“The Relevance of James Connolly in the 21st Century”
Dublin, 20–22 April 2001

The feasibility of socialism today

Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin TD




The James Connolly Education Trust deserves congratulations for organising this important international conference. On my own behalf and on behalf of Sinn Féin I commend the trust on their initiative and express my appreciation for the opportunity to address the conference.
      Republicans in County Monaghan, of which I am a native, are especially proud of the county’s connection with James Connolly. Both Connolly’s parents came from County Monaghan and were among the masses of Irish people who were forced to emigrate in the 1850s. They settled and married in Edinburgh, where Connolly was born and where he began his life of struggle for Irish independence and for socialism. In County Monaghan, Connolly’s political legacy is alive and well. We cherish the ideals for which he stood. This was reiterated as recently as last Sunday in our county and throughout the country when thousands of people gathered to participate in Easter 1916 commemorations.
      In a message to the republican volunteers during Easter Week, 1916, Pádraig Mac Piarais described James Connolly as “the guiding brain of our resistance.” For Sinn Féin, Connolly is still a “guiding brain,” whose ideas and actions inform our political principles and our political strategy. For us, any discussion of the relevance of James Connolly in the twenty-first century and of the feasibility of socialism today must have as its starting point the keynote of Connolly’s thinking, which is the inextricable link between the struggle for national freedom and the struggle for social justice.
      Connolly was consistent on this throughout his life. In 1896 he wrote: “The two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland, the socialist and the national, are not antagonistic but complementary . . .” And twenty years later, in 1916, he wrote: “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered.”
      These words of Connolly are still totally relevant. The Irish people cannot reach their full potential while partition remains. We cannot determine our future and order our society in the way we choose while the business of achieving national independence remains unfinished. Does this mean that we postpone the struggle for social justice until we have a united Ireland? Republicans have often been falsely accused of this, but the answer is emphatically “no.” The work of ending partition, reuniting our people and exercising national sovereignty is an essential part of the ongoing struggle for an equitable society in Ireland.
      As Connolly so accurately predicted, partition created a “carnival of reaction” in the North. I believe we are seeing the beginning of the end of that “carnival of reaction.” There can never be a return to one-party unionist rule in the Six Counties. The British government can never again treat the North of Ireland as an integrated part of its territory. The Good Friday Agreement, deficient though it is in many respects from a republican point of view, is a recognition of the failure of partition. It is an acknowledgement of the need for the people who share this island to determine our future on an all-Ireland basis.
      The full implementation of the agreement is the minimum democratic requirement at this time. The anti-democratic forces within unionism and the British establishment are currently working against the implementation of the agreement. These are reactionary forces who oppose the political change and equality which the agreement and the peace process have the potential to deliver. They have concentrated their tactics on the exclusion of the Sinn Féin ministers from the all-Ireland structures and have thus effectively closed down those structures. They have protected the structure least distasteful to the unionists—the Assembly—and have prevented progress on key issues such as policing and demilitarisation.
      If they succeed they will wreck the current agreement. But they are yesterday’s people, and, once again, unionists will have to sit down with the rest of us on this island to work out our future together in another agreement. The end of British jurisdiction and partition is inevitable. The key questions are: “How soon can we bring this about?” and “What kind of united Ireland can we build?”
      The objective for which we in Sinn Féin are actively working has not changed, and that is Connolly’s aim of political, social and economic freedom for the Irish people as a whole. We have made clear many times that we never wished to reproduce on an all-Ireland basis the type of conservative society we have had in the 26 Counties. As republicans, we have borne the brunt of censorship and repression in this state. Many of the communities we represent, north and south, continue to suffer economic marginalisation. We do not wish to perpetuate in thirty-two counties the gross inequalities that abound in both partitioned states today. On the contrary, we seek what Connolly described as the reconquest of Ireland. Conditions globally and nationally have changed hugely since Connolly’s day, and we cannot simplistically apply all his proposed solutions to the social ills of our time. But we can apply his basic principles, and at a time when the concept of socialism is so misunderstood, misrepresented and denigrated, we need to revisit those ideas and interpret them for today.
      Connolly described socialism as “the application to the social life of the nation of the fundamental principles of democracy.” Looking at Ireland today, nobody can honestly say that the fundamental principles of democracy, equal rights and equal opportunities for all have been applied in this society. Inequality is the hallmark of the so-called “Celtic Tiger.” It is grossly unequal in terms of the distribution of the increased national wealth.
      In its analysis of the Fianna Fáil/PD government’s Budget 2001 the Combat Poverty Agency states: “There is an uneven distribution of total budget resources, with the richest 10 per cent receiving 29 per cent of allocated monies, as compared to less that 2 per cent for the poorest [tenth]. In overall terms, 60 per cent of Budget resources was received by the richest 30 per cent of the population.” And this is in a critique which described the Budget as an improvement on Charlie McCreevy’s three previous efforts! The Justice Commission of the Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI) put it more starkly. They said: “The poorest people in Irish society have been betrayed by Budget 2001 . . . This government’s legacy after four Budgets is to have substantially widened the rich/poor gap—which is already the worst in the European Union.”
      This economy is also grossly unequal in the geographical distribution of economic development and employment. The greater Dublin area takes the lion’s share, with all the resulting problems for the people of the capital and of the regions. We have massive overcrowding, astronomical house prices and transport chaos in Dublin. In the Border region, part of which I represent, we still suffer economic marginalisation and a lack of inward investment, as well as a lack of adequate local authority housing and virtually non-existent public transport.
      Where is the equality in a society that has 30,000 people suffering illness and even death on public hospital waiting-lists while wealth can buy instant access to the best care in the flourishing private health care business?
      Earlier this month, in a special report, the Society of St Vincent de Paul stated that the provision of health care in Ireland, particularly for the disadvantaged, is a shambles. They described the government’s stated strategy of delivering a health care system based on equity, quality and accountability as a “comprehensive failure” and said adequate health care was available only to those who could afford to pay for it.
      We have the worst life expectancy in the EU, the highest rate of premature death caused by coronary heart disease in the EU, the lowest number of acute hospital beds per capita in the EU, and a five-year waiting-list for children in need of orthodontic treatment.
      Where is the equality in a society that has 50,000 people languishing on local authority housing waiting-lists while the privileged compete for the multi-million-pound prestige properties that fill the pages of the newspapers? In 2001 we have a situation where tenants in the private rented sector are denied the rights of fair rent and fixity of tenure which Michael Davitt demanded for tenant farmers in the 1870s.
      The current government’s housing strategy—if it can be called a strategy—relies on the private sector to meet the housing needs of the people. It leaves people on average earnings prey to profiteering property speculators and developers and crippled with massive mortgages. Incredibly, given the housing crisis, the local authorities and the voluntary sector are building only 8 per cent of all houses currently under construction. This is the lowest share for any period in the last century.
      Housing, that most basic right of our people, is planned and developed in this state not on the basis of the need of the many but on the greed of the few. Successive governments have applied to this and all areas of their responsibility the values of the market rather than democratic values. Increasingly, people are regarded as consumers in an economy rather than citizens in a democracy.
      Without real democracy, without the exercise of people power, we cannot make the changes in society and the economy which are needed. Under the present government and its predecessors, democracy has been weakened at national and at local level. Democracy at local level has been attacked by the current government, with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Noel Dempsey, stripping councils of powers with regard to waste management because they have not complied with his diktat for the building of incinerators in every region. The ceding of ever greater powers from elected representatives in Ireland to the evolving EU superstate also weakens democracy, and this is why the Treaty of Nice should be opposed.
      The Nice Treaty is a further major stage in the transformation of the EU from a community of partner states, each with an equal voice regardless of their population size, towards a single superstate, dominated by the largest EU countries. There will be majority voting on the Council of Ministers, the restriction of the right to veto, no automatic right of states to nominate an EU Commissioner, and the creation of a two-tier EU with states free to form an elite core group. When Nice was negotiated the leader of the Labour Party, Ruairí Quinn, described the outcome as a “disaster” and an “appalling setback.” Then, on 3 April in the Dáil, Deputy Quinn pledged his party’s support for a Yes vote in the referendum to approve Nice.
      With the Nice referendum due in June, it is essential that all democrats and socialists campaign for a No vote. A No vote in this state would allow for a renegotiation to protect Irish neutrality and to signal the opposition of Irish people to the creation of a militarised EU with its own army—the Rapid Reaction Force, to which Bertie Ahern has already signed up, just as he signed up to NATO’s Partnership for Peace without a promised referendum. Uniquely in the EU, we have the opportunity to influence by referendum the direction that the EU institutions are taking.
      The choice is clear. It was posed as a question by the President of the EU Commission, Romano Prodi, to the EU Parliament on 13 February. He asked: “Are we all clear that we want to build something that can aspire to be a world power? In other words not just a trading bloc but a political entity?” I do not believe that we should become an integral part of another superpower as envisaged by Romano Prodi. I believe that we should not only maintain but expand upon our tradition of neutrality and should be a voice for justice and peace, in solidarity with the formerly colonised nations in the Third World, with whom we have much in common. We cannot exercise a truly independent foreign policy when we are committed to a common EU foreign and security policy, which is further strengthened in the Nice Treaty.
      Connolly was clear on where our place in the world should be when he said that the “internationalism of the future will be based upon the free federation of free peoples and cannot be realised through the subjugation of the smaller by the larger political unit.” The last part of that phrase—“the subjugation of the smaller by the larger political unit”—describes well what is proposed for this country under the Treaty of Nice. I have stressed this point because I believe the Nice referendum is the most pressing issue facing us in this state at present.
      In conclusion, we must ask is it feasible to change all this and to mould a more equitable society? I believe it is both feasible and essential. It can be done by appealing firstly to the basic sense of justice and fair play shared by the vast majority of our people. They are incensed at the inequalities which are so pervasive in a supposedly affluent society. This is especially so in the areas of health care and housing. I believe the vast majority of working people want the government to use taxation to improve these services, rather than cutting tax for higher earners. Taxpayers are willing to be generous contributors in a fair tax system which maintains equitable and efficient social services that benefit them and their neighbours.
      What is lacking among many people is a sense that the political system has the capacity to deliver real change. When they look at the parties that have dominated politics in this state since its foundation, they see mediocrity and corruption. They are either switching off or looking for an alternative.
      A recent Irish Independent editorial expressed concern at growing support for Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties. It spoke of the alienation of young people who are supporting Sinn Féin in increasing numbers. But of course the Irish Independent—which historians will remember called for the execution of Connolly—is wrong again. As the fastest-growing party among Irish youth, our support is based not on the alienation of young people but on their motivation. They are inspired by republican ideas and motivated by the activity of Sinn Féin.
      It is this which gives me hope and confidence that real change is feasible in our country. Despite, or perhaps because of, the all-pervasive culture of greed and “mé féinism,” many young people are seeking a better future based not on individual advancement in a consumer rat-race but on an enhanced quality of life for the local, national and global community of which they are a part. This is seen also in the keen awareness among many active young people of environmental issues and international issues. It gives a striking modern relevance to the phrase of Connolly which this conference uses as its motto and with which I will conclude: “We only want the earth.”


International Connolly Conference  >  Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin TD