Brendan Howlin: Ireland needs a new democratic programme

Liberal economics of FG and FF make Ireland vulnerable to boom and bust

The Democratic Programme adopted by the First Dáil called on the fledgling Irish State to eliminate poverty and to use the natural resources of the State to serve the whole people and provide decent jobs.

Private property rights were to be balanced by effective State action for the public good. Tom Johnson, leader of Labour in 1919, was the primary author of the Democratic Programme.

When Johnson wrote the programme, many people’s living conditions were dire, with a high rate of child mortality, the widespread exploitation of workers and an average life expectancy of only 54 years.

The Democratic Programme was the plan to combat poverty, through State ownership of industry, improved working conditions and robust social welfare protections.


Ireland today is transformed from the dire state of 1919, with its slum dwellings, illiteracy and mass poverty.

Labour won't allow working people to be worse off because of necessary changes to our economy

The programme provided a pathway to where we are today. State industries like ESB, Bord na Móna, Aer Rianta and the Irish Tourist Board created new areas of economic activity.

And the private sector was greatly assisted by State-owned banks like the Industrial Credit Corporation (ICC) and State agencies such as the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) and later Enterprise Ireland. The slow but eventual growth of Ireland’s economy permitted the State to invest in education, build hospitals and to fund social welfare.

But the full vision of the Democratic Programme has not been realised.

Unlike continental Europe, where economic stability has been preserved by a closer working relationship between the State and private industry, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have allied themselves to extremely liberal economics that are the reason why Ireland’s economy is so vulnerable to boom and bust.

Small open economies

Other small open economies across Europe, such as Denmark and Finland, have managed to avoid these extremes through careful regulation and more strategic partnerships with industry, and continue to do so, such as through national strategies to mitigate climate change.

Ireland needs the alternative of a democratic socialist party. Throughout 2018, Labour members and civil society activists met to discuss the topics of greatest concern at this time.

From these discussions we wrote a renewed Democratic Programme, which continues the aspirations of Johnson’s original, while including new challenges that were unimagined in his time.

Labour sees the necessity of having an activist State in the economy that will invest in infrastructure, such as sustainable energy, broadband internet, and our ports and railroads. Such investment is necessary to ensure stronger regional economies, especially outside of Dublin and other big urban areas.

Priority policies

Between now and the next elections, Labour will set out a small number of priority issues that must urgently be resolved by the State, based on our analysis of the current state of the economy and of people’s needs.

These priorities are non-negotiable demands and Labour will not support any government, in terms of coalition or support from opposition, unless each of our priority policies is agreed and will be implemented as part of the programme for government.

Labour will not support any government that does not accept our policies for a State-led solution to the affordability crisis in housing. That means strong protection for tenants and regulation of the private rental sector.

We need a just transition to a low-carbon economy in a way that protects people from rising costs and eliminates energy poverty

And it means a State-led investment fund of €16 billion, over five years, to build 80,000 homes on public land, some of which must remain in public ownership as a rental stock.

These homes will include traditional council housing, but also a new form of public housing available to rent at an affordable rate to people from a wide range of occupations and backgrounds.

Labour recognises the existential challenge of climate change and the need for action. But we won’t allow working people to be worse off because of necessary changes to our economy.

We need a just transition to a low-carbon economy in a way that protects people from rising costs and eliminates energy poverty.

Where jobs are unsustainable, Labour will insist on investment and jobs plans to ensure that employment of equal or better quality is created.

We will insist that any government fully embraces this approach if it wants any support from Labour.

In the words of Labour’s New Democratic Programme, we pledge ourselves to secure a future that promotes intergenerational solidarity and delivers sustainability, prosperity and equality for all of our people.

Brendan Howlin is leader of the Labour Party