The 12th Annual John Hume Lecture



Eamon Gilmore TD, Leader of the Labour Party, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade


I am particularly pleased to be asked to give the 12th Annual John Hume Lecture, since this year marks the centenary of the foundation of the Labour Party.  It is fitting, in a year of celebration and reflection for Labour, that I should pay tribute to a man who for many years led our sister party in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour Party – a man who stood courageously for the core labour values of civil rights, equality and peaceful democratic politics.

The theme of this year’s proceedings here in Glenties, is ‘Reforming and Rebuilding our State’.  Throughout the 100 years of our existence, reforming and rebuilding Ireland is, and always has been, the Labour Party’s mission – reform not for its own sake, but reform for the purpose of building a better and fairer society.  As Labour celebrates its centenary, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on how the progressive agenda stands today, and more importantly what the progressive priorities are for the future.

Last Wednesday afternoon I attended a meeting of the government’s economic management council.  The EMC, as it is known, consists of myself and the Taoiseach, Michael Noonan the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin.  This group meets every week, together with senior officials, to discuss key economic issues, and the strategic management of the economic crisis. The EMC is itself a reform – a new way of doing joined up government across departments and institutions – a new way of decision making in a coalition government, a new way to make key economic decisions at the heart of government.  What struck me about last Wednesday in particular, was how different the tone of the meeting was, compared to some of the EMC meetings that we had in the first few months of the life of this government.    In those early days, the crisis that we faced was existential.  There were days when I feared for the financial survival of the State. Today, while the problems we face are still grave, we are in a much stronger position.

Following agreement at the European summit on Ireland’s bank debt, and given the progress that we have made on a number of core economic issues – including a significant stimulus package – our prospects of economic recovery have been substantially improved.  No one doubts that there are still difficulties to confront.  No one doubts that the true test of progress is the creation of jobs and improving the situation of those thousands of families in Ireland who have been profoundly affected by the crisis. But we now have a far stronger platform on which to build.  The core task of this government is to deal with the deep economic crisis that we inherited, and to build a sustainable economic recovery.

It is our clear and stated aim to restore financial stability, to renew growth, and above all, to create jobs, to restore our economic sovereignty, by exiting the EU/IMF programme.  As Leader of the Labour Party, it is clear to me that these are the first priorities for any progressive agenda.

But this is also a government of reform – determined that this moment of crisis will also be a genuine turning point.  One of my abiding memories of John Hume is from late 1993, when he was moved to tears at the funeral of the victims of the Greysteel massacre.  It was one of the darkest moments of the troubles – a low point of sectarianism that threatened to drown the tentative moves towards peace.  But it was also a turning point – a moment when people saw the vital necessity of dialogue. That dark and difficult time was almost 20 years ago.  The Ireland we live in today is virtually unrecognisable.  The troubles as we knew them are at an end.  We have a functioning power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. Ministers from North and South of the border meet regularly in a North-South Ministerial Council to discuss matters of common interest.  And the visit of Queen Elizabeth has opened a whole new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and Britain, which was subsequently documented in the joint statement of the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Cameron.  Who would have thought that any of this was possible only twenty years ago?

Let us ask ourselves this question:  If we are to look back on this moment in twenty years time, what is it that we want to have achieved?  Whether it be the 120th anniversary of the Labour party, or the 120th anniversary of 1916, will we be able to able to say that this was a reforming generation? That we made a lasting impact on the course of Irish history?  The answer to that question will depend, not on the specifics of any one policy, or the technicalities of any one reform.  It will depend on our capacity to deal both with the immediate problems of today and to address the great issues of today and tomorrow (and in some cases of yesterday too).  It will depend on our capacity to recognise that reforming and rebuilding our state is not a goal in itself, but a means to building a society that better serves its people.  It will depend, not simply on the actions of governments, but on the willingness of individuals both to embrace and work for change.  Hume’s vision of an Ireland at peace, with mutual respect for, and by, its different traditions could not have been achieved without the consent of the people.  Neither could the massive social changes of the past two or three decades.

Reforming and rebuilding the state is not, therefore, just an exercise in constitutional amendment, the changing of laws or the remaking of institutions.  These elements are, of course, important, but they are actions located in a changing economic and social context, and their real significance can only be appreciated or evaluated over a longer period of time.  That is why we have to approach the task of reforming and rebuilding, not by trying out something new in the hope that it will work 20 years from now, but to place ourselves 20 years forward and to look back to the present so that we can make the right decisions to remake the Ireland we want to see in 20 years time.  This inevitably involves the making of political choices about the future of our society and those choices go far beyond the institutional.  Reforming and re-building the State can not happen in isolation from the great changes that are taking place in the world around us. At times of crisis, it is all too easy to turn inwards.  To focus on repairing what was broken at home.

But failing to prepare for what is happening beyond our own horizons is like fixing the ceiling while ignoring that the house is missing a roof, or that a new housing estate is being developed all around us.  We can no longer think of reform and rebuilding this State as a purely domestic project.  Our State does not stand in splendid isolation.

We have, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, a developing set of relationships, some of them institutional, with Northern Ireland and with Britain.  We are an integrated part of a changing European Union, and we share a currency with sixteen other states.  We share a world where economics is global, communications are instant, and we have common concerns about peace, security, energy, environment and climate.  Today the European Union spreads from the Atlantic coast of Connemara to the Black Sea.  In 20 years time, will the EU’s border stretch to the Russian steppes?  Today, we are a Union of 27 member states.  20 years from now that number could be closer to 40.  Ireland was a member state when there were only nine.  How are we, as a small state, to exercise our influence and leadership in a much bigger and more populous Union?

Ireland’s Presidency of the EU will be crucial, as we are unlikely to occupy that role again for at least 14 years.  Our chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (the OSCE), is also important in this context as it enables us to provide leadership in an international organisation which is important to aspiring EU member states.  The context is not even confined to Europe. Economically many believe that this will be the Asian century.  That is why we are putting a new emphasis on our political and trade relationship with the countries of Asia, including China.  The visit to Ireland by the Chinese Vice-Premier earlier this year was hugely important, as was the subsequent visit by the Taoiseach and the signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement between China and Ireland.  If Asia is the new economic power in the early decades of the 21st century, then Africa is the coming continent.  Seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are in Africa.

Africa can go from being a net food importer today to feeding a growing world population. Some world powers, especially China, already recognise this.  Ireland is uniquely placed to develop a thriving relationship with the African continent.  We carry no colonial baggage, and we have built a relationship for friendship and respect in Africa through our Development Aid Programme and right back to the work of our missionaries.  We can build on this, which is why last year we launched our Africa Strategy, charting the progress we can make from Aid to Trade.

And what does a growing global population mean for finite resources? Global commodity prices are rising, having fallen steadily during the 20th century.  Now, if the only way is up (and it’s not certain that it is), will scarcity be the mother of invention, or of tension?  One thing that is certain will be the globalisation of the drive to reduce greenhouse gases.  Following Durban last December, the clock is ticking on agreeing a binding deal on carbon reduction by 2015, coming into force by 2020.

In 20 years time the oil race will have become its opposite. The race to decarbonise economic growth is already underway. The future rests with those countries who, like Ireland can produce large amounts of renewable energy. Twenty years from now we will really value the fact that 90% of this county’s territory is the sea and ocean around us. The national maritime policy which has just been completed by the government is the blueprint for the re-building of this State, not just as 26 counties of land, but of our vast and resource rich maritime area as well.

Since the great famine, and before it, the economy of Ireland has not, for any sustained period of time, provided a secure and sustainable living for all the people of Ireland.  On any analysis of Irish economic performance over a century or more, forced emigration stands out as our greatest failing. And yet we should and do have the resources, the knowledge, the skills and the capacity to build an economy here that provides good and sustainable jobs for our people.  We can build an export-led, knowledge driven economy that is connected to the main sources of global economic growth.  We should never again allow ourselves to become dependent on any one sector, or any one market, and certainly not on the domestic property sector.  In the 21st century Ireland must connect itself to the economic opportunities that are emerging in the east, and in Africa.

When we look back on this moment in 20 years time, we should see this as a time when Ireland re-assessed its position in the global trading system; when we made a long term and strategic decision to build relationships in new and emerging economies, including China.  Relationships that complement, rather than replace, our existing markets in Europe, and America.  Three times since the Second World War – in the 1950s, the 1980s, and in the last decade, bad economic management in Ireland has led to economic stagnation.  We cannot go on like this.

The lessons of the crisis have to be learned, not least because it is working people who suffer most in recession through loss of jobs and lower living standards.  A small open economy has to manage its public finances prudently and with a far greater eye to long term sustainability. That is a lesson that the Nordic social democratic economies learned decades ago.

In passing the European Stability Treaty, we have adopted a set of rules which will provide for better management of our affairs.  We have established a Fiscal Advisory council to cast an independent eye over forecasts and budgets. And, critically, the European Union has decided to establish a banking union, so that the regulation of banking, and the costs of banking failures, will in future be managed on a collective European basis.  This must be the moment when we break out of the cycle of economic crises – for the sake of the children born this year, who will be approaching college graduation 20 years from now and seeking employment.  We all know the phrase from the 1916 Proclamation about the Republic cherishing all the children of the nation equally.  Too often in our recent past, those words have been a reproach to us, rather than an inspiration.  Too many times, as a state, we have failed our children.  In this too, the present crisis must be a watershed. This government is engaged in a major programme of reform of how we deliver children’s services.

The men and women who founded the Labour Party came from thatched cottages and tenement slums. They were born into a world where the circumstances of your birth very often dictated the horizons of your life.  No one can say that, in the past fifty years, economic progress in Ireland has not brought social progress. Since the 1960s, the educational revolution has opened up opportunity across our society. Like many others, I was a beneficiary of those changes.  But we have more to do.  Even today, too many of our children have their lives defined by the limitations of their family circumstances. We must ensure that the economy that we build from this crisis is one that offers greater opportunities for all of our people.

The changes that we are making in education, through a new national literacy strategy, and in reforming the curriculum for Junior Certificate are absolutely fundamental to that agenda.  The government is working hard to reform the system of training and welfare support to ensure that people have a wider range of skills and opportunities.  Then there are the other hallmarks of a modern, progressive country, such as access to medical care based on need, not income.  Ireland is something of a rarity in developed European countries in having an up-front charge of €50 or more to visit a GP.  This is the first government in the history of the state that has pledged to introduce universal health insurance.  It’s ambitious.  It will take time.

But we can do it if we take it step by step, redirecting a small fraction of the €14 billion health budget to lower that bar, incentivising people to get treated earlier by their GP, and so freeing up more expensive hospital time.

Ireland today is very different from the Ireland of 20 years ago, but there is still some road to travel before we can say that ours is a republic that treats its citizens, regardless of their faith or their sexual orientation, equally.  Now is the time to build a new relationship between church and state in Ireland, based on mutual understanding and respect, but also on the primacy of personal freedom.

For many people, when we speak of reforming and rebuilding our state, we are essentially talking about politics.  If, as many people believe, politics failed us before the crisis, can we construct something better?  We have to look at this issue at a number of levels.  We can, as the government is doing, tighten the laws on political funding and political corruption.  We can, and will through the Constitutional Convention, examine our voting system to see if we can improve on our present constitutional arrangements.  But on another level, you cannot legislate for honesty, and no matter what voting system you have, the outcomes will reflect our broader political culture.

Our world is changing.  It is far more integrated and inter-dependent.  More and more, our daily lives are, and will be, influenced by events and trends beyond our borders.  Our young people, in particular, see themselves as citizens of the globe.  But what kind of global citizen does Ireland want to be?  20 years ago, Mary Robinson moved us all with the tears that she shed for the people of Somalia.  Today, once again, famine stalks the horn of Africa.  One thing that we can be proud of in how we have managed this crisis is that, as a country, we have kept faith with the world’s poorest people.  We have managed to sustain our aid effort, and our engagement in development co-operation, especially in Africa.  Of course, there are also benefits to Ireland in what we do – we will, over time, see maturing ties of trade, as well as aid.  As a result of our history we can identify with those affected by what is still one of the world’s greatest ills – hunger, and nutrition is a strong focus of our aid programme.

When we think of reforming and rebuilding our state, we inevitably come back to political and institutional architecture.  Perhaps it is only in 20 years time that we will appreciate the massive reform and rebuilding agenda which this government is undertaking.  A Constitutional Convention, dominated not by experts and politicians, but two-thirds of those members will be individual citizens chosen at random.  We will hold a referendum to decide whether we have one parliamentary chamber or two, and whether we should have a Senate at all.  We are reducing the membership of Dáil Éireann at a time when our population is increasing.  We are planning the biggest reform of local government since the 1890s.  We are undertaking a major overhaul of public bodies as part of the biggest reform of our public services, driven by a dedicated Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.  We are undertaking a major change in the way state companies are managed through the creation of NewEra.  And there are many more examples.  It would not surprise me if the one which is most valued 20 years from now is the decision we recently made to establish a State Water Utility to manage our water resources.  Water may be the great resource issue of the 21st century, and to deal with that challenge we have decided to establish a water utility that will keep water in public ownership and provide finance for it.

I am hopeful for our future.  I believe that Ireland is a good country, with enormous reserves of talent, determination and grit. Our economy will recover.  But it is not enough simply to put the pieces back together again.  We must build something better and new.  This crisis can be a turning point.  We can build a new and better Ireland.


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