Michael D Higgins President of Ireland address to the 98th GMB Congress

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This is the text of the speech delivered by Michael D Higgins President of Ireland at the 98th GMB Congress in Dublin on Monday June 8th.  A video recording is available on the GMB website in the Congress archive.

THE PRESIDENT OF IRELAND: (Irish greeting) Dear fellow trade unionists, I am delighted to be here with you today to speak at your Congress.  Indeed, may I begin by thanking your Senior National Officer, Dave Kearney, for inviting me to address what is the 98th GMB Congress, and also as I know your National President, Mary Turner, and your Secretary General, Paul Kenny, and all of the GMB Executive, I want to thank them for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

Indeed, I have had a very long day but I have to say I would not want to miss the opportunity of speaking to the representatives of so many workers, and particularly workers in the public service, workers in the public world.  I hope as I came in I did not interrupt the speech of one of the delegates speaking on the important topic of young people and social policy.

To the many hundreds of delegates who have been elected to represent over 600,000 members of the GMB trade union from every part of Britain and Ireland and from every sector of the economy and all those delegates who may be visiting Ireland for the first time, as President of Ireland (Irish spoken) I so welcome each and every one of you and I know that your discussions will be very, very fruitful.

This is only the second time, as indeed your President has just said, that the Congress has been held in Dublin, the first being in the 1890s, and it was so important to all of us because, of course, it was that Congress, that first one, that brought James Connolly back to Ireland.

I want to hope may it not be so long again until you meet here in Ireland and, of course, last year you celebrated your 125th anniversary (Irish spoken) and I congratulate you all on reaching such a significant milestone in your organisation history.

I myself have been a trade unionist nearly all my life.  I was a member of what was the ESBOA, which was my first union.  Then I was the founder of the teaching section of the Workers Union of Ireland which later became SIPTU, and then my wife was making her way from Equity into SIPTU, so we are a family that is a family that is familiar with trade union history.

I was very attracted to accepting an invitation to come and speak to you with the great origins that your union has, the great collection of origins that your union has, beginning as the Gasworkers & General Union formed in 1889 by the great Will Thorne, one of the great pioneers of the labour movement and who went on to be its Secretary General.

There is a memorable phrase of his.  He was once asked why he had decided to dedicate his life to the labour and trades union Movement and he wrote: “There is a world of freedom, beauty, and equality to gain where everyone will have an opportunity to express the best that is in them for the benefit of all, making the world a place more to our heart’s desire and the better to dwell in.”

These are powerful words and they are powerful words that have a great resonance at the present time, to create a world that does not now exist but which is capable of releasing that great capacity in human achievement.  I have just come from a visit to a women’s prison and before that to a school where children once were fed in the city centre in Garner Street.

But I do think of your own origins as the Gasworkers & General Union in 1889 and Will Thorne, but like all early unions the GWGU established itself in addressing the very poor working conditions which existed at the time.  Its first battle was for an 8-hour day and a 6-day week.  I think we should never forget any of us that such rights as workers enjoy did not fall from the sky and let us always honour and remember – (Applause) – those who had the courage to make these demands on behalf of workers and often in very difficult conditions.  Its efforts were successful and they resulted in the first working time agreement anywhere in the world.

Following the success of the union’s campaign on working hours within six months 20,000 workers had joined the union and by 1911 Gasworkers Union membership had increased to 77,000.  Then a great alliance emerges between a whole series of other unions, the GWGU joined with the National Amalgamated Union of Labour, the Municipal Employees Association, the National Federation of Women Workers, and in 1924 they formed the National Union of General and Municipal Workers and today the GMB is the second largest trade union in Britain and Ireland, and I pay tribute to you.

Your union has a long and distinguished history in Ireland either under its own name or under the name of trade unions that transferred their engagements to GMB; indeed, Adolphus Shields, the organiser of the Gasworkers Union in Dublin, as I have said, was the person who brought James Connolly back to Ireland in 1896.

I am a former President of the Labour Party in Ireland.  It is in my past.  I am now President but the fact is that I often think of those days.  Only just two years ago speaking about the great lockout in Dublin, one could try and only try and envisage the circumstances in which workers worked.

After the great lockout of 1912 many impoverished workers in Dublin City where you now are had a choice of going back having been defeated or many of enlisting in the Great War; not a great war except as a term.  It was a great catastrophe that would consume the young people of a generation in what was a war between empires.

Shields and other leaders of the Dublin gas workers saw a great alliance between urban trade unions and various organisations representing rural labourers in Ireland and many rural workers throughout Ireland adopted a programme, and a meeting of what was called the first Irish Labour Parliament was held in the ancient Concert Rooms in Brunswick Street on 14th May 1891.

GMB also had, as you know, very strong Irish connections through its membership in first and second generation immigrants to Britain.  I know of course that your President hales from Thurlas and the parents of your Secretary General come from County Galway.

In Ireland in my own time between 1955 and 1960 a quarter-of-a-million Irish people emigrated to Great Britain, crossing the Irish Sea.  Half my own family live in Manchester but one of the things that I think about that is very, very important is that this extended family of Irish people that we have abroad, they honour Ireland when they in fact insist and work and engage in seeking to secure workers’ rights.

I understand that the motions you will discuss during this five-day conference focus on a number of key issues, including the campaign for social justice and fair pay, campaign for a living wage, and a living wage is not a wage just to enable you to survive, it is to live and participate, jobs – (Applause) – and security, and a future as you were discussing as I came in, a future for young people, and something that we are campaigning for, something that is so important here in Ireland at the present time, rights at work and the issue of zero-hours contracts.  These are all issues which are the subject of current debate in Ireland.  Indeed, GMB Congress comes to Dublin at an important time in terms of the industrial relations landscape in Ireland.

One of the reasons I was also anxious as a head of state to speak was about the current atmosphere that exists in so many parts of our fragile planet.  It is a time when inequality is increasing with horrific consequences in so many parts of the world.  In some of the richest economies new forms of capital that have nothing to do whatsoever with production, but have to do with illicit and international flows of capital that is unaccountable and that is not transparent, is wreaking havoc in one way or another in different parts of the world.  (Applause)

In my previous life working in the area of human rights, there are countries such as, for example, Chile, where we are called upon and were called upon so regularly to speak about workers’ rights where the largest category of people assassinated were trade unionists, where trade union membership has been driven to below 30%, and in this atmosphere of growing in different forms of diverse inequality it was never more necessary that the voice of organised labour seeking collective rights that will go on the same way as previous generations of people had the courage to demand, some of those rights that we enjoy today, that they be stated.

This is not a matter of administering a participation of those who produce the wealth of the world in some form of economy that is unaccountable.  I have spent days of my presidency speaking in Europe, and elsewhere, about the great danger that flows from imagining that there is a single hegemonic economic model that can in fact govern the entire planet and the consequences that come from that when we all know that there are issues which we have to deal with together globally and which require a different approach.

All of this is so important.  It is important as well that workers everywhere in the world realise that it is as important now to have an economic literacy that states there is no one single model of the economy.  What there is is the challenge to economics and to economic models to be able to provide the very thing you are discussing at your conference — security, decent work contracts, being able to participate as citizens, not to be disqualified from participation in the society because the economy has failed to provide you with a basic income.  (Applause)

When people do organise and when people do get their message delivered it does count.  Here in Ireland a new Low Pay Commission has been established this year with the purpose of making recommendations to the government on the appropriate rate of our National Minimum Wage.  The Commission’s first recommendation is expected in mid-July.  Now, as President I am excluded to some extent — it would not be appropriate for me to address the detail of some of these important initiatives — but I do speak about the form of the economy and the issue of unemployment, the issue of poverty, the issue of exclusion, and I also challenge the sheer ignorance that is at the basis of some of the economic models; the assumption, as I have said, that every area of life has to be dealt with in terms of a market dominant solution. There are aspects of the decency of the public world on which your different unions that came together in this union were founded, it was to defend the public world, it was to defend the right of public spaces, the right of every citizen to be healthy, the right to have decent housing, to treat men and women as equals, and not to exploit children.  These are not derivative of a market-led economy.  These are rights that belong to citizens.  (Applause and cheers)

At the present time the question of work is a concern which has been central to my presidency.  I have addressed the subjects of decent work and very particularly what is now emerging as a new discussion on what is called the “precariat”, the position of the precarious worker, and what would constitute an ethical workplace I have addressed in a number of speeches to national and international bodies over the last three years.

I have told people, for example, in the European Union that if they want to see cohesion disappear, if they want to see a confrontation with no mediating institutions such as trade unions in between, they are playing with fire and very often what is an economic crisis can be turned into a crisis of social cohesion.  The position of the worker in society is incredibly important.

I am pleased to see that all of those issues you are addressing them in your Congress.  Congresses involving trade unions are awfully important.  They are not the occasion of mere rhetorical statements.  They actually say there are things that matter and there are things that matter not only to the delegates and to the members that they represent but are important for future generations.  For if there is to be a sustainable economy, and if our planet is to be saved, and if we are to reduce poverty in the world and avoidable diseases, we need to be able to think long and beyond as our ancestors in the trades union Movement did.  I am so pleased that all of the issues that are on the agenda follow such a vision.

When I launched the President of Ireland’s ethics initiative I conducted a national consultative process that I have been hosting for the past year-and-a-half.  That consultation suggested something I think that very many people miss, younger people, who want a decent society not just for themselves but for all citizens; older people, they are asking for a decent society for young people.  (Applause)

There are some great, great writers that I remember studying when I was at Manchester saying things like, for example, “Our choice is as to whether we are to be the passive consumers of failed models of connection between economy and society, or whether we want to be active agents of change bringing into existence new forms of equality, new forms of expression of the human spirit.”  The Irish Congress of Trade Unions have run recently a programme of activities under the banner, Ethical Workplace.  Working with their member unions, Congress set about gathering views from individual workers, workers’ unions, and representative bodies, on what were the essential qualities of a workplace that could be considered ethical.

Work is not that to which you go to waste your life, to be tolerated, to be allowed to survive.  It is the expression of a human’s gift in the wider sense and that is why in Congress’s discussion the responses that came back included words like, respect, equality, trust, honesty, transparency, security, effort, creativity, and they occurred again and again in the messages of the workers outlining a vision of the good workplace, where workers are enabled to pursue their material wellbeing and personal development, in conditions of dignity, economic security, equal opportunity, and also, as I have said, where workers are enabled to participate as citizens.

Taking these goals I believe the trade unions continue to have an essential role to play in defending and advancing such a conception of the good workplace in a global context characterised by huge and increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of financial capital and, as I have said, unaccountable institutions and decision-making structures.

Look at the changes that have taken place even in my own lifetime, when one opens the newspapers and you find the response of senior decision-makers often in political positions in Europe saying, what the markets are saying, what the markets will allow, what the rating agencies are saying, as if in fact you should place citizens in their diversity at the mercy of unaccountable rating agencies who are in fact themselves being involved in forms of misleading prose. (Applause)

But far beyond not only in relation to the issues of income, beyond the workplace itself, the voice of the Trades Union Movement is also much needed as we seek to rebuild our economy and in the aftermath of this great failure of — let us call it for what it is —speculative capital and a dominant model of economics that has wreaked so much damage and havoc to the lives of workers and their families.

Now, more than ever, all over the world the voice of trade unions is needed and I say this as well, those of us who have had the advantage of working as an academic, and so on, there is nothing lesser about the view of a trade union in relation to the economy and the view of a trade union in relation to the economy is certainly superior to that of a gambler’s opinion in relation to speculative capital. (Applause, cheers and whistling)

May your voice be loud as the new economics is brought into being, one in which the demands of economy, ecology, and ethics, and a sustainable form of development can be in balance.  This year is a crucial year as we take huge decisions in relation to sustainable development goals and in relation to the planet itself. Your voice is necessary as we renew our resolve to address the persistent inequalities in our society and we do not need inequality to sustain our society, and in this regard I pay special tribute to the leadership that the GMB has shown in the area of women’s rights.  Women have had to wait too long for equality.  (Applause)

Finally, I would like to congratulate GMB who together with SIPTU and others have commissioned a beautifully illustrated new book, James Connolly and the Re-Conquest of Ireland.  That book brings together a collection of previously unseen family papers and writings, and sheds new light upon the writing and reception of Connolly’s last major work.  That beautifully illustrated book looks at Connolly’s contribution to the cultural and political life of Ireland against the centenary of the Dublin lockout and other major events in Irish history.

Really, our struggle was never one for bread alone but, as Larkin put it, for bread and roses and that is why also in relation to the ancient language I speak myself, that Irish language belonged to all those workers forced to go abroad.  There is no area of culture which cannot be enriched by the participation of workers. That book I refer to, a beautifully presented book, will make a significant contribution to our understanding of one of Ireland’s greatest republicans and socialist leaders.

It is so timely as we prepare for the centenary of a founding event of our own state, the 1916 rising, a revolutionary event as Connolly saw it, a strike against empire which had both nationalist and socialist strands and in which organised labour played a great role.  But I have often in my  recent speeches said as well, when you critique that nationalism and you look within it for where is the flame of egalitarianism and equality, and it is in Connolly and in the citizen army you will see the broader space, not just independent but equal, and equal in every sense.  That was the message.

That is why, then, I understand, as I finish where I began, when Will Thorne said, “There is a world of freedom, beauty, and equality to gain where everyone will have an opportunity to express the best that is in them for the benefit of all, making the world a place more to our heart’s desire and the better to dwell in.”

We have since the end of the 1980s seen the destruction of the public world, we have seen huge pressure on the role of the state, and yet all of your unions and your workers work in the public realm, in the public world, for the public good, it is time to reclaim the public world and those principles for which your founders fought they are as relevant today as when Will Thorne uttered them, and I know that they will be a guide to you into the future.

May I conclude by congratulating everyone involved in bringing this Congress to Dublin, a wonderful city, a city with a great workers’ history, I hope you enjoy every minute of your time here.  (Irish spoken)  I wish you all the best for the remainder of your conference and I hope that we will have the opportunity of meeting again in the future, and thank you for allowing me the privilege of addressing this important Congress.  Thank you very much. .  (Standing ovation)

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