Idealism and Realism in Equal Measure


Joan Burton TD, Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection. 


I’ll start tonight with a confession. When I was a commerce student in UCD, I would sometimes skip dreary business classes to sit in the English Lit classes next door. The writer, Kate O’Brien, featured prominently in those forays. She wrote a lovely book called The Land of Spices whose feisty protagonist Helen Archer fleetingly observes her father in sexual intimacy with another man. For that single sentence, the busybodies of the Censorship Board banned the sale of the novel in 1942, and it remained off shelves for many years.

Kate O’Brien was not the only victim of censorship of course, and it was to continue well into the 1960s. The prolonged periods of economic stagnation that marked independent Ireland were accompanied by an intense cultural and psychological repression. So when we celebrate the Rising, and how our country has developed since, we should remember that. We should remember the Hidden Ireland of the Magdalen Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes, and more. Most of all, we should remember that it wasn’t really hidden at all.  We had official reports as far back as the late 1930s, for example, questioning the wisdom of the Mother and Baby Homes.

Dostoyevsky once wrote: “Compassion is the chief law of human existence.” I think that’s the starting point for our future development as a country, and as a society – ensuring the State is compassionate in its duty to its people. If compassion is the foundation, what are the central pillars?  Education must be one.

Of all the visionary documents that changed Ireland, none, in my view, was more important than the Investment in Education report, written in the 1960s by a team led by the late Prof Patrick Lynch. Dr Patrick Hillery once recalled that an education inspector wanted the Department’s official Irish title to be renamed from An Roinn Oideachas to An Roinn Eadochais – the Department of Despair. I can understand why. The Lynch team examined in detail a cohort of 55,000 pupils.  Of these, 17,500 left education at the end of primary level. There was a further drop-out rate of 36% in the early years of post-primary. Just 10,000 stayed to sit the Leaving Certificate, and of these, only 2,000 went to university. That evidence was enough to stimulate dramatic reforms and expansion of educational opportunity.  I was one of the early beneficiaries. So, to me, a visionary education plan that expands opportunity to all is essential.

Labour is the party of opportunity. Through education, we believe we can give all of our people the freedom to dream and to flourish. We believe in giving people the skills and experience they need to build fulfilling lives for themselves, and for their families. The justifiable pride a mother or father feels when seeing a son or daughter complete college will continue.  But we have to reverse the complete indifference Ireland showed from the late 1990s on towards apprenticeships.  We have to recognise that not every young person aspires to college, and provide the best range of training and career development for them.  This year, more than 3,000 people are expected to begin apprenticeships, and companies like Eircom, ESB and CIE are offering coveted opportunities. We’re intent on massively increasing that number. Ireland currently has 27 types of apprenticeship, and my colleague Jan O’Sullivan has received a report recommending 25 more.

We will now move to get these new apprenticeships started in sectors such as IT, hospitality and financial services – where there will be significant career opportunities in the coming years. This is part of a wider investment in qualifications and education that leads me to my next pillar – full employment.

Full employment is how we increase tax revenue, build a viable social insurance system, and create room for new investment in essential services. It’s how we create a more productive economy and a more caring society. That the State has survived such economic, social and political upheavals is remarkable. We’re still working our way through the most recent upheaval.  The banking collapse and subsequent bailout led to a total loss of independence. I got a graphic illustration of that in late 2010 when I met with the troika in my then role as Labour’s finance spokesperson. One member of the troika team was viciously blunt in telling me what would be expected of Ireland in return for the bailout.

“Ms Burton,” he said, “you will have to give us everything you have.”

It was a foretaste of what was to come. But we survived – and are now beginning to thrive again – because Labour and Fine Gael in government changed the terms of the conversation. Through diplomacy, tact, patience – or dare I say stubbornness – we renegotiated the bailout and then successfully exited it. We’re not completely financially independent of course.  We work within EU fiscal rules and a globalised economy – all of which influences our policy making.  But we have left the bailout far behind. We’re surging ahead as the fastest growing economy in the EU, and we’re well placed now to deliver a decade of opportunity. Full employment is central to that, and we’re on the road towards it.  Since the peak of the crisis, more than 110,000 additional people have returned to work, and unemployment has fallen by a third.  The Government has laid out its plan to achieve full employment by 2018.  But we’re not content with that, because full employment means little if it is not accompanied by fair wages and working conditions.  We established the Low Pay Commission to report annually on the minimum wage, and Minister Nash will publish its first report tomorrow. I look forward to receiving – and implementing – its recommendations.  In the same vein, we have enacted collective bargaining legislation to strengthen workers’ rights.  This is all part of a wider battle – the battle to secure the economic rights of working people. Because people’s economic rights are just as central as their social rights to living a full life.

  • The right to the best education we can provide.
  • The right to a job with decent pay and conditions.
  • The right to an affordable and secure home.
  • The right to healthcare based on need, not wealth.
  • And the right to security of income in retirement.

As we look ahead from 2016, our challenge is to secure the economic rights of working people. Crucially, we have the opportunity now to achieve that. But this brings me to my next pillar: stability.

I know there is continuing anger about the traumatic period we’ve been through and the painful adjustments that had to be made.  The Opposition are picking up on that anger and frustration and seeking to capitalise on it.  But you cannot govern a country by feeding perpetual anger.  Ultimately, voters want solutions, not just sound-bites.

They want stable government, which is precisely what Labour and Fine Gael have delivered while resolving the worst economic crisis this country has suffered. Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, contains a scene in which one of his allies is arguing for a more radical anti-slavery policy. Lincoln remarks that a compass will point you to true north, but cannot warn about the swamps, rivers and chasms on the journey. By plunging ahead regardless, you may never reach your destination. Mature politics is the mechanism by which you navigate the barriers. It means compromise. But it also means stability.  It creates the space for solutions to be found, and people’s lives to be improved. That great politician, Nye Bevan, who created the NHS, had some valuable words of wisdom for those who wanted more than could realistically be delivered. The language of priorities, he said, is the religion of socialism. That’s the religion I’ll be practising in the coming months – idealism and realism in equal measure.  The idealism to envisage a decade of opportunity for all our people.  The realism to find the best way of achieving it – through the serious grind of government.

In coming to my fourth pillar of a renewed, revitalised Ireland, I want to return to where I started, in the world of the arts.  An Ireland of opportunity for all would not just deliver a good education system, good jobs, investment in essential public services and stop there.  To paraphrase what Sean O’Casey said of Jim Larkin, our fight must be not just to put bread on the tables of working families, but a rose in the vase too. The arts were not exempt from the difficult adjustments of recent years.  The resilience shown by musicians, writers, actors, film-makers and other artists during this period of retrenchment has been remarkable. They have, in no small way, helped our country recover from the reputational damage inflicted by the financial collapse. As the budgetary constraints lessen, and we have leeway for investment again, I believe it is time to plan for a new settlement of public support for the arts. Many dividends would arise from such investment.  One is, of course, the pure economic return which is very substantial.

But the importance of the arts and culture goes far beyond their monetary value. They define our character as a nation. Publicly-funded art and culture display the dynamism of Ireland to the entire world.  In turn, they encourage creativity and innovation in architecture, fashion, technology, product design and more.  If you believe in a more equal society, access to the arts is an essential ingredient. Two years ago, the trade union movement remembered the epic battle of the 1913 Lockout.  That centenary was marked by two particular events which illustrate my point. One was the remarkable tapestry project, initiated by artists Robert Ballagh and Cathy Henderson, which brought together volunteers from a wide range of community groups, trade unions, the arts, schools and, indeed, the inmates of Limerick Prison. The final result was magnificent.  But no less important was the collaborative process by which it was developed and created. Another commemorative event for 1913 involved a group called RADE – Recovery through Art, Drama and Education – whose mission is to engage drug users with the arts and therapeutic supports. My own Department of Social Protection assisted this project, which brought participants through all the elements of staging a drama about the historical events.  I will quote the poet Paula Meehan’s description:

“The project that is RADE allows the powerful processes of art to work their magic – painting, writing, acting, making in all its forms. RADE puts creativity at the service of personal transformation.”

Ireland’s economic renewal is taking shape. I believe we need to take stock of what contribution can come from renewed investment in the arts as part and parcel of a more general renewal. And let me say one final word about the 2016 commemorations in the context of that renewal.  I fervently hope they don’t become the vehicle for some to glorify the violent republican tradition that so blighted the whole of this island in recent decades.

By stark contrast, I’m convinced the May referendum result is an excellent omen for the future and will have many positive spin-off effects. The Yes vote showed Ireland to the wider world as a country at ease with itself and ready to embrace equality and diversity.   Self-confidence is just an important factor to nations as it is to individuals.  I think our country has a good reason now to feel confident in our ability to confront all the issues that face us.


Book Tickets 2021