

And Le Pen might yet happen.

People are voting, in large part, out of fear and out of hurt.

There are many people – too many – happy to prey on these fears.

And they are not restricted to the US, or to Britain, or to France.

We have our own.

Less extreme, perhaps.

But hurlers on the ditch nonetheless.

Who will say anything to make people afraid.

Whose ‘solutions’ would only make things worse.

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.

But they won’t.

Charlatans and conservatives never have.

The slogans they spout are not simple truths.

They are falsehoods.

Complex questions don’t have simple answers.

If all of this is true, and I believe it is, then we in Labour must step up.

As a social democratic party, fear and hurt are not what we do.

Hope is what we do.

It requires optimism, certainly.

But it requires determination too.

And we’re ready to put our shoulders to the wheel.

For many generations, there has been a social contract.

That contract meant that every family could believe in one simple idea.

Work hard, and your children will have a better life than you.

Work hard and the future will be better.

That was a fair deal.

But for the first time in generations, people no longer believe it to be true.

They feel afraid for their children.

They worry they will have to emigrate;

And that they won’t be able to afford a home.

Young people in their 20s wonder –

Will they have job security;

Or a decent quality of life;

Or a health system that works;

Or a roof over their heads.

It’s our job to change that.

Because for Labour, hope is what we do.

Hope to take on the challenges that lie ahead.

Brexit, whether we like it or not, is happening.

Most of us in Ireland think Europe has been good for us.

Not perfect, but good.

Membership of the EU helped us to change.

And to change for the better.

The UK has received much the same advantages we have.

Improvements to workers’ rights, to environmental protections, to opportunities for students and researchers - Europe has delivered all of these and more.

And yet the British people voted - in part out of fear, in part out of hurt - for Brexit.

An action that will have massive implications for their future.

And for ours also.

Responding to Brexit is our greatest national challenge.

That is why Labour has published 20 detailed proposals.

Actions that can be taken to protect Ireland from the fallout from Brexit.

An early warning system to help support sectors that face a hammering;

A Brexit trade adjustment fund to step in and help those particular sectors;

A ramping up of capital investment;

All of these could be done.

And they could be done now.

Brexit has undermined devolved government, in Northern Ireland, in particular.

Good intentions seem to abound on every side.

Yet the path to a borderless Ireland after Brexit is far from clear.

Made worse by the Tory desire for parliamentary domination;

A desire that our Government is naive enough to see as hopeful.

As if a large Tory majority was ever good for Ireland.

Historically, partition has been bad for both north and south.

Instead of living together, we created two narrow, sectarian states.

Neither has worked as it should.

I’d love to see a united Ireland that is an agreed Ireland.

One that unites hearts and minds, as much as territory.

One that accommodates and celebrates diversity;

Rather than representing the triumph of either side.

After Brexit, there is a space for a dialogue about this island.

We who aspire to a United Ireland need to map out what it might look like.

Our task is to prepare an inclusive vision for all of the people on this island;

A European Ireland that can signal a brighter future for all, whatever our traditions.

If we’re serious about this,

If it’s about more than sloganeering,

Then we need to sit down and talk about it.

To think deeply, with an open mind.

And to do so together.

Before we rush to border polls, or headcounts.

Because, as long as we act generously;

And in each other’s best interests;

Then our future - a shared future for all on this island;

Can be whatever we imagine it to be.


Brexit doesn’t mean we live in a world without hope.

Neither does the election of Donald Trump.

I haven’t been shy about saying what I think of him.

He’s a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe.

He doesn’t have the temperament or patience to run the world’s greatest power

He’s a danger to us all.

He is already waging war on the environment.

When he promises to ramp up the burning of coal, he gives false hope to those who have worked in mines;

And gives real hope to a powerful, dirty industry.

Our own Government has published a draft climate plan.

It is spectacularly lacking.

The man who oversees this work has said the draft plan was a waste of time.

And he doesn’t believe it can be fixed by the June deadline.

There is so much we can do.

Some of it is hard.

Reducing emissions while agriculture is thriving is a huge challenge.

Creating a just transition from peat and coal burning stations is tough too.

But we should at least be trying.

When Dublin Bus say they want to trial electric buses, why don't we just say yes?

Why don’t we expand the public bike schemes?

Why don’t we put solar panels on all of our schools?

Why don't we build wind farms on Bord na Mona lands where there's no controversy?

We can, and we must do all of this.

And much, much more besides.

I believe in the power of the activist state.

We need the Government - the state - to be an activist of greater power than any one of us as individuals can be alone.

Some steps we could take quickly.

And they would make a difference.

Both ourselves and the Greens have published legislation to ban microbeads.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil defeated the Green Party bill five months ago.

They both promised to take action themselves.

But so far, nothing.

So, Seán Sherlock will table our Bill in the Dáil on 4th May.

We’ll find out then whether their promises of action meant anything at all.

Uncertainty around the future of work is hitting us too.

If I am asked, what’s the best thing we did in Government?

It’s what we did in relation to work.

Halving unemployment;

Establishing the low pay commission;

Raising the minimum wage by €1.50 an hour;

Collective bargaining.

Labour does as Labour is.

And it’s for that reason that our primary mission as a party is to look at the future of work.

Globalisation has changed things.

The automation of work might accelerate that change.

And only we have the ideas to turn this around.

Michael D. Higgins was President of our party.

As Uachtarán na hÉireann, he doesn’t belong to us anymore – he belongs to all of the people of Ireland.

And he acts as our national conscience.

Two years ago, he reminded us that “responding to the needs, the fears and the aspirations of citizens who don’t enjoy security of employment is a defining challenge for our times”.

Insecurity of employment is growing.

Casual employment and the gig economy are growing.

And the idea of a job for life is gone in most sectors.

But we are not powerless in the face of these changes.

It is possible to allow freelance workers to come together and negotiate with their bosses – we are legislating to do exactly that.

It is possible to tell the low pay commission to make sure that everybody earns a living wage - we have been calling for exactly that.

It is possible to say that the gender pay gap must be closed - we are legislating to do that, too.

It is possible to look at a universal basic income; and at workplace democracy; and at collective bargaining.

It is possible to unleash the power of Irish enterprise.

All of these things are possible.

This Government has not and will not do them.

But you better believe that we will.

Anyone who trusts conservative parties with this agenda is just naïve.

Conservatives don’t believe in the power of Government.

But we want to see it vibrant;

And to harness the power of the state for the public good.

That’s why we’ve been calling for additional capital investment.

And changes to the European fiscal rules.

And an end to the fallacy of the so-called rainy day fund.

Three billion euros.

To be kept on account.

Instead of being spent on infrastructure.

They have announced a review of capital spending.

But have committed little money to it.

Instead of creating a worthless rainy day fund, Labour would use this €3 billion;

To double the amount available.

And 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, 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.

Even IBEC say the Government has an austerity fetish.

They are right.

They waste money on tax cuts that people barely notice.

But provide little of the investment we need so badly.

After everything we’ve gone through over the last 10 years, we are entitled to better.

To decent hospitals.

To brilliant schools.

To homes we can afford.

To transport links that work.

Because economic growth is good, but quality of life is what matters.

That’s why we want to measure our progress differently.

Not based on the size of our economy alone.

But also on the strength of our society;

The quality of our healthcare;

The state of our environment;

And the level of equality we have reached.

That’s something worth fighting for.

The Labour Party is not perfect.

We have our flaws.

But still, we know where we stand.

We are idealists.

But we also know how to implement change.

During our time in Government we made mistakes.

I know that.

We all know that.

We also achieved a lot.

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.

The people make the ultimate decision.

And they decided we didn’t do well enough.

The challenge now for Labour is not to fight the last election again.

But to listen to the people, and to prepare for the election of tomorrow.

We will be honest with people.

And we will never stop striving for a better future for our country.

That must be the case.

Because the challenges we face are great.

Brexit. Climate Change. The Future of Work.

The great causes of insecurity of our age.

Breeding grounds for fear and hurt, if we do nothing.

But the bigger the challenge, the greater our determination.

A politics of hope would truly be a new politics.

Not this sham of a Government.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and a rag-bag of Independents show no ambition.

And they seem quite content about it.

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.

In June of last year, Jan O’Sullivan first criticised this do-nothing Dáil.

She was making a point about our school admission bill being kicked down the road.

It’s not the only issue to have been treated that way.

Movement towards a living wage.

Repeal the eighth. And I mean repeal. Not replace.

Making a joke of our long-term water needs.

Fudging and failing on Garda reform.

All of these issues - and many more - have been kicked to touch.

And it’s just not good enough.

No movement on a living wage means families stuck struggling to pay their bills and feed their children.

No movement on the eighth amendment means continuing to ship women abroad – 12 every day – in harrowing situations.

No movement is indefensible.

But there are areas where progress has actually stopped.

And that is even worse.

Labour’s plan to expand free GP care to all children seems to be dead in the water.

Families watching TV tonight know how hard it can be to find 50 euro for a visit to the doctor.

The funding to expand free GP care to all children under 12 is in place since 2015.

But so far, no action.

Making class sizes smaller has been ditched too.

The progress we started in 2015 has now stopped.

So our children still sit in classes of 28, or 29, or 30.

And those who need a few extra minutes of attention from a teacher can’t get it.

Doing nothing is not something to be proud of.

It means that Government begins to do actual harm.

We saw weeks of industrial action in Bus Éireann, while Lord Ross twiddled his thumbs.

Sitting in his office hiding.

No more selfies on the bus.

A Minister for Transport content to do nothing.

Concerned about the Stepaside Garda station;

But caring little about the buses in Cork, or Limerick, or Galway.

The dysfunction at the heart of this Government helps nobody.

And it hurts many.

Our people, quite simply, deserve better.

People often speak about Ireland as a small country.

But we are only as small as the limit of our imagination.

The best country to be born into;

To be educated in;

To live in;

To grow old.

That’s something worth imagining.

Last year, we commemorated the 1916 centenary.

This year, it is worth casting our minds back to an event that took place 150 years ago.

On the eve of the Fenian Rising in 1867, the original proclamation was delivered to the Times newspaper.

It asserted that all of us are born with equal rights.

It recognised that we come together as communities;

To protect each other and to share our burdens.

And to aim for one simple truth – justice.

Justice that would foster equality, and not destroy it.

150 years later, that’s a message that still rings true.

And it sums up Labour.

Because this – this is who we are.

Striving for decency; striving for justice; striving for equality.

Blind to gender;

And to race;

To sexuality; to ability; and to age.

Reaching for something better:

For all of our people;

For our climate;

For our communities;

For our country.

And for our future.

Thank you.