Speech by Kathryn Reilly, Sinn Féin senator, on the ‘Democratic Ireland – for an island of equals’ seminar
Ireland has come so far since I was born – the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin in government in the North, as the second largest opposition party in the South, the legalisation of divorce, decriminalisation of homosexuality, civil partnership, finally legislating for the X case – that I can only guess where we might be in another 25 years.
Some of the most advanced and progressive social movements anywhere in Europe, or indeed the world, have emerged when the struggles for Irish freedom and self-determination have been at their peak. The first female MP elected to Westminster was a republican. And back in 1909 during one of her speeches, Countess Markievicz challenged those opposed to women’s suffrage believing the “old idea that a woman can only serve her nation through her home is gone” declaring “now is the time, on you the responsibility rests. It may be as a leader, it may be as a humble follower… perhaps in a political party, perhaps in a party of your own… but it is there.” As a republican two issues motivate me above all else. Irish unity and equality. I believe that a truly democratic Ireland is a united Ireland. Not just the reunification of the two parts of the island, but the unity of our people, whatever their national, ethnic or religious background. I also passionately believe in equality. Not just equality of opportunity but equality of condition. Equality is not just about voting or having equal rights before the law. People need more than the right to participate fully in society; they must have the means to participate fully in society.
That means that every person must have the right to high quality education, to first class health care, to meaningful and fulfilling employment. Political and legal equality are meaningless without social and economic equality. That means actively dismantling the barriers to participation in public life that block access for women, minority ethnic communities, people with disabilities and other sections of our society. It also means addressing poverty and income inequality. Poverty, inequality and other barriers to participation in public life are not just an accident of life; they are not naturally existing phenomena. They are a direct result of the policies and programmes of successive governments here and abroad over many years. Reducing poverty and inequality and increasing people’s participation in public life requires political and policy alternatives. It requires government to do things differently. To design and implement policies and programmes that make equality a reality.
Martin Luther King once said: Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.
This week the Fine Gael/Labour government announced their third austerity budget. Like the five Fianna Fáil budgets before, it attacked young people, pensioners, people with disabilities and women.
Not only did it highlight the poverty of ideas in government circles – it showed the lack of vision for building a better fairer Ireland. It showed entrenched disdain for certain sectors of society who traditionally could not defend themselves from the consensus and political establishment.
Fundamental change is absolutely essential in ensuring a sustainable, peaceful future in which people can exist free from fear of poverty, discrimination, conflict and division. Sinn Féin has been arguing for this approach for some time.
In terms of the economic crisis, we have long been fed the mantra there is no alternative to austerity and cuts. Economic exploitation, as Martin Luther King puts it, has come at the hands of fiscal retrenchment.
We replaced one right wing Fianna Fáil-led government with the current Fine Gael/Labour one – and in following the same policies, the economic crisis has continued to deepen.
Unfair regressive taxes and cuts in services are seeing families suffer across Ireland. In the north, Tory-government imposed cuts and broken promises in terms of any ‘peace dividend’ are seeing the same story there.
The social and human consequences of such policies are clear. Poverty and child poverty rates have increased. Recession related suicides in the south of Ireland are amongst the highest in the European Union. Youth unemployment has hit a shocking 30%. One in four families is unable to pay their mortgage.And 1,700 people are leaving the state every single day.
We are not just living through the deepest economic crisis in our history but the deepest social crisis.
We need a completely different framework – one where the state decides it is going to invest in infrastructure, to create jobs and stimulate growth. A model which combines sustainable economic growth with meaningful social change.
Sinn Féin have produced countless costed, alternative budgets based on this central premise, and a promise to protect essential services and bring in a more progressive level of taxation.
Our proposals do not just focus on the economics of budgets but the social and human side – we want to build a just society not just a growing economy.
One of the battles being fought in recent months has been the need to equality-proof all budget decisions. This is not just a slogan – it is a practical task to ensure that all decisions by government are tested for the social and human impact. Regressive budgets do not just hit low income families hardest – they hit women, young people and minority ethnic communities hardest too. Equality budgeting seeks to break the cycle of poverty and inequality – and to give people a real chance of a better life.
Of course, one huge benefit to the economy would be to re-unite the country. Ireland’s economic development has been hugely held back by partition and the obvious divisions and duplications which occur on a small island with two economic and political systems.
Sinn Féin would like to see an Ireland based on economic equality and an investment to ensure a civilised society, without the kind of social dislocation which comes out of poverty.
We also have to ensure social equality and that we take Ireland forward in the 21st century on that basis. The division of Ireland continues to stunt Ireland’s potential – politically, socially and economically.
Sinn Féin’s vision is of a New Republic for the 21st century which guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens, cherishes all the children of the nation equally and is anti-sectarian.
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, he said: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
I’m a member of the Constitutional Convention and I was there when the call for same sex marriage was made. I was there when some stood up and believed there should not be marriage equality because it would undermine the sanctity of the institution.
But remember the lyics of Macklemore when he talks about gay rights when he says that such inequality:
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion, gender to skin colour. The same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins. It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!
This means equal rights for those in same-sex relationships, ethnic minorities and those of all creeds and none. Sinn Féin has been to the forefront of the marriage equality campaign across Ireland. We have tabled motions in local councils from Cork to Belfast and Dublin to Derry. We are actively supporting the LGBT movement in their on-going struggle for full equality before the law.
It means rights for women and for people with disabilities and a society where elderly people are treated with dignity and where our young people have jobs and a future.
Again Sinn Féin has been to the fore in securing the passage of the X-case legislation; in opposing those cuts to maternity benefit and child benefit; and in ensuring that gender quota for general elections was passed in order to increase women’s participation in political life.
We have also worked closely with the trade union movement – and in particular with the fighting unions such as Mandate and Unite – campaigning for the protection of workers’ rights and a decent living wage. Our TDs have brought forward legislation to protect wage rates and we continue to campaign for legal recognition of collective bargaining.
The new, agreed Ireland we seek to build is inclusive, where all the elements of the Irish nation, from whatever background or tradition, can find the fullest expression of their identity.
Now is the time for progressives of all shades of opinion to up our game. Now is the time to win the battle for hearts and minds, to convince people that there is a better fairer way. We have an alternative. The quality of people lives would be better under that alternative. Our task, in Ireland and Britain, is to convince people of this.
Sinn Féin, and Irish republicans in general, cannot do this on our own. We need to strengthen our links with the trade union movement, with the women’s movement, with all of our new Irish communities.
We need to build a social and political majority for change.
As we approach the centenary of the 1916 rising, there has never been a better time to advance our objectives, not just of a united and free Ireland – but of an Ireland based on the principles of equality and solidarity.
Now is the time for an Ireland of equals. And again as Macklemore says:
‘No freedom till we’re equal, damn right I support it!’